Politics of disorder

Politics of disorder

When Nato-backed efforts ousted Muammar Gaddafi in February 2011, it was hoped that Libya would make a transition to Western-style democracy. Instead, it has descended into conflict, chaos and civil war – akin to the state of affairs in many African countries.

The turmoil is not only due to warring factions within and among their international backers, but also due to the expansionist designs of Islamist groups that are attempting to manipulate the power vacuum to challenge and ‘terrorise’ the West.

As has been the case in most countries that have undergone political change in West Asia, Libya’s failure is a combination of two factors. One, the country’s “tortured history of fractured national identity”; and the second, the international community’s – especially the West’s – inability to facilitate the required processes for nation building after decades of dictatorial rule. It is ironical that Libya continues to experience a similar flux that Iraq experienced after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. And the international community was and is no better prepared now than it was then to deal with such crises.

At the heart of the Libyan disorder are two groups. First, the internationally-recognised Tobruk-based government made up of the House of Representatives elected in 2014; this group is backed by the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar. A controversial Gaddafi ally-turned-foe, Haftar was formally appointed commander of the army a few days ago, much to the annoyance of the rival group.

The rival camp is the ‘illegitimate’ Tripoli-based leftovers of the General National Congress. This is the post-Gaddafi interim parliament that was replaced by the House of Representatives in Tobruk. The Tripoli faction is backed by both Islamist and non-Islamist militias and is called “Libya Dawn”. It is also supported by the militias from the other important Libyan city of Misrata.

Islamists include Ansar Al Sharia, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State or their affiliates. They rebelled against the present parliament after losing a UN-supervised election with a meager 20 per cent turnout. As a reaction, they formed the Libya Dawn coalition, which seized Tripoli, forcing the new government to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk. Fighting has since raged across the country.

The competition intensified after the Tripoli-based Supreme Court ruled this parliament illegal. The Tobruk faction rejected the verdict, claiming it was biased and influenced by the Islamist militias in Tripoli. Thus, Libya has been torn between two rival parliaments. Each of the opposing parliaments has, in turn, chosen an administration, leaving the country and its people with two governments.

Each side has declared the other to be unconstitutional and a battle wages for legitimacy, causing a civil war. These competing governments are seeking to consolidate political power through the takeover of oil fields and the resultant revenues, as well as destruction of infrastructure in each other’s strongholds. Oil exports are declining and foreign reserves depleting.

Power, water and petrol shortages are the order of the day. Thousands of civilians are dead and tens of thousands rendered homeless. As a result, the “river of blood” that Gaddafi had promised when his rule was challenged is, ironically, beginning to flow now.

The UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, recently briefed the UN Security Council about the threat of the country’s disintegration if the present political and security crises are not dealt with appropriately and speedily. He also warned that the Islamic State was capitalising as a result of the political disunity.

The two factions

The complication, however, is the lack of consensus on conflict resolution not only within Libya, but among the international community as well. The first camp has two factions. Egypt is in the forefront of one of them after its Coptic Christian citizens were beheaded in Libya a few weeks ago. This faction is supported by most of the Gulf countries and favours a military solution. The beneficiary of this international factional support is the Tobruk-based government.

The stakes are high for Egypt because it shares a 1,100-kilometre border with Libya, which makes it vulnerable to chaos on its western border, including scope for the emergence of a base for radical Islamists. The opposing faction is backed by Turkey and Qatar, which are sympathetic to the Islamist militias because of their links to Muslim Brotherhood.

The second camp – led by the Western countries under the auspices of the United Nations – is pushing for a diplomatic solution among the warring factions. Unfortunately, the role of international community is pushing the Libyan rivals to adopt ideologically more hardline positions. It is encouraging both to believe that prolonging the conflict, rather than accept a deal, could work in their favour.

These anarchic goings-on mean that Libya is a long way from both what it was under Gaddafi and the hopes of the original revolutionaries who championed his ouster. It could also mean any or all of the following – another example of the failure of the Arab uprising; any attempt to replace dictatorships with democracy is messy and time-consuming; the evolution and acceptance of political Islam is far more complex than it was first assumed; human nature puts self or group interests ahead of national interest during times of crises; and the West has been and is still naive in believing that democracy is the best solution to West Asia’s problems, thereby creating more problems than solving existing ones.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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