A Surreal New Twist to Libya’s Ordeal

by Wayne White

In Libya, which is bordering on failed state status with minimal central government control, many Libyans have made the transitional General National Congress (GNC) the latest target for blame. This followed the GNC’s decision to extend its mandate until the completion of a constitution and the sitting of a new parliament later this year. Militias clearly remain the main source of instability across the country, but only as the most obvious manifestation of a maze of regional, political, economic, and Islamist-secular rivalries and grievances. It’s questionable whether yesterday’s election for a constitutional committee will resolve such issues, so robust international engagement is still sorely needed.

The GNC recently extended its mandate to provide continuity between the expiration of its original mandate on February 7 and the work of a commission elected on the 20th with 120 days to draft a constitution along with the subsequent election of a permanent parliament. Upon the mandate’s expiration thousands of Libyans took to the streets characterizing the extension as a power grab and blaming the GNC’s paralysis for the country’s myriad problems.

In fact, even had the GNC mustered enough consensus to enact meaningful legislation, its laws would have been implemented only in a very spotty manner with militias picking and choosing in their respective areas what to enforce and what to ignore. This has been the leading problem confronting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan all along: precious little national authority. And the reason why the GNC has been so ineffective is an ongoing split between its secular National Forces Alliance and a bloc comprised of two Islamist parties.  Worse still, each side is backed respectively by one of Libya’s most formidable militias.

At the beginning of the week powerful militias in government service from Zintan, which is southwest of the capital, threw down a gauntlet, demanding that the GNC turn power over to the Supreme Court by February 18, blaming its Muslim Brotherhood members for the gridlock. The GNC immediately promised early elections for a new parliament. Nonetheless, the militias (backing the GNC’s secular block) demanded that the GNC step down within 5 hours, and closed the Tripoli airport road in a show of force (generating a counter threat from the powerful pro-Islamist militia brigades from Libya’s 3rd largest city, Misrata).

In response to this crisis, both UN envoy in Tripoli Tarek Mitri and Ali Zeidan stepped in to address the face-off. Additionally, the US, UK, Italy, France and the European Union issued a joint statement declaring support for “the legitimacy of the transitional democratic process.” Based on Zeidan’s intercession especially, the deadline was pushed back 72 hours until late on the 21st, following national elections for a constitutional commission. It is doubtful, however, that the militia threat will be carried out because the GNC has terminated the Zintani militias’ government writ, ordered the arrest of those behind the attempted rebellion, and has the support of other armed elements.

In a reasonably normal national context the GNC mess would be enough to place a country in crisis. Parallel to it, however, has been a host of other more familiar challenges. In Libya’s restive east, security personnel closed the Benghazi Airport on the 18th over the non-payment of wages, with an armed unit charged with defending the airport blocking the runways. This is the latest outburst of trouble in the east where a shadow regional government remains in tentative control of many areas, joining angry oil workers to stop eastern exports of oil months ago, but with no means of its own to pay workers under its sway.

At the other end of the country, west of Tripoli, oil workers and local militia elements closed pipelines on the 18th, dropping Libyan oil exports to a mere 375,000 barrels per day (bpd) out of a maximum export capacity of about 1.3 million bpd. The latest closure is a discouraging reverse for Zeidan’s government after the Prime Minister worked so hard to reopen western pipelines earlier this year, restoring exports to 600,000 bpd. So, while workers in various locales protest unpaid wages, they have reduced markedly Tripoli’s ability to pay those wages — a capability that continues to decline as government financial shortfalls mount up.

Under the circumstances, less than 500,000 voted for a constitutional body (less than 1/3 of those who participated in thr 2012 parliamentary elections). Events since 2012 understandably bred widespread cynicism regarding all manners of governance. In addition, much of western Libya’s Berber minority boycotted the vote, while polls stayed closed in Derna in eastern Libya following militant attacks against five polling stations. Thus the legitimacy of the drafting process doubtless will suffer from the lack of a wide-ranging mandate.

Ironically, the latest crisis revolving around the GNC came to a head as Libyans should have been celebrating the 3rd anniversary of Muammar Qadhafi’s fall on February 17. The very next day, the human rights arm of the UN issued a statement expressing concerns about Libya’s continued violence and shortfalls in protecting its citizens’ rights. Even far less developed Niger recently appealed to the international community to assist in reducing the threat Libyan instability poses to regional security. Nonetheless, on February 16, in a bid to bolster Libya’s beleaguered central government, Niger extradited senior Qadahfi-era intelligence official Abdullah Mansour to Tripoli for interrogation and trial.

The international community played a small role in defusing the crisis, pitting the powerful Zintani militias against the GNC. Without a far more ambitious effort, however, the transitional process that is just getting underway so shakily could easily founder. The pattern in which Libya continues staggering along the brink of wholesale state failure must be broken.

Securing a common domestic understanding of the costs for all concerned of continued chaos may be a proverbial mission impossible unless all parties can be brought together at a relatively neutral venue. This must include Libya’s large, quarrelsome militias. The biggest militias are not just thugs, but armed units from the “liberation war” against Qadhafi with their own claims to legitimacy and who refuse to disarm in the absence of what they regard as proper governance. An attempt at jumpstarting a thoroughgoing national dialogue must be made to avoid the potential worst case scenario: a sort of “North African Somalia” with instability as its leading export.

Photo: Residents from Libya’s north-eastern town of Shahat joined in on national protests against extending the congressional mandate on February 7. Credit: Magharebia/Flickr

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. To bad the N.A.T.O. boys didn’t think things through before they helped overthrow Qadhafi. Of course, the arm chair brain trust never thinks anything through, aside from bomb the country back into the stone age. It’s sad to watch this going on in the countries that shouldn’t have taken place in the first place. The U.S. being the sole superpower in the world today, has allowed all the idiots out of the closet to inflict their stupidity upon mankind. Oh well, perhaps the out of control warmongers will do the unthinkable, use those Nuclear bombs that will poison the M.E. Then where will they be?

  2. Can you be so certain that further Western involvement can solve the crisis? After the initial elation of crazies like John McCain and Hillary Clinton, there is now a realization that Libya is a failed state, though still no acknowledgment that the failure was due to US-NATO policy, or that prior to NATO’s intervention, Libya was a successful and functioning state that had many impressive social and economic achievements under its belt- but that is an important story yet to be told.

    We called Qadaafi a dictator, a hick and a terrorist, and some of that might have been true, but he was also a visionary committed to the wellbeing of his people, and he empathized with the oppressed and exploited, and Africa generally, and his achievements though never much reported in the mainstream media were impressive indeed. Who reads for example of the largest water project in the world built without U.S. aid or contractors? Maybe, had he had nuclear weapons, or the Russians and Chinese had been on the ball earlier, the West would have left him alone, and Libyans would have been secure and still enjoying the highest standard of living in Africa, and better healthcare than Obamacare.

    Libya also happened to have an authoritarian government, so that was the trigger, but it also had a semi-socialist system that was an ideologically threatening to the US-EU-IMF economic model, billions in US and European banks waiting to be impounded (sic. plundered), too much influence with the African states and an organizational ability to inspire and facilitate African unity and independence from the West that could have become: (1) a geopolitical and economic impediment or obstacle to US and European designs on Africa’s resources, (2) a currency threat to the dollar, and (3) a real risk that the African nations could have sued the West for trillions in reparations for having suffered many decades of Western European and American exploitation.

    I wonder if the West will ever be able to put back Humpty Dumpty after having pushed it off the wall.
    Maybe it will be able to install a temporary dictatorship, but in the long run, without any sophisticated understanding of the tribal and cultural strands in that country, should we expect our ignorant policymakers or cynical CIA special ops planners to have much of a clue? McKinsey spreadsheets are one thing, but good intelligence, and solid political alliances with all interested parties and a real interest in accommodating all parties are another. Maybe the Israelis or Saudis or Qataris will try to manipulate the situation, but I don’t think they should expect much traction, at least for any length of time, even if they are given a free hand. The only winners in this game will be the U.S. military that will want to keep fighting- as if that makes them relevant- and a military industrial complex (and the banks that finance it), that will continue to make money off of everyone else’s misery.

  3. My apologies for the poor style, grammar and editing, but you get the idea.

  4. No need to apologize edding, your point[s] are on the mark, even if you think spelling isn’t. After all, we can’t always please everyone.

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