TRIPOLI – Recent news in Libya has made for depressing reading. Last month, armed men fired shots and briefly detained the manager of a luxury hotel in Tripoli after they refused to pay their bill. In early March, a declaration signed by some 3,000 people in Benghazi seemed to suggest that the north-east might break away from the rest of the country, triggering alarmist reactions about a national disintegration. Over the past week, around 150 people were killed in fighting around the southern town of Sebha, Libya’s fourth largest city. And just in the last few days, a dispute between rival towns in the north-west has flared up violently, leaving dozens dead.
None of this is good news. But Libya has not descended into anarchy or some kind of ‘meltdown’, as some have concluded. Rather, recent events are symptomatic of a weak state structure, a surplus of guns, a long history of feuds and an atmosphere of suspicion and confusion, and a long history of feuds between different local groups which are now free to escalate alarmingly quickly. They are problematic but do not pose an existential threat to the country.
First, as a previous post argued, the declaration in Benghazi last month was a natural product of a greater desire for – and legitimate concerns about – local decision-making, not the establishment of a de facto autonomous state. Decentralisation of some kind is clearly necessary in a country the size of Libya, and needs to be discussed in the delicate framework of a new constitution and political structure. It does not mean the country will crumble apart into autonomous regions, which in any case lack their own coherent identity and geography.
Second, disputes between different towns are often based on historical antagonisms, sometimes even dating back to pre-unification days. They are now free to escalate because there is no organised police or army to rein them in, and because all sides are liberally armed. The violence in Sebha may have later splintered along ethnic or tribal lines, for instance, but by most accounts it began with a car-jacking which spiralled out of control and gained a momentum of its own. There are also many hangovers not just from 2011, but from the decades before them too. These will generate short-term instability as they bubble over, but the crucial point is that the clashes are essentially local in nature rather than coordinated campaigns by groups with a coherent political or religious ideology.
Third, it is vital to remember that securing the south was problematic and imperfect under Gaddafi. There was a rebellion in Kufra in 2009. There were clashes in the south-west, even if they rarely went reported. Some parts of the Libyan desert were frequently closed off due to security problems. Policing that vast expanse will be even tougher for the weak interim authorities than it was for their predecessory, and it would be unrealistic not to expect problems.
Since the official declaration of liberation in October 2011, Libya’s transitional government has lacked the confidence to make strong decisions and, in the eyes of many Libyans, is rapidly outliving its purpose. While this is perhaps natural, the NTC’s poor levels of communication and transparency have exacerbated a climate of suspicion and confusion. Moving away from this situation is partly why elections need to go ahead over the summer, even if they are flawed and hastily organised. An elected body with some popular mandate, even if it is imperfect, should hopefully create a greater sense of direction and authority, whether that means taking meaningful economic policy decisions, restarting infrastructure projects, or beefing up the police and the army enough to deter local clashes from erupting. Having a national assembly where issues such as decentralisation can be openly debated, rather than allowed to fester dangerously – as they currently seem to be doing in the north-east – is equally important.
Comparisons have been made between Libya and other post-conflict countries that have suffered from freely-circulating weapons and a weak central authority, such as Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen. None of them are particularly accurate. One fundamental difference in Libya, aside from the lack of sectarian divides, is the combination of a very wealthy government and a tiny population. On the one hand this means there is potentially more to fight over. On the other, it means that – unlike many other fragile states – the government theoretically has the financial means to buy stability, whether by integrating former fighters into the armed forces or purchasing weapons at inflated prices. But to persuade many people to give up their guns, the nascent government will first have to prove it can provide security – and resolving the situation in Zuwara is another big test in that process.
Having its own source of wealth also means that the government need not be in financial hock to overseas patrons financing their own interests, as is essentially the case in both Lebanon and Yemen. Libya might have problematic armed groups, but at least they are not doing the bidding of an external party. That arguably makes the issue easier – though still not necessarily easy – to resolve.
As a final point, some observers view the current situation in Libya through the prism of a pre-packed argument that seeks to either justify or denounce the Western-led intervention last year, filtering out either the bad news or the good news and slotting it into a wider argument. This tends to produce unhelpfully skewed opinions on both sides. The present reality is probably somewhere in between: the transition away from the old regime was never going to be a smooth ride, as recent events have proven. But looking around the region, the trends in Syria, Yemen and even Egypt arguably suggest much more dangerous long-term prospects than in Libya, where on balance there is more cause for optimism than pessimism.
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