Seif al-Islam Qaddafi has a painful tooth abscess. But that’s the least of his problems.
Since his capture last November, the flamboyant, jet-setting son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has been in the hands of one of the numerous militias that dot post-Qaddafi Libya. The International Criminal Court (ICC) says that Seif is being held in isolation, beaten, and denied access to friends and relatives—and dentists. The plight of Qaddafi fils won’t elicit much pity, certainly among Libyans, but it does illustrate postrevolutionary Libya’s principal problem: an ineffectual central government that has neither the power nor the legitimacy to rein in the country’s rampant localism. The localism pits militia against militia, East against West, tribe against tribe and ethnic group against ethnic group, giving a new, though pernicious, meaning to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local.”
Libya’s Power Vacuum
Seif is the guest of a militia in the western mountain town of Zintan, which controls his fate without regard to Tripoli’s wishes; when the central government leaders want to see Seif, they travel to Zintan and negotiate with the militia leaders, who hold the cards that matter. When the ICC dispatched representatives recently to check on Seif, the Zintani militiamen detained them, embarrassing Libya’s interim authority, the National Transitional Council (NTC), by underscoring its powerlessness.
Zintan is but one of Libya’s towns and cities with militias that act as free agents—statelets within a state. There is a plethora of such armed groups, and according to the UN they hold more than eight thousand prisoners in some sixty clandestine prisons, meting out rough justice, which, says Doctors without Borders, includes torture.
The NTC is unable to take on the militias. The post-Qaddafi military is still a work in progress and, in a country awash in weaponry (much of it looted from Qaddafi’s armories), the militias have abundant firepower with which to resist. When the government seeks to restore order following clashes among tribes and rival militias—something that occurs with dismaying regularity—it has been forced to turn to the militias for help. A program to demobilize and disarm them by disbursing cash to fighters and inducting them into the military or providing job training was put on hold when it was discovered that corrupt officials were diverting money from the billion-dollar fund.
So the militias live on. They won’t relinquish their arms or cashier their fighters, particularly given the parliamentary election, which was scheduled for June 19 but, given the chaotic state of Libyan politics, has been delayed until July 7. The parliament not only will elect a government, it also will start drafting a constitution, and the militias doubtless intend to use their power to shape the new political order. The government that emerges after the vote will have to contend with them, just as the NTC has. There is little reason to assume that it will be any more successful in bringing them to heel.
Historic East-West Divides
The mosaic of militias is but one of Libya’s problems. Another is the East-West divide between Cyrenaica (Libya east of Sirte) and Tripolitania, regions with a troubled past. During the reign of King Idris al-Sanussi, whom Qaddafi ousted in 1969, Cyrenaica was a privileged place. It was the seat of the monarchy and the beneficiary of privileged access to investments and political power. The region was associated with the iconic Omar Mukhtar, who was born in a village near the eastern city of Tobruk and led the resistance to Italian colonization from 1912 until he was hanged in 1931. And between 1951–1963, it enjoyed substantial autonomy.
Libya was then organized as a tripartite federation, the other two members of which were Tripolitania in the West and Fezzan in the South. But Libya’s oil wealth enabled the rise of a centralized system. Under Qaddafi’s rule, power was further concentrated in Tripoli. Cyrenaicans believe that they became the underdog as a result and were denied their fair share of government posts and public investment for the next four decades.
The anti-Qaddafi revolution broke out in the East, with the cities of Benghazi, Tobruk and Bayda leading the way. The Easterners saw an opportunity to recapture their special status—and they took it and have not stopped. This March, an assembly of tribal leaders, notables and militia leaders formed the “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica”—headed, for good measure, by a descendent of King Idris—and declared an autonomous province of Barqa (Cyrenaica’s Arabic name).
The tribal leaders demanded a reversion to a federal polity and equal representation in the new parliament for each of the three federal units, which challenged the plan to allocate legislative seats by population size. The NTC lambasted the plan, which met with protests in Tripolitania, hints that foreign subversion was behind it and even threats to prevent what it deemed an effort to splinter Libya. But Tripoli’s weakness ensured that it had to fall back on negotiations.
Cyrenaica’s demand for autonomy is dangerous not only because it fans fear of Libya’s fragmentation—unlikely in my view—but also because it could initiate a tussle over the sharing of national economic resources. The proponents of Barqa are willing to let Tripoli handle foreign and defense policy, but they want to run their courts and police forces—and to control tax revenue and economic policy. This last economic feature of the autonomy movement raises particular concerns in Tripoli because the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves—reportedly as much as 80 percent—are in the East, and eastern aquifers are a vital source of water for Tripolitania. Just this month, Cyrenaica’s leaders flexed their muscles, declaring that, unless their proposal for parliamentary representation were approved, they would prevent the flow of goods westward; in March a founder of the Barqa assembly even threatened to withhold eastern oil. Bombast? Perhaps. But it was certainly incendiary.
Ironically, what has enabled the NTC to parry the eastern challenge has been localism—this time in the East itself. While it’s now common to highlight Libya’s East-West tensions, this dichotomous interpretation is too simplistic: Barqa itself is divided on federalism, and several Eastern town councils and militias have declared that they would not support the autonomy movement. Still, the East-West problem will persist after the election and may become especially contentious once the parliament elected in July gets to work on the constitution.
Demands for autonomy may not be confined to the East if Libya’s Berbers (or Amazigh, as they refer to themselves) use the increased power they have gained from the revolution to seek constitutional guarantees limiting the central government’s role in their lives. Under Qaddafi, the Amazigh—who were present in North Africa before the Arab Muslim conquest in the seventh century—were subjected to Arabization and discrimination, and their language (Tamazight) and culture were suppressed. Thus, when the revolt against Qaddafi began in eastern Libya, militias from Amazigh strongholds in the western Nafusa Mountains were quick to join the battle and formed part of the pincer movement that enabled the resistance to take Tripoli. Now, with their position strengthened by their militias and their role in the revolution, the Amazigh are animated by a rejuvenated nationalism, one marked by the flowering of civic groups. And they are determined to realize their national aspirations, all of which hinge on gaining greater freedom from the central government.
The NTC has been unable to deal with the deadly violence between tribes and ethnic groups that has become a staple of Libyan politics—and it will bequeath this problem to its elected successor.
Some of the clashes involve score settling between tribes that were favored by Qaddafi’s allocation of state jobs and land—and those who were not—or between tribes who took up arms against the ancien regime and those who stood with it. Other armed conflicts have an ethnic and tribal patina but are ultimately about controlling the routes used for smuggling arms, drugs, cigarettes and people seeking illegal entry to Western countries. Whatever the root cause, these fights have sometimes involved heavy armaments, resulting in significant losses of life. On occasion, government forces have been overwhelmed and forced to retreat, requiring reinforcements, whether from the army or militias.
In two particularly serious instances (the first involving Amazigh militias from the western town of Zuwara and Arab fighters from Ragdalein, the second between Arab militias from the southern city of Sabha and those belonging to the black African Toubu tribe), the NTC’s head, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, and the prime minister, Abdel Rehman El Keib, arrived to mediate. The larger effect of such recurrent clashes has been to convince existing militias not to dissolve themselves and to encourage groups fearful of being attacked to form their own paramilitary groups.