Libya in Chaos: Between Tribalism and Federalism

Alessandro Bruno – Apr 23, 14 

 The ‘Jamahiriya’, the odd republic that former Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi created in accordance to a ‘model’ he conceived and expressed in his seminal “Green Book” – based on his Third Universal Theory, functioning as a kind of Constitution for Libya – was at best described as a confused mishmash of Chinese socialism with Islamic coloring. It was by all means a mess, but it worked in the sense that it kept Libya united, thanks to the authority and fear mongering exercised by its creator. Now, over three years after Qadhafi’s demise, Libya has plunged back into chaos. Not a week goes by without news that an ambassador, (the latest being the Jordanian one), or a foreign security official (the latest being one guarding the US embassy) has been kidnapped. 

Last March, in the wake of a no-confidence vote, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan resigned for “the good of the nation” and to ensure that Libyans “no longer fight each other.” The resignation came in the wake of an embarrassing security breach involving a North Korean oil tanker, loaded with oil, which was stolen by a rebel militia. Libya’s oil production fell to 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) – a significant decline considering that during the Qadhafi regime, production was nearly 1.5 million bpd and destined for even higher volumes. Libyan MP’s have denounced the oil crisis that erupted last summer, when a group of armed militants led by Ibrahim Jathran took control of the four ports of the Gulf of Sirte, from which 80% of Libyan crude is exported. Sometime after the crisis broke out, the former prime minister left the country on a plane to Europe.

The Libyan parliament appointed Abdullah al-Thani, former defense minister, to form a new interim government and lead Libya until elections next May. The appointment was fatefully made at a hotel surrounded by protesters who were threatening an assault. In most Arab countries, leaders do their best to hold on to power; on April 13, al-Thani resigned, forcing the Libyan parliament to resume the ever more arduous task of finding someone willing to take on this very unpopular role. Of course, the resignation and the lack of an effective government suggest that May elections will have to be postponed. Indeed, apart from leaders taking cover from their responsibilities, none of them seem interested in addressing the root causes of the turmoil.

A UN report argues that the proliferation of weapons (to and from Libya) is the main cause of instability in the country. Over the past three years, Libya has become a source of illicit weapons in 14 countries in the region and beyond, reaching as far as Syria. This makes Libya a potential base for Al-Qaida, or its incarnations, for any operation targeting Italy, Great Britain, France, Spain, Morocco or anywhere else in North Africa. Armed militias in conflict with each other are then determined to keep their arsenals private, leaving the new Libyan ‘army’ unable to react and the government unable to extend its reach beyond certain areas of Tripoli. Former PM Ali Zeidan often called for the disarmament of militias but it never happened. Without the government to restore security in Tripoli, he and his administration were helpless in the face of tribal and regional differences and growing corruption.

Sometimes, the fast rising influence of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood has been used as an excuse for a good deal of these problems. Surely, they now control the majority of parliament, but the problems do not end there. The country is increasingly divided into two parts: Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, in perpetual conflict, with the southern region of Fezzan now at the mercy of powerful clans who draft their own laws and enrich themselves with smuggling activities (humans, weapons, and surely drugs included) across the porous border with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.

The solution, evidently, might be found in returning the country to the federal arrangement that existed during the pre-Qadhafi years of the Sanusi monarchy. However, Tripolitania, the region where the capital is based, is not interested in considering this option, accusing Cyrenaica of hosting dangerous Islamic extremist movements and groups linked to Al-Qaida. For its part, Cyrenaica, not surprisingly, the region where the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi began, demands a ‘first among equals’ type of representation within the already unpopular federal arrangement proposal. But the secessionist pressure in Cyrenaica is building and the influence that Islamic groups have on the population is a source of great concern to the international community. After all, it was in Benghazi, capital of Cyrenaica, that US Ambassador Stevens was killed in mysterious attack that was attributed to Al-Qaida type groups.

While the debate over federalism continues politically, the various militias and brigades in such cities as Misrata, Zindan, and Benghazi fight the government and each other over slices of power and autonomy. The process to draft a new constitution has stopped while the controversial law known as “political isolation”, which excludes people linked to the former regime (in other words people with administrative experience) from public administration, has paralyzed the activity of several competent public managers. Zintan and Misrata have sometimes formed alliances to oppose the growing Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists from taking over the capital. But their positions shift like the sands of the Sahara. Their interests are different. Zintan wants influence over the west and the southwest while Misrata wants control the vast central region of Libya, between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which hosts the richest oil fields.

Then there is the problem of oil. Oil helped Qadhafi win him considerable support in the early years of his dictatorship. He distributed the revenues to help deliver free education, free health care and full state employment. Libya still has the largest oil reserves in Africa but the chaos resulting from the ‘liberation’ has also engulfed the oil industry. Overwhelmed by frequent and long strikes in Cyrenaica, where there are the largest deposits of oil and gas are based; oil production has suffered a steep fall last summer from peaks of 1.5 million bpd to pre-revolt levels or less than 150,000 bpd. Production has recovered in parts but never exceeding the 50% level (750,000 bpd) seen at the start of the year.

This has caused enormous economic damage to international energy companies still operating in Libya, discouraging others from returning to explore or resume exploration and development. Oil and gas still account for 95% of its exports in value and about 70% of GDP, which raises the issue of how Libya will pay the salaries of over one million civil servants (the population is estimated at 5.6 million). The low revenues mean that there are no funds to offer wage increases and generous bonuses, the very levers upon which the government was aiming to achieve the consent of a population increasingly disappointed by the outcome of the revolution. It will be even more difficult to put on the payroll thousands of militiamen to develop a new national armed forces.

The fracture lines highlighted most frequently (Islamists against “secular” militias against civil society, Qadhafi loyalists against all, separatists against unionists, are not altogether adequate in helping to understand the complexity of the current situation. Libya was always going to be more troublesome than others, given its unique role – and not just in the past 60-70 years, but even during the Ottoman Empire or Roman times for that matter. The question remains: Who governs Libya? But it cannot be properly answered because Libya was never equipped with the classical hierarchical categories of a state, of a central government, or a functioning bureaucracy. These had little meaning during the Qadhafi period – which worked solely on fear and oil distribution, the fear making it possible for the distribution machine to work – and it is even less meaningful today as demonstrated by the ease with which militias can take over the sources of the country’s wealth – oil – occupying at will oil terminals and refineries. The influence of the militias is felt closely in the General National Council (GNC- the parliament) such that the prime minister is often supported by powerful militias – or rather must seek their support – in order to bring to bear his positions over the CGN.

The militias have spread the idea that they are the most legitimate groups in Libya because of their participation in the revolution. The power they have gained in the past three years has made them actors on political and economic premises for all purposes – in some ways they can be seen as the logical replacements of the former Revolutionary Committees, which enforced Qadhafi’s whims and which at times blocked his attempts at reform. This struggle for power has translated into regular armed clashes in all major cities and especially the capital, highlighting the inability of the GNC – the only institution with official popular legitimacy in Libya, since it was elected by universal suffrage – of winning the consensus necessary to cope with the immense challenges of national reconstruction.

Alessandro Bruno is a contributor to 

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