September 05, 2022
Libya last week witnessed its worst fighting in two years, when forces aligned with Fathi Bashagha failed to take the capital and oust Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Analysts are warning of a renewed civil war, but isn’t the scene a case of deja vu? When a faction is not happy with the result of an election or of a certain government decision, it uses force via its militias, its thugs, to overturn the outcome. Didn’t we see that in Lebanon and Iraq?
While the different factions in Libya try to portray the fight as one between Islamists and liberals, between terrorists and the military, the reality is far from that. It is a struggle between greedy and power-hungry militias competing for influence, driven purely by their self-interest. There are no principles guiding the conflict. The relations between the different actors are short term and transactional, hence everyone is in bed with everyone else.
Khalifa Haftar, who fought Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (in which Bashagha served as interior minister) on the pretext that they were Islamists and terrorists, is now teaming up with Bashagha in an attempt to oust Dbeibeh. How come? Did Bashagha change overnight from being an Islamist aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood to being a liberal or an Arab nationalist in line with Haftar’s narrative or “principles.” Not really, but interests can change overnight, especially when they are linked to oil and the Central Bank of Libya, which have been the cash cows for the different militias in the country.
When politics is conducted at the point of a gun, legitimacy is no longer an issue. Good governance, which is what usually drives popularity, in this case no longer matters. The people’s satisfaction with the services provided by the state is no longer relevant. What matters in a context like Libya’s is how many armed men one “leader” can push to the street. Therefore, a politician’s strength is measured by the strength of the militia he commands.
The irony is that politicians are part of the “state,” but they also command nonstate actors. Muqtada Al-Sadr in Iraq, a cleric-turned-politician, has a parliamentary bloc but he also has his militiamen that he can unleash at any time. Al-Sadr has established several militias at different points in time, such as the Mahdi Army, the Promised Day Brigade and the Peace Brigades, which obviously in practice have nothing to do with peace.
The same applies to Libya. When we hear the news bulletin, it says fighting is ongoing between forces belonging to Dbeibeh and forces supporting Haftar. But isn’t Dbeibeh part of the so-called state? Why does he have his own “forces.”
Unfortunately, in countries like Libya and Iraq, we do not have states. People and political parties do not have the mentality of a state. The entities governing these countries are mere illusions of states. They are loose political systems designed to preserve and perpetuate the prevalent power structure. Some people say that, even during the time of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, despite the severe injustices and the brutality, there was order, even though it was very unjust. But at least there was security.
Going back to Libya, we can ask what went wrong. Unlike Syria, where the dictator is still massacring people today, NATO intervened in Libya and Qaddafi was removed in fairly quick time and with limited damage. The opposition was organized and quickly formalized under the National Transitional Council. It received international recognition and held elections in 2012, which had a very good turnout. Everyone wanted to express their view by going to the polls. The first transition of power was peaceful, as the National Transitional Council gave way to the elected General National Congress.
So, what went wrong? Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the head of the National Transitional Council between March and October 2011, foresaw the problems. Jibril, who was previously head of the National Economic Development Board of Libya, went to Western capitals to convince them that the mission was not accomplished with the removal of Qaddafi and that the country would spiral into violence if weapons were allowed to freely circulate in the country.
After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, chemical weapons were removed from Libya very quickly and effectively. Jibril also asked for the removal of medium and heavy weaponry from the paramilitary groups because he knew no government would be able to govern properly under such circumstances. He was right. Today, the country is governed by warlords and their militias. The worst part is that the different militias use the state and its oil income to enrich themselves and finance their military operations.
Jibril, who passed away two years ago from COVID-19, could foresee the chaos into which the country would plunge if there was no disarmament of the militias that fought Qaddafi. Today, as the country is under the de facto rule of militias, the most the international community has been able to do is broker a power-sharing agreement between these groups. Such an arrangement will not bring good governance, but rather is more of a division of the spoils of the country among the different parties, hoping that they will remain calm if they get a share of the wealth and power.
The different militias use the state and its oil income to enrich themselves and finance their military operations.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
But this system of sharing the power and spoils is not sustainable. It has been proven that it cannot bring peace because each party, when it sees it has enough power on the ground and some foreign backing, will go ahead and break the system in order to get more. In retrospect, if NATO and the international community had not intervened, Libya would likely have become like Syria, with Qaddafi committing atrocities comparable to Assad’s, if not worse. But with intervention comes great responsibility and, if the international community had listened to Jibril in 2011, Libya would not be in the chaotic state it is today.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view