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Liberated Libya's fatal flaws


'Liberated Libya' by Chris JohnstonThe disparate strands of Libya's revolution have been held together by a single unifying thread: an almost visceral desire to oust Colonel Gaddafi from power. Extremely effective as a rallying cry for rebellion, this anti-Gaddafi sentiment is deeply flawed as the unifying narrative for a new nation.

The epic challenges facing Libya's rulers in unifying the country were laid bare in the aftermath of the fall of Tripoli; according to the New York Times, the airport was controlled by rebel fighters from Zintan, the central bank, port and prime minister's office were occupied by Misrata rebels, while the iconic central (once Green, now Martyrs) Square was the domain of Berber fighters from Yefren.

Barely a week after the capital's fall to rebel forces, Tripoli had become the unsettling symbol of a liberated but deeply divided nation, a microcosm of the perils facing a country where each region, each rebel brigade, bristling with weapons and a sense of entitlement, stands ready to stake its claim for a piece of the new Libya.

In the same way, the presence in rebel ranks of senior former Gaddafi loyalists threatens to become an uncomfortable source of division. Throughout the revolution, these high-level defections fuelled the perception of a regime crumbling from within, giving hope and momentum to those who dared to dream that the Colonel's days were numbered. As a result, one-time Gaddafi loyalists filled — and continue to fill — many senior positions within the rebels' government-in-waiting.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Gaddafi's Justice Minister from 2007 until his escape in 2011, is the head of the National Transition Council (NTC), while Abdul Fatah Younis, Colonel Gaddafi's former number two, served as the commander of the rebel army until his death in late July.

But with Colonel Gaddafi no longer at the helm, questions are being asked whether the new Libya should be ruled over by those so strongly implicated in the old. When Younis was killed not in a battle with Gaddafi loyalists but by soldiers from his own side, it unleashed a wave of suspicion that bodes ill for future reconciliation; tribal elders from Younis' tribe, one of the largest in eastern Libya, threatened to withdraw from rebel ranks. They were appeased only when the entire NTC cabinet was dissolved, effectively leaving the rebel half of the country without a government.

Further missteps followed. After the fall of Tripoli, the NTC named Albarrani Shkal, a former Libyan Army general, as the capital's security chief. Within days, the NTC was forced into an embarrassing backdown after protesters in Misrata complained that Shkal had been complicit in the former regime's brutal siege of their city. Their replacement appointment, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, is viewed with deep suspicion by the West.

A fellow Islamist rebel commander, Ismail al-Salabi, confirmed the presence of damaging divisions among rebels: 'The role of the executive committee is no longer required because they are remnants of the old regime. They should all resign, starting from the head of the pyramid all the way down.'

As Libya's rebel commanders squabble over the spoils of victory, deeper questions remain about what impact the rebel victory will have for ordinary Libyans and other civilians, particularly migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa.

A central element of Gaddafi's foreign policy had been to lavish riches on African states. Peddling power and influence, Colonel Gaddafi became a champion of African unity, in the process encouraging migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to enter Libya. Over time, African migrant workers became essential pillars in the economy, working in low-wage jobs which few Libyans wanted.

The colonel's openness towards Africa was, however, out of step with Libyan public opinion. Resentment over high levels of unemployment and the unnecessary difficulties of life in an oil-rich country fed occasional outbreaks of unrest with racist undertones; resentment grew in intensity with each passing year.

As a retired air force captain told me in Tripoli in November, 'We know the price of oil, US$100 a barrel? But where is all this money? It goes to Africa to support those countries because they supported Gaddafi during the sanctions.'

Thus it was that reports of Gaddafi's policy — sometimes true, more often exaggerated — of recruiting African migrant workers as mercenaries touched a raw nerve in Libyan society. And thus it is that those sub-Saharan Africans who survived the conflict now find themselves in a profoundly vulnerable state. Apart from being a pressing humanitarian issue, their fate has become a critical test for rebel promises to build a free and humane Libya.

And yet the success or otherwise of Libya's revolution may be determined far from the halls of power. Libya's future may instead depend on each Libyan's ability to leave behind the suspicions of the past, of a society where each Libyan learned to not so much love their neighbour as to keep a very close eye on them. Fuelled by distrust — both of the state and of fellow Libyans — the retreat into the safety of tribe, religion and even race became an essential survival mechanism for most Libyans.

If the new rulers can build a Libya that earns the respect of ordinary Libyans at the expense of these potential faultlines, the revolution may well succeed. If they can't, the new Libya may be no safer than the old. 

Anthony HamAnthony Ham is a Madrid-based writer and photographer who covers Spain, Africa and the Middle East for publications around the world. He focuses particularly on environmental issues, nomadic and indigenous peoples and countries in conflict. 

Topic tags: Anthony Ham.Libya, Gaddafi



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Existing comments

Thanks Anthony.

The achievement of peaceful democracy after rising up to overthrow a despotic regime has always been a struggle - East Timor seems to have been relatively successful, Zimbabwe and Iran have been relative failures.

David Arthur | 12 September 2011  

Anthony: Great observations on a complex situation in Libya. I imagine that very much at the core of popular resentment against Gaddafi is the almost insurmountable problem of tribe and clan privilege, who's blood and who's not. This is endemic in Syria also with the Alawites. Real democracy will have an uphill battle with this kind of social entrenchment.
As for squandered wealth, the corruption and bribery that has gone on, these amount to grand theft from Libyan national accounts. No doubt when the Chinese arms dealers signed off on end-user certificates for delivery of weapons to Niger, Chad etc, they knew that the weapons were simply in transit and not financed by these countries!

David Timbs | 12 September 2011  

Just as in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya will be facing pressure from fundamentalist Muslims to impose Sharia law. Refer to the following article. http://www.timeslive.co.za/world/2011/09/09/new-libya-should-be-governed-by-sharia-imam I wonder about the wisdom of NATO becoming involved in this whole uprising. Without NATO's intervention the uprising would never have succeeded. But I cannot see how a Sharia led government can be of any benefit to the West. Nor to the poor citizens of Libya itself for that matter.

Patrick James | 13 September 2011  

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