Libya’s fragmented politics

Happier days. Flags put out to celebrate Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011 Happier days. Flags put out to celebrate Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011 RM
20 Jun
2015
With up to 500,000 refugees in the country, many hoping to make the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean, Geographical looks at Libya’s politics

Since Colonel Gaddafi’s fall from power four years ago, Libya’s political situation has been deeply unstable.

What started as a fragmented movement to remove Gaddafi from power has developed into a civil war where no one group holds on monopoly on power.

With no central authority to manage even the basic functions of government for Libya, dealing with hundreds of thousands of migrants is bound to be a difficult – if not impossible – task.

‘Large parts of the country remain ungoverned, or under the control of local militias or criminal gangs -- this is particularly the case in the vast Southern regions,’ says Ethan Chorin, a former diplomat who has written two books on Libya.

For the moment, the country is divided between East and West.

Legal governing legitimacy belongs to the House of Representatives (HOR), now based in Tobruk. Libya Dawn, a rival coalition of Islamists, anti-Gaddafiists, and militias (some 'non-Islamist') from the coastal town of Misurata, controls the "General National Congress" (GNC), an unelected entity based in the West, according to Chorin.

Libya Dawn reconstituted the GNC after its backers lost heavily in the June 2014 elections, he says.

A recent UN mediation effort, known as the Leon Plan, failed to bring the two groups together.

‘In my view, [this was] because it conceded too much to Libya Dawn, without recognizing the fundamental legal standing of the HoR -- all the while failing to use its power to sanction those elements who disrupted or obstructed the process,’ says Chorin.

Militia power has been an obstacle to securing a stable government in Libya. In the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall, the ‘thuwwar’, an increasingly expansive term for anyone who claimed to have participated int the 2011 revolution, received stipends and generous subsidies, according to Chorin.

These groups, with varied ideological and criminal motives, and tribal and regional affiliations, continued to grow in strength until what remained of central government could no longer contain the flow.

At the time, money was flowing very freely in Libya. The economy was the fastest growing in the world in 2012, with GDP per capita expanding at 76.3 per cent, according to the Stability Journal.

This was a rebound from a dramatic contraction during the struggle to remove Gaddafi.

Libya is almost completely reliant on oil revenue, according to the Journal, with 90-95 per cent of government income coming from hydrocarbons.

General HaftarGeneral Khalifa Heftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (Image: Magharebia)

Among the militias, Islamist groups have come to prominence in the country’s politics.

‘The moderate-to-radical Islamist groups were not a predominant, or even major force in the early revolution, but effectively used the scaffolding created by non-Islamist coalitions in the wake of the Revolution, to attempt to take over – while being repeatedly rebuffed at the polls,’ says Chorin.

Potential leaders are hard to identify in the current situation. But a stable government isn’t likely to lie with one individual. Chorin suggests and international boost to the HOR is necessary.

‘General Khalifa Heftar, currently the commander of the Libyan National Army (HOR), is a controversial figure, if his aspirations to be the next Sisi [Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi], could be tempered, legally and otherwise, he has potential, and a following, that could assist the HOR consolidate control. This process wouldn’t be quick,’ says Chorin.

‘There are individuals who could be effective national leaders, working on achievements of the current Al Thinni and previous elected governments, but it would be very hard for any individual to make significant progress before a semblance of order is in place,' he adds.

If the West and the international community provide generous, albeit strongly conditional support for the HOR, Chorin believes there would be a chance to avoid complete collapse in Libya.

That would mean lifting the arms embargo on the HOR, and substantial development assistance, training, and development aid; a partial sea and air embargo to stem the flow of jihadists in and out of Libya, adds Chorin.

Until that happens, the chances for a stable Libyan government and a permanent solution to the refugee crisis are low.

For an in-depth look at the Refugee Crisis, read Mark Rowe’s complete Dossier in the latest issue, on sale now. Or click here to subscribe and never miss an issue.

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