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Libya: The Revolution That Never Was?

(Photo: Henry Patton / Flickr)

So far, the “Libyan revolution” has created dramatically increased physical and economic insecurity for the mass of Libyan civilians, a weak state and the continuing activity of shadowy militias.

When the corpse of deposed Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was paraded through the streets of Sirte in 2011, effectively marking the end of the country’s eight-month-long civil war, another Arab Spring revolution appeared to be secure. The 40-year regime of a tyrannical despot, some proclaimed, had deservedly ended. Others, opposed to Qaddafi’s pan-African socialism, awaited the arrival of a Western-style capitalist democracy rife with lucrative economic opportunity.

Yet Libya’s post-revolution euphoria, much as in neighboring Egypt, was only a momentary distraction. The task of heading a new government fell to the National Transitional Council (NTC), composed of the same Benghazi-based militias that led the uprising against Qaddafi with the assistance of NATO nearly a year before. The NTC gained international recognition as the legitimate authority in the country, but its highly secretive membership failed to capture the national political consciousness. Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the NTC’s outgoing chairman, remained in power until elections in July 2012 installed the first elected assembly in the country’s history.

Under the NTC, conditions within Libya were fractious and unstable. Awash with arms, competing militias and Qaddafi loyalists – named the Green Resistance after the sole color of the Jamahiriya flag – clashed for control of cities while tribal affiliations intensified. The terms thuwar (revolutionaries) and azlam (members of the old regime) deepened societal divisions; Qaddafi sympathizers were barred from participating in the postwar government, persecuted in general society and forced into exile. The result was social and economic disarticulation. Many militias had no allegiance to the central government, launching sporadic campaigns of violence and reprisal killings. Meanwhile, firefights in Tripolitanian towns like Zuwara and Bani Walid blurred the line between loyalist and rebel, plummeting the north into a power struggle for land and resources. The latter skirmish resulted in a two-month-long siege, emptying the town of nearly all its residents.

In the south, struggles took on a more regional and ethnic appearance. Libya’s black minorities, the ethnically Chadian Toubou and Berber (Amazigh) Tuareg peoples of the Fezzan region engaged in bloody inter-urban fighting with Arab militants in the cities of Qatrun, Murzuk and Sabha. Elsewhere, black Libyans were arrested, tortured and became frequent targets of extra-judicial slayings. According to a 2010 United Nations Human Rights Council report, these groups had experienced widespread “ostracism, exclusion and discrimination” during the Qaddafi period. Evidently, they encountered more of the same after the revolution.

Three years later, little has changed in Libya. Still dubbed a “security vacuum” by policy analysts, the nation is lodged in a violent morass of sectarian fighting and intense factionalism. The current government, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, struggles to maintain control of Tripoli while the economically underdeveloped eastern and southern regions of the country vacillate between numerous controlling groups. Libya’s revolution has splintered, to be sure, but how might it be reconstituted? Will the aims of the so-called Green Resistance be reconciled, or are the political machinations of Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya forever consigned to the dustbin of history? Further, and perhaps most importantly, will average Libyans return to a state of normalcy any time soon?

Insecurity or Disarmament

Unlike some of its Arab Spring counterparts, Libya is a wealthy, oil rich nation with a limited population and even smaller military. Its 2011 revolution, dissimilar from other historical precedents, was not influenced by an officer class or a strong army, but by an array of heavily equipped militias and tribes. A grouping of international actors – NATO, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Canada, the Arab League and Qatar – exacerbated the transition by supplying weapons, ordnance and air support, ostensibly to topple Qaddafi’s regime while attending to concomitant geopolitical aims in the region.

To Mohammed-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, visiting professor at the Graduate Institute and head of the Regional Program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, the deterioration of Libya’s political and social fabric and the roles of competing parties resembles the situation in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“In many ways,” he begins, “there have not been any new qualitative developments [in Libya], but an accumulation of dystrophies, if you may. The situation is not so much a newly emerging opposition between a front or a group of actors, but a global scene in which these situations are happening all the time, sometimes accelerating, sometimes decelerating. But there’s a steady deterioration of the security aspect of the country.

“If one thinks of Iraq after the fall of Saddam and that level of insecurity, this is what I think we’re seeing today playing out in Libya. I don’t think it’s reported enough. It’s noted every time there is a spectacular kidnapping or election, but it’s playing like low-level background news.”

Indeed, uncomfortable realities about post-revolution Libya – especially to those Western powers that contributed to the violence and ensuing turmoil – have frequently evaded the mainstream media. This is particularly surprising in light of recent developments. On January 18, alleged Green Resistance militants stormed an air force base near the southern city of Sabha, almost 800 kilometers from Tripoli, killing dozens before fleeing from government forces. A week before, on January 12, Libya’s deputy minister Hassan al-Droui was assassinated by an unknown assailant east of the capital. A former member of the NTC, Droui was the first high-profile government official to be killed in Libya since American ambassador Christopher Stevens died during the storming of the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012.

Though Qaddafi loyalists have been blamed for these attacks – and sightings of green flags are common in the south – their political influence and composition is unclear. Are they distinct from other tribal militias waging proxy battles against state forces elsewhere in Libya? Do they represent a realignment of forces in the region? Whatever the case, the presence of partisan forces still devoted to the old regime is upsetting conditions on the ground while puzzling the view for outsiders.

“It’s a massive challenge for the government,” Mohamedou says of the recent flurry of violence and civil disorder. “What we’re seeing now in Libya are these dynamics of actors seeking territorial control, seeking to secure those resources that happen to be in those territories, and now and then, some of these actors calling for autonomy or secession or separatism . . . The storming of governmental offices, the killing of people, airport takeovers, facility blockading, the kidnapping of officials, militias clashing all the time. This is the kind of security vortex that’s playing out.”

Complicating matters further is Libya’s aforementioned position as one of the region’s chief oil exporters. The sector has been severely affected by three years of constant upheaval, dropping output from 1.4 million barrels a day to as low as 200,000 in recent months. Hariga, the country’s largest, centrally-controlled oil terminal in the sparsely populated eastern region of Cyrenaica, was hijacked by armed gunmen in late January. The seizure has curbed exports even more and reflected the country’s wealth imbalance favoring Tripoli; though most of Libya’s oil is concentrated in the south and east of the country, workers and their communities rarely see returns. Instead, a top-heavy power structure remains intact, a powerful symbol of what has not changed since Qaddafi’s reign.

These examples are components of a difficult enigma facing the government and people of Libya: Will the country’s future be defined by warring factions, each with contrasting visions of the future, or will reconciliation be achieved through redress and meaningful reform designed to mitigate inequities the revolution failed to confront?

Ibrahim Sharqieh, foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, says disarmament is the key answer to the entire transition process. Without pacification on both sides, any effort to secure a stable future for Libyans will disintegrate.

“In a word. Disarmament,” he confirms, frankly. “If you don’t disarm, you face the consequences . . . It’s a gloomy situation where the state is weak and is getting weaker, while the militias are strong and becoming even more powerful. They have more power than the state . . . It’s still early to talk about another civil war or a serious spillover to other neighboring countries, but within the boundaries of Libya, it is getting worse. I don’t see that order changing soon.”

Looking Ahead

Libya’s 2011 revolution produced more problems than solutions for a people acclimatized to relative calm under the 40-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi. Even after three years, a civil war continues while a weak political order presides over Tripoli. For average Libyans – their lives constantly problematized by a legacy of Western intervention, tribalism and the dispersal of arms – normalcy is but a fleeting reality. The revolution only introduced more hardship and violence than ever before.

In coming months, the power struggle within Libya will continue to present massive challenges, both to the Zeidan government and to those still clinging to the spirit of the old regime. The Green Resistance, though its organizational capabilities are unknown and its political influence suspect, is still a proven force which may capitalize upon vulnerabilities in the south and east. Generally, though, because of the weakness of Libya’s state fabric, an element that proved tenaciously secure under Qaddafi, more difficult times are ahead for the country.

“Transitions really hinge upon what you bring to the table in terms of the state architecture,” says Mohamedou. “If [Libya] had a cohesive civil society, education and constitutional processes as exist in Tunisia, it would stand more of a chance of success. And if not necessarily success, at least a viable process which is precisely what is missing in Libya.

“In Libya, you had a revolution that was midwifed by NATO, yet certainly driven by Libyans who were central actors. That external element changes the dynamic. We can’t negate that.”

It may be many years before Libya again regains stability, but its current predicament should act as a warning to foreign powers seeking to precipitate regime change in culturally intricate nations. The disturbance of Qaddafi’s established political and social order, regardless of its dictatorial features, has ruptured an entire population, sending inconsonant, armed militias into battle.

Thus, Libya’s revolution remains postponed – its destiny in the hands of those who might envision and create an authentic, historical alternative.

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