Libya: on the brink of abyss

Libya’s dangerous slip into anarchy will have serious implications for Africa.

Libya's Prime Minister Ali Zaidan was briefly detained by a militia group [Reuters]

The deterioration of the political and security situation in Libya has been worsening throughout the year, stocking fears that the country risks total anarchy and civil war. Violence and instability have increased in parts of the country, while the level of insecurity, particularly in cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi, has worsened. Indeed, a simple survey of headlines such as “Libya: Going wrong“,  “Libya on the brink“,  “Premier’s brief ‘arrest’ highlights anarchy“, or “Deepening crisis in Libya“, all tell the story of a failing Libya.

The latest violent incident which occurred on November 15, epitomises the gravity of the crisis. In the worst street fighting between one of the revolutionary brigades in Tripoli and residents of the city, at least 32 people were killed and about 400 wounded. 

One of the legacies of the rushed military campaign against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the dismantling of the security sector and the looting of the weapons stockpiles of the country. The various armed formations and revolutionary brigades that waged the war that toppled Gaddafi, are not integrated into a unified national security architecture. Instead, granting official recognition to a large number of armed groups under the National Transitional Council encouraged the consolidation of the brigades. The recognition brought many of them under the “nominal” authority of either the defence or interior ministry and allowed their proliferation. Yet, the brigades, known locally as Katibas, for the most part, act independently. While only an estimated 50,000 Libyans fought in militias against Gaddafi, the number of brigades has grown and the country’s Warriors Affairs Commission believes that currently, there are 250,000 militiamen under arms.

Over the course of the past two years, the various armed elements evolved into different politically- and ideologically-oriented groupings.

A roll call

Over the course of the past two years, the various armed elements evolved into different politically- and ideologically-oriented groupings. The major armed groupings now include the Libya Shields, a coalition of militias from Zawya in the west and Misrata in the east, authorised by the government to bolster security in Tripoli; the Zintans, a powerful Bedouin tribal militia whose commanders lead the Qaqaa militia, an 18,000 strong force opposed to the influence of the Shields; the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) that operates as a de facto police and has an alliance with the Shields against the Zintans; and finally the Benghazi federalist group bent on establishing their own administration in the east.

The government’s attempts at asserting authority over the various brigades has continued to face fierce resistance due to several reasons; the lack of trust in government, the hatred against the perceived or real role of Gaddafi-era people, and the rivalry for influence.

The case of the SSC, one of the many militia groups which the government officially sanctioned to became a parallel police force, is one such example of this resistance. As a report from the International Crisis Group put it, “[D]espite several attempts to integrate at least parts into the police force and its stated intention to dismantle the SSC by December 2012, the government encountered strong resistance, and some units continue to operate.”

Although the General National Congress (GNC) adopted Decision 27 mandating the Ministries of Defence and Interior to remove from the capital all “illegitimate armed formations”, following two days of fighting between Zintan brigades affiliated with the Ministry of Defence and others affiliated with the SSC, GNC chairman authorised a coalition of revolutionary brigades to the task of protecting Tripoli, citing the inability of the army and the police to do so.

On November 7, another round of fighting broke out in Tripoli between these rival brigades. Weapons used included automatic guns as well as heavy weaponry such as anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenadesAlthough two days earlier Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced that the government would, by the end of the year, stop paying militiamen who refused to join the fledgling regular forces, such fighting, and previous failures, cast serious doubt on the strength of the government to enforce such decisions.

Fear of Islamists

Following the election of the GNC in November 2012, one of the major political divisions that came to shape Libyan politics has been between the Coalition of National Forces (CNF) and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP). While the JCP is bent on dominating the GNC and the transitional process, the CNF is alarmed by and opposed to the rise of Islamists.

Overshadowed by the events in Egypt and Syria, Libya’s multidimensional crisis attracts little attention.

With the polarisation deepening, on July 4, the CNF made the decision “to suspend its participation in the General National Congress, except for the discussion and adoption of the electoral law for the Constitution Drafting Assembly”. Greatly concerned about the consolidation by Islamists and their grip on state institutions, especially after the passage of a controversial political isolation law that excludes many of the Islamists’ opponents from positions of power, the CNF demanded an agreement on a future roadmap to guard against the extension of the GNC mandate beyond its term-ending date of February 2014.

The political polarisation has taken a military dimension as various armed groups routinely resort to force to influence the GNC and the government. In a major headline incident that elucidates this dangerous trend, a militia group temporarily detained Zeidan, who was elected last year by the GNC. Perhaps the major incident that best exemplifies this trend of militarisation of politics is the siege of several government ministries including foreign affairs, interior and justice ministers, by armed groups on April 28. The siege, which lasted two weeks, forced the GNC to adopt the controversial Political and Administrative Isolation Law, which seeks to remove Gaddafi-era officials from government and bars them from participation in public affairs for ten years. The law prompted the resignation of Mohammed el-Magariaf as chairman of the GNC and first Vice-President Juma Attiga on May 28 and July 16, respectively.

From bad to worse?

The failure to re-establish state authority, the continuing hold of diverse and rival armed groupings, polarisation and militarisation of politics, regional and tribal divisions and fighting, political assassinations, as well as increasing extremism and acts of terrorism, have emerged as the defining features of Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition. While it adds to the argument against externally driven forcible regime change, the worrying and sad state of things in Libya inevitably also raises questions if Libya was worse off today than it was under Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule. As a special report by the Independent aptly captured it: “We all thought Libya had moved on – it has but into lawlessness and ruin.”

True, the situation has not as yet descended into total anarchy and full-fledged civil war. Overshadowed by the events in Egypt and Syria, Libya’s multidimensional crisis attracts little attention. But if the trend persists, it is not clear what would stop the country from becoming a major crisis in the region. Given the large amount of weapons moving around in and from the country and the precarious security situation in the Sahel and West Africa, including the surge in armed movements, Libya’s descent into anarchy is sure to affect not only North Africa and the entire Sahel region, but it would also be felt as far as Central Africa and the Horn of Africa regions. 

Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal academic and analyst of African Union affairs who regularly writes on African Union issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.