A little more than two years after the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organisations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule, they get shot.
WORLD VIEW GWYNNE DYER
That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of a militia called the Libyan Shield Brigade.
It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used machine guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.
In between, there have been some 80 assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month, the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.
Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1,4 million barrels a day last summer to only 200 000. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month — including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off, too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.
That’s the bad news in Libya, but it all follows logically from the nature of the five-month war that overthrew Gadhafi in 2011. It was not the militias that defeated him; it was NATO’s air power, which relentlessly bombed his troops and bases. But since the Western countries, haunted by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, had no wish to put troops on the ground, it was the militias who collected the victory.
The militias now have 225 000 members in a country of only five million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40% unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning, what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.
What government there was at the centre has now largely disintegrated. There was a reasonably free election in 2012, but most of those elected represented tribal, ethnic or regional interests, and they have now mostly withdrawn from the national Congress in disgust, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant influence in the government, even though it lacks broad support in the country. So the disintegration continues.
The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80% of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the (oil) terminals (in Cyrenaica) will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to — but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.
Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After 42 years of Gadhafi’s brutal rule, there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption.
Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job. You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia”.
Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to co-operation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns.
It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralised and federalised one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Dyer is a London-based freelance journalist.