x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Bani Walid battle raises a worrying trend in Libya

Just over a year ago, Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed by Nato-backed rebels. But on the anniversary of his demise, Libya's revolution is still unfinished business.

Fierce fighting in Bani Walid ended, it is to be hoped, on Wednesday as pro-government forces said they seized control over the town and that it was "almost liberated". During the fighting, the town was sealed off and residents said shelling was indiscriminate, with children and elderly people among the victims.

The news agencies have called Bani Walid "the last stronghold" of Qaddafi. It is a convenient shorthand, but it misleads on a crucial point: dead men don't have strongholds.

The new government desperately needs to find inclusive political solutions instead of fighting pitched urban battles for control. Yes, there are still Qaddafi loyalists in the country, and even some regime figures who must be investigated for crimes against humanity. But to declare entire towns, or indeed tribes, as enemy remnants of the dictatorship is deeply dangerous. The Warfalla tribe, which calls Bani Walid home, is the largest in the country.

For decades, Qaddafi manipulated tribal and social dynamics to govern the country. Libya must begin to behave as a state, based on consensus and inclusiveness. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, its civil institutions were nearly eradicated under Qaddafi's sham "desert democracy". But also unlike the other Arab uprising states, Libya is well-positioned to move forward because of its rich resources.

It is too much to ask that all Libyans suddenly turn to the government's fledgling institutions and accept their authority immediately. The government must accept that the new political order in Libya has to accommodate dissent.

The swift decision to attack, and the ruthlessness of the offensive, suggest there are other dynamics at play besides a resurgent pro-Qaddafi movement. As The National reported yesterday, hundreds of fighters, mostly former rebels from the town of Misurata, gathered in the centre of Bani Walid, firing their rifles in the air to celebrate. Some of the tribal rivalries between the Warfalla and the Misurata far predate Qaddafi.

If the fighting is indeed over in Bani Walid, the world must watch the victors. People continue to be kidnapped and detained without charges to settle old scores, or simply for ransom. Tripoli must rein in the militias or the heroes of the revolution will become the destroyers of the peace.