x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Growing pains cause Libya's reforms to stall

A new flare-up of tribal strife reminds us all that efforts to build a modern state in Libya still have a long way to go.

No news is good news, the adage tells us, and a few weeks with no big headlines from Libya may have lulled many around the world into thinking peace and progress were steadily replacing the trauma of civil war there.

Then came Monday's report that a dissident militia had overrun the Tripoli airport, hardly a sign of growing national unity. Airports, after all, are prime symbols of modern civilisation. Yielding one to armed tribesmen is deeply disturbing.

Within hours, troops of the governing National Transitional Council (NTC) reclaimed the airport. But it is a measure of the NTC's weakness, seven months after the death of Muammar Qaddafi, that they needed help from other militias to subdue the raiders. The eruption reminds us that Libya is still struggling to meet the challenge of building an inclusive modern state on the wreckage of Qaddafi's vile regime.

The incident has led to speculation about a delay of the initial elections of Libya's new era. The June 19 vote is to elect a 200-member "Public National Conference" to name a prime minister, cabinet and a new body to write a constitution, all leading to later legislative elections.

Should the elections be delayed? The NTC has tried to manage a transition towards democracy, but decades of one-man rule left a fearsomely long to-do list. And while the NTC has international recognition, it has no democratic authority. That puts a premium on prompt elections.

On the other hand, the excitement at the airport reveals the problem: Elections are in essence an act of community, signalling general acceptance of some degree of power sharing. If an important - that is, numerous and armed - segment of the population resorts to seizing an airport, it is hard to believe that the time is ripe for honest peaceful elections.

Tribal militiamen from the city of Tarhouna, once a Qaddafi stronghold, stormed the airport after their leader was arrested on Sunday, news reports said. The Tarhouna group has been involved in other incidents.

The arrest is a good example of the NTC's efforts to de-legitimise banditry, but also shows the perils involved in trying to find the right pace for these efforts.

Forging a nation out of tribal and other factions, after decades of oppression and manipulation, is no easy task. The NTC's work to build national consensus, or even a national consciousness, leaves room for hope but is still very far from complete.