Libya’s downward spiral

Libya after the Qadhafi regime is witnessing a complex array of struggles in which ambitions for power, claims to legitimacy, the taint of the past, and ownership of the 2011 revolution are among the key dividing lines.

Alison Pargeter
9 February 2015

The uprisings in Benghazi that sparked the fall of the Qadhafi regime began on 15 February 2011. Four years on from that euphoric time, few could have predicted just how bad things in Libya would become. While the challenges facing the country as it embarked upon the transition from authoritarianism to modern state were evident right from the start, the extent of Libya’s descent into the abyss has still been shocking.

After four years, the country is riven with competing armed factions and militias that are still fighting over the spoils of war; the political scene is so fractured that there are currently two competing administrations, one in Tripoli and the other in the east of the country, each convinced of its own legitimacy; and militants linked to Islamic State are taking advantage of the lawlessness to implant themselves, including in the capital.

On the economic front, the situation isn't much better. Despite its enormous oil reserves, the energy sector has been so fraught with disruptions that the country is hurtling headfirst into financial disaster. The old joke that used to do the rounds when Qadhafi was in power -  that when weapons inspectors came to Libya they didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, only mass destruction - seems poignantly more apt than ever. 

Not that there aren’t glimmers of hope. The United Nations-sponsored peace talks that kicked off in Geneva in mid-January are certainly a positive development. Even though one of the key actors - the rump General National Congress - has only just agreed to join the dialogue, and some of the most powerful armed groups operating on the ground remain opposed to the process, the coming together of the participants in these talks is the first sign in a long time that some sort of compromise, however tenuous, may just be possible.

Yet while the Geneva talks may give rise to a political solution of sorts, such as the formation of a national unity government, they are not going to solve the bigger problems that continue to hamper the country and hinder its transition. These problems require a far bigger set of compromises, and a shift in mentality, that will be even harder to achieve but that are essential if the country is ever to get back on its feet. 

Still in revolutionary mode

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to real change is the fact that Libya still hasn’t moved beyond its revolution. Or, more accurately, there is still a battle going on between those for whom the revolution finished with the fall of Qadhafi and those who believe the job has yet to be completed. The latter camp comprises Islamists and those dubbed "revolutionaries": they range from members of Islamist political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP), former jihadists turned politicians, and fighters who make up the hotchpotch assortment of Islamist brigades and militias that are operating on the ground. It also includes revolutionary fighters from Misrata and other allied towns, who may not all share the same ideological outlook as the Islamists but who have made common cause with them nonetheless.

Those who make up this camp are still in revolutionary mode, believing that nothing short of a total rupture with the past will constitute the completion of the revolution. This group has worked hard since the fall of the former regime to wipe the vestiges of the past off the political map. It was the Islamists and revolutionaries who in May 2013 forced the passing of the Political Exclusion Law, a draconian piece of legislation barring anyone with the slightest links to the former regime from holding public office (see "Insiders and Outsiders in the New Libya", Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 1 June 2014).

However, this camp has come increasingly to adopt a narrative depicting all its opponents as Azlam Qadhafi (Qadhafi’s men), whether they be political figures who defected from the Qadhafi regime to join the revolution, or those armed brigades on the ground who may have fought hard against the former regime but whose ideological or political affiliation does not tally with their own. As the well-known Misratan revolutionary leader, Abdulrahman Al-Suwheili declared recently: “Our revolution has been led from the start by renegades from the Qadhafi regime. They only wanted to implement limited reforms, but we wanted to change things completely and create a new Libya.”

Chief among the accused, however, is General Khalifa Hafter, who is leading a military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi and beyond. Despite the fact that Hafter defected from Qadhafi’s military in the 1980s and spent years in exile in the United States, he and his followers are still castigated as Azlam Qadhafi by their opponents. Part of the hostility towards Hafter derives from the fact that he has achieved some real success against Islamist militants in Benghazi. However it is also driven by a real fear inside Libya that Hafter is Libya’s version of the Egyptian president, Abdulfattah Al-Sissi, and that he is intent on eliminating Islamists and seizing power himself. It is notable that the Islamists’ rhetoric regarding the forces of the past ratcheted up several notches following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Thus the Islamist camp has been at pains to portray Hafter as the personification of the counter-revolution and as a kind of re-embodiment of the past. As the head of the Misrata Shura Council, Suleiman Al-Faqih, asserted in March 2014, there was “no difference between Hafter and Qadhafi, and maybe Hafter is worse than Qadhafi.” 

While the discourse adopted by the Islamist and revolutionary camp reflects a genuine desire to achieve a complete break from a regime that was brutal and extreme even by regional standards, it is also a result of the fact that the only legitimacy this camp can lay claim to is a revolutionary one. Having achieved limited success in the three nationwide elections held since the fall of the former regime, the Islamists and their revolutionary backers on the ground have taken to positing themselves as defenders of the revolution and guardians of the country’s Islamic identity, as if the two are inextricably intertwined. They have promoted the notion of "true revolutionaries" who are imbued with a kind of moral purity that stands in contrast to those who have sullied the revolution with their connections to the past, however slight these connections might be. Hence as they drove their Zintani opponents out of the capital in summer 2014, the Misratan and Islamist brigades, which came together under the loose umbrella of Operation Libya Dawn, portrayed the fight as a battle to take the revolution to its ultimate conclusion, ridding Tripoli of counter-revolutionaries and Qadhafi loyalists (see "Libya: the politics of revenge", Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, 26 August 2014).

The terrorist label

Yet the Islamists and their allies are not the only camp to have adopted a narrow and simplistic narrative to denigrate their adverarsies. The opposing camp - the so-called liberal current that comprises a mix of political parties and groupings as well as federalists and some eastern tribes and that is represented by the House of Representatives - has no compunction about lumping their opponents together and dismissing them all as “terrorists”. Referring to Operation Libya Dawn, prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni of the Al-Baida-based government repeatedly declared that he would not have any dialogue with those “terrorist groups” that had tried to steal power in Tripoli. Likewise, all threats by Hafter and his forces to take the battle to the capital are couched in terms of liberating the west of the country from the clutches of terrorist groups.

It has inadvertently been made a whole lot easier for these forces to dismiss their opponents as terrorists. The dominant group within the Islamist camp are the militants rather than the moderates and it is those of a more extreme bent who hold greatest sway, including arguably in the political context. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has never been able to achieve any real foothold in Libya and more extremist groups and elements have always proved more successful, even during Qadhafi’s time. Indeed, the extremity of the Qadhafi regime seemed to breed an extreme response, as evidenced by the scores of hardline Islamist militants who led the fight to topple the mercurial dictator. Even Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadiq Al-Gharianni, sits at the ultra-conservative end of the spectrum, giving the country one of the most extreme official religious establishments anywhere in the region. Thus jihadists and former jihadists, including those from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), have been right at the fore of the political scene in post-Qadhafi Libya.

In addition, the political Islamist camp as a whole has been more than willing to support Islamist brigades on the ground, including those that are extremist in orientation. This includes brigades such as the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Chamber that is led by militant preacher, Hadia Shaban and that was responsible for kidnapping former prime minister, Ali Zeidan in October 2013; the Libya Shield One Brigade that opened fire on unarmed protestors who were demanding its dissolution on what became known as "black Saturday" in June 2013; and even Ansar Al-Sharia, which has groups in Benghazi, Derna and Sirte and that is accused of being behind the string of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi that blighted the country’s second city for months. The prime minister of the Tripoli-based government, Omar Al-Hassi, described Ansar Al-Sharia in November 2014 as “simple, beautiful and amiable”

Furthermore, while some of the Misratan brigades and forces are not Islamist in orientation - their alliance with the Islamist camp rooted in their desire to extend their power - many still consider Hafter and his camp to be more of a problem than militant groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia. As the head of one Misratan television station expressed things, “This is about priorities: we first have to defeat Haftar and then get rid of Ansar al-Sharia.” Likewise Misratan MP Fathi Bashaga, who is taking part in the Geneva talks, told the media that the danger posed by Ansar Al-Sharia is “greatly exaggerated” and that the militancy that has taken hold in Derna, where groups linked to Islamic State are now flourishing, “is something that we’ll deal with later on.” Thus for these elements anyone connected to the former regime is a more pressing concern than those the international community has castigated as terrorist entities.

All these factors make it easier for the opposing side to castigate the forces that make up Operation Libya Dawn as Islamist militants despite the fact that in reality they represent an array of different interests and ideological persuasions.

Failed politics

Libya is therefore now polarised between these two competing camps - however fluid and disjointed the camps may be - and both sides are relying on reductive narratives to justify what is essentially a struggle for power and control in which neither side is strong enough to defeat the other. Indeed, one of the reasons why participants were finally persuaded to attend the Geneva peace talks was because the military battle had all but reached a stalemate and neither side had the capacity to extend the battle beyond their own sphere of influence.  

That post-Qadhafi Libya should have descended to such lows is perhaps unsurprising. Having lived through four decades of a regime that banned all political activism outside of Qadhafi’s bizarre Jamahiriyah [State of the Masses], the country has yet to learn how to do politics. When the Qadhafi regime fell, what emerged out of the enormous void that opened up has been a politics that is dominated by what are effectively "small gangs", whether they be tribal, regional or ideological, whose primary aim is to further their own localised or sometimes personal interests. Comments made in January by the oil minister in Tripoli’s National Salvation Government, Mashallah Zwai, are a case in point. Zwai threatened: "If they [the Al-Thinni government] want partition I have a clear message: we the Zwaiya tribe own all oil ports and resources (in the east) which we won't allow to get broken up."

The situation has been made worse by the lingering suspicion of political parties. Only 80 of the 200 seats in the General National Congress were allocated for political parties and by the time of the elections to its successor, the House of Representatives in June 2014, Libya’s political elite had ruled that every candidate must stand as an individual not as a party. This has left these institutions operating more like tribal gatherings than modern political legislatures.

Meanwhile, the country’s institutions have become little more than political footballs in the battle between the two opposing camps. The central bank, the National Oil Corporation, the judiciary, the presidency of the army and the official religious establishment are all at the centre of the ongoing competition for power between the two dominant currents and have been pulled in both directions and forced to make choices between the two.

Without robust institutions and the building of a real political culture then the danger for Libya is that revolutionary legitimacy will continue to trump electoral legitimacy, meaning that the political establishment will remain at the mercy of the powers on the ground.

This means that the country will either continue to limp along in its current sorry state, or more likely, will descend into further chaos and violence, leaving ordinary Libyans despairing about what went wrong (see Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi [Yale University Press, 2012]).

The real irony of all this, however, is that while the various competing factions continue to argue about who is a true revolutionary and who is tainted by the former regime, those who could be truly described as Qadhafi’s men, namely those who made up the bulk of the regime’s security apparatus, are sitting on the sidelines, refusing to get involved. This includes some of the country’s most important tribes - the Werfella, the Miqraha and the Qadhadhfa. Although Hafter has tried to bring these tribes on side, so far they have resisted. Indeed, these tribes and the areas associated with them are still bitter about the whole revolutionary experience, believing themselves to have been unfairly scapegoated for their associations with the former regime. Yet these tribes represent a hugely important component in Libya and their absence not only from the Geneva peace process but from the entire political scene demonstrates just how far Libya still has to go in order to pull itself out of the crisis. If it is to move beyond the revolution, Libya needs to engage in a comprehensive national-reconciliation programme that brings in those from all sides and that can truly draw a line under the past.

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