x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Libya’s history shows that a country divided cannot stand

The current currency in Libya of federalist ideas belies the country's own history

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

The recent fighting at the heart of the Libyan capital Tripoli is yet another reminder of the level of chaos to which the country has descended two years after the Qaddafi regime was toppled by rebels and Nato warplanes.

In the past few days a small dispute at a checkpoint swiftly turned into full-fledged warfare between two previously allied militias. In two days of fighting, eastern Tripoli was cut off from its western neighbourhoods while the sea front served as the battle ground.

The government of Ali Zeidan did nothing to stop the gun and mortar fight, let alone hold the perpetrators accountable. In Libya today any personal quarrel between two drug addicts or gang leaders is settled by guns and mortars in which entire neighbourhoods are closed off.

Benghazi in the east is being nicknamed “City of Assassinations” as almost daily there is a politically motivated killing or attempted murder. The victims have been professional army and police officers, activists and members of the judiciary. Surprisingly, Libya’s premier publicly stated that his government knows who are behind the killings and will bring them to justice – but not yet. Is he waiting for more murders?

At the end of the day, civilians pay the price. A deteriorating security situation coupled with a corrupt and failed government is taking the country a step closer towards its second civil war. While the elected General National Conference (GNC) remains paralysed by infighting, corruption and a lack of leadership, the rogue well-armed militias have effectively hijacked the country away from any real hopes and aspiration the Libyans might have after the collapse of the former regime.

Among themselves, Libyans now hardly talk about reconciliation, let alone reconstruction.

Against this backdrop there appear to be some glimmers of hope. Almost out of the media spotlight and in the shadow of the recent violence, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) led by Mahmud Jibril finally managed to get enough interested politicians and political parties to launch its initiative for national dialogue with the hope of getting some sort of reconciliation process started.

The NFA’s initiative was announced last September after a long consultation process across the political spectrum. The main aim of the initiative is to draw a road map for national reconciliation in an attempt to provide a kind of social safety net for any likely fallouts of transitional justice.

Transitional justice itself has yet to start – the occasional appearances of former officials such as Saif Al Islam, Abdullah Al Sanusi and others in courtrooms can hardly be described as such.

Getting the various factions to sit together and learn to talk again has been the hope of every Libyan but the political elites along with the militias keep poisoning the atmosphere and erecting barriers before any such initiative.

The reconciliation process in Libya has been shelved after two tribal-led attempts failed last year due to heavy militia interference. This was particularly apparent when tribal chiefs tried to reach the important Warfalla tribe in Bani Walid. The tribe is key to any successful reconciliation process, and has long been accused of protecting supporters of the former regime.

Yet this delegation was forced back under fire by Misurata militias who were laying siege to the mountainous town before invading it in October last year with the approval of the GNC.

In June of the same year, another tribal delegation met the same fate but this time at the hands of Zintan’s militias, who were forcing hundreds of Mashashia tribes out of their homes in western Libya.

Successive failed governments and lack of political will among the elected members of the GNC hardly encouraged the start of such a sensitive process.

It is also fair to say that the GNC has not only lacked political will but seems – due to lack of leadership and incompetent members – to be busy with the wrong priorities. Political parties on the other hand cannot be counted on to deliver any sensible workable framework for the country to pull itself together. Indeed, they are becoming increasingly divisive in a society where political parties are a new phenomenon.

By any count, the NFA’s initiative (however little success it is likely to have) must be encouraged and built on. It is not the first time that the NFA has failed in translating its political majority into a national action plan. Yet such an initiative represents a glimpse of hope for the country and its people to emerge from the aftermath of a war that left Libya as divided as it could ever be.

This is the kind of work the international community should support if it is willing to play any constructive role in building a new Libya. That is especially the case because it helped create the mess that Libya is in today.

Moreover, it is likely that recent political developments in Libya will only make it more difficult for the NFA to succeed.

Both eastern and southern Libya have already declared themselves autonomous political entities within what they see as federal Libya.

Libyans have been through federalism and know only too well how it divided the country.

Each federal region back in the 1940s and 1950s was easy prey for foreign domination. In fact, when France was the master of the south-western Fezzan region, it cut it off from the rest of Libya and tried to annex it to its other African colonies in Algeria in the south-west and Chad to the south. For a time, the people of Fezzan had more ties to Chad than to the rest of Libya.

It is an inclusive reconciliation process that will keep Libya together and bring about its salvation rather than a fantasy of political federation.

History also teaches us that once reconciled Libyans will be difficult to divide again; this is why the national dialogue initiative should be supported by the current government and every political and tribal leader in the country.

Over the last couple of years, Libya has been systematically pushed towards a cliff from which it is becoming very difficult to pull back. A lack of vision on the part of politicians, leadership deficiency, alienation of social and tribal leaders, the marginalisation of certain tribes, and ineffective government seem to have demoralised the nation so much that many Libyans today even wonder if, compared to their current situation, the era of Qaddafi was not all evil.

Today’s Libya is divided because Libyans have yet to properly sit down together to settle their differences. Unless that happens, the call for federalism – which is really a call for the division of the country – will only become louder, and lawlessness will continue to be the norm.

Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan analyst at IHS Global Insight, an author and award-winning freelance journalist