by Wayne White
Nearly a year after the Benghazi attack and almost two since Muammar al-Qadhafi’s fall, Libya remains a governmental basket case. Political assassinations and militia violence are commonplace amidst the continued absence of effective central governance across much of the country. Recent labor unrest threatens what had been Libya’s one area of notable recovery: oil exports. As an experiment in post-authoritarian nationhood, the Libyan situation may be more troubling than at any time since the end of the struggle against the Qadhafi regime.
The central government recently has been in a state of flux. Beleaguered Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced at the end of July he will decrease the number of cabinet positions or try to govern more effectively by meeting with a smaller group of core ministers. So far, however, the only notable result has been Deputy Prime Minister Awad al-Barasi’s resignation on August 3, blaming “a dysfunctional government where my powers are lost.” Meanwhile, despite the passage of time since the former regime’s demise, central authority has stagnated and instability has been on the rise.
Symptomatic of this problem is the continuation of various autonomous local governing entities centered on armed groups left over from the struggle against Qadhafi. They dominate various regions, one major city, many urban neighborhoods and frequently defy or hound portions of the central government even in the capital of Tripoli.
One salient ongoing dispute revolves around the status of literally thousands of political prisoners often languishing in miserable, improvised local holding pens outside government control. The most notorious case is that of Saif al-Qadhafi, the deceased dictator’s most important son and senior lieutenant. Despite repeated demands for custody on the part of the central government and the International Criminal Court (ICC), Saif remains in Zintan in Libya’s arid central mountains, a prisoner of the local Berber militia that originally captured him. The only outside contact he has had was a meeting last year with his Australian ICC-appointed defense attorney, who was then also detained for three weeks. Since then, new charges have been brought against Saif by authorities in Zintan: allegedly giving his ICC attorney “national security information.”
Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani recently declared that the central government would not allow “Mickey Mouse trials.” However, militias holding the real power in many locales claim the national judiciary remains dominated by officials from the former regime; they have stormed Marghani’s office in anger over delays and enforced their own justice in areas they control. To wit, the autonomous militia controlling Libya’s third largest city, Misrata, sentenced Qadhafi’s former Education Minister, Ahmad Ibrahim, to death on July 31. Technically, the Libyan Supreme Court must confirm such a sentence before he faces a firing squad, but whether that will happen is questionable.
It seems encouraging to many Americans that Washington finally handed down an indictment against some of those responsible for the Benghazi consulate attack last year, most notably local Benghazi militia chief Ahmad Abu Khattala. Yet, US authorities involved in the investigation such as the FBI have been hampered seriously by the woeful law enforcement situation across Libya — also the reason it took this long to bring charges against at least some of those involved in that infamous assault.
Such difficulties should come as no surprise. In a country flush with competing local and regional identities as well as all manner of weaponry in the hands of various armed groups, Benghazi alone has been hit with a wave of political killings over the past couple of weeks. Those murdered include judicial officials, lawyers, political activists, a senior police official and other members of the Libyan security services. Most recently, on August 9, the anchor of a popular Benghazi TV show was assassinated. Many of the victims spoke out against or sought to curb the power of local militias. At the end of July, there also were two bombings — one near a courthouse and the other close to a Justice Ministry office. Some of these incidents have triggered demonstrations or attacks by angry mobs against sites associated with Benghazi-based armed groups presumed responsible, in one case, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another glaring example of central government weakness came shortly after the attack on the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood: a riot inside and around Benghazi’s al-Kwafiya Prison that resulted in the breakout of roughly 1,200 prisoners. Most escaped inmates were accused of serious crimes or had been associated with the Qadhafi Regime; intervention to contain the situation by government special forces apparently had relatively little effect. The mass escape most likely reinforced the determination of autonomous local authorities and militias not to turn over their prisoners to the government.
Despite the unrest, the unexpectedly rapid rebound of Libya’s oil export capabilities had been one major success. Yet, since July, a wave of protests and strikes by oil workers and guards has shut down two key oil export terminals, Libya’s largest refinery, and threatened to reduce production at inland oil fields. Oil exports for July were down 20 percent; so far August exports are down a staggering 50 percent. Workers are reacting to management and pay issues.
A resolution to this crisis does not yet seem imminent, in part because Oil Minister Abelbari al-Arusa initially took a defiant stance. Now, however, Prime Minister Zeidan has warned that Libya’s national budget is imperiled, and there are talks. In fact, the two terminals re-opened over the weekend, only to close only hours later today without any oil being lifted. Meanwhile, foreign investors already reluctant to inject money into an unstable Libya have been further shaken.
The overriding question at this point may not be how a way out of this maelstrom can be charted, but whether any truly game-changing progress can be made in the near-term. Most all Libya’s challenges today are deeply enmeshed in the complex fractured politics of a country with the least developed sense of national identity and civil society among the five key Arab North African states. So the ability of the international community to help is limited (compounded by drawdowns in diplomatic personnel and curtailed travel inside Libya in view of the dangers now posed by serving there).
Consequently, there is the very real possibility Libya could remain unstable for quite a while. Such a situation would, of course, continue to provide havens for extremist elements both foreign and domestic stemming from exceedingly weak, insufficiently coherent and geographically constrained national governance (as with the recent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb intrusions into southeast Libya and last year’s Benghazi consulate assault).