Inside Story

Libya: A failed state or a failed government?

As tensions escalate between rival militias, we ask if the government is capable of restoring law and order.

Libya has been placed on heightened alert after gunmen stormed a military base. The group concerned is said to be made up of supporters of the late leader Muammar Gaddafi. 

The major problem that has been facing Libya since the fall of Gaddafi has been actually the transformation from a formal dictatorship to a … democracy … this post-conflict reconstruction process has been severely hurt by the security element and ... militias all over the country …

by -Ibrahim Sharqieh, adjunct professor at George Town University

Heavily-armed fighters stormed the Tamahind air force base outside Sabha, 770 km south of the capital Tripoli.

The government responded with ground troops and helicopter gunships. Rival groups have been fighting in the area for a week now.

It was raising new concerns that Libya could be sliding into further instability, and has pressured the government into asking rebels who fought Gaddafi for help – rebels it had been trying to disarm.

“We appeal to the revolutionary fighters who shaped the revolution to stand up to the enemies of the revolution; to safeguard the revolution and the country from falling back into the ages of injustice and tyranny,” Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said.

Libya has been gripped by months of political turmoil, while the army is seen as ill-equipped and ineffective. The country is awash with weapons, supplied by allies during the uprising, with many being smuggled to Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, and a breakaway group in the east has seized one of the main ports used to ship oil, costing the government billions of dollars.

Libya won support from the international community, soon after the popular uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, which officially started on February 17, 2011. Security forces responded with snipers and helicopter gunships.

In mid-March, the UN Security Council authorised a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Rebels stormed Gaddafi’s fortress compound in Tripoli in August, six months after the uprising began, and on October 20, the Libyan leader was captured and killed, marking an end to his 42-year rule.

The transitional government handed over power to a newly-elected General National Congress in August 2012, but it has struggled to control or disarm the different militias and tribesmen; and restore the economy to pre-war levels.

So, three years after the revolution, is the government capable of restoring law and order? Should the international community intervene? And as tensions escalate between rival militias and tribesmen, does Libya risk becoming a failed state?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Adrian Finighan is joined by guests: Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director at the Brookings Doha Center; Faraj Najam, director of Libya’s Centre for Africa Research, and author of the book Tribes, Islam and State in Libya; and Oliver Miles, former British Ambassador to Libya.

“I think the key point is the weakness of the … government … I think it’s wrong to use the expression ‘failed state’, people talk of failed states in Somalia, maybe in Afghanistan … I think we are a long way from that in Libya, but failed government I would say yes.”

-Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya