Despite western euphoria that greeted the NATO-led UN mandate of the “Responsibility to protect” (R2P) as “mission accomplished” following the death of Muamar Ghaddafi a year ago, Libya is still at war with itself (characterized by continued loss of life and gross human rights abuses) and therefore far from being the democracy the west had hoped for. This has left pundits wondering whether the R2P doctrine in the case of Libya was in fact a façade for the preferred policies of western governments in getting rid of a man who has long been perceived as a threat to western hegemony.
The aftermath of the Libyan experience has soured many major governments around the world on the R2P doctrine as is currently the case in Syria where it could be argued that continued large-scale loss of life and human rights abuses by both sides of the conflict have exceeded human rights abuses allegedly committed by Ghadaffi’s entire 42 year-rule. And yet, western governments remain divided over the issue of a R2P mandate as some fear a repeat of the Libyan scenario.
In Libya, the failure of western intervening governments to accept the responsibility to rebuild in the wake of NATO’s military action which dismantled state institutions left a vacuum that was quickly filled by a constellation of militias who answer to no authority save their leaders and continue to act with impunity and use violence routinely, underscoring the government’s ineptitude.
While still struggling to maintain peace and security, Libya’s government also faces the mammoth task of rebuilding the nation’s shattered institutions of governance from scratch. Unlike in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia where change of regime hardly disrupted governance machinery due to viable and functioning institutions of state, Libya’s governance revolved around the charisma of Ghadaffi whose demise meant a complete breakdown of state machinery. Institutions do matter, and such is the daunting task in Libya where the successful July elections represented a positive step in state rebuilding.
Mustafa Abu Shagur was elected Prime Minister but was later forced to step down (after serving less than a month) for failing, in two attempts, to win parliamentary approval for a new cabinet. He was accused of favoritism on his cabinet choices which some parliamentarians claimed were not representative of the new face of Libya. But Shagur maintained that his was “an emergency government to solve the crises that the country is going through.” Shagur has since been replaced by Ali Zidan. Although Zidan’s top priority will be to form a new government that will get the approval of the congress, however he must also assert state authority over the country by providing Libyans with security and basic services as well as unifying the country’s tribes and towns.
Asserting state authority hinges on ending the reign of the militias – a task the government is incapable of carrying out at the moment due to the state’s reliance on militia groups for the provision of security.
The government’s use of the February 17 militia brigade to dislodge the Salafi militia group, Ansar al-Sharia from their Benghazi base and the current stand-off in Bani Walid where the Musrata militia brigade (contracted by the government) is trying to neutralize the city’s militia group show the state of the country’s security forces and how much the government depends on some militia factions to battle others.
Such dependence threatens to weaken further the government as it stands losing its legitimacy over to militia groups who have the capacity to maintain public order. For Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft, “the longer these groups continue to perform security tasks which should be the responsibility of Libyan state security forces, the more difficult it will become to demobilize them or integrate them into the army.”
This could also widen the blood feudal gulf between tribes and make the country more prone to violence as was evident during bloody tribal and ethnic clashes between militia groups in Kufra, mizdah, Zintan and other places that left scores of people dead.
These militias’ insistence that they have a right to continue to exist without the state’s authority because of their sacrifices for the revolution has since become counter-productive to the ideals of the very revolution they had fought for. This is particularly true for those that have been hijacked by radical jihadist groups who are calling for the imposition of Islamic law in the country.
The threat posed by salafist Islam in post-Ghadaffi Libya has always been evident as chronicled by the number of attacks on western interests as well as the destruction of the grave sites and shrines of sufi saints. But it was not until the brazen attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi which left Ambassador Stevens dead with three of his staff that the threat became real.
The Libyan government was quick to condemn the attack, apologize to the U.S. government, and to unleash the February 17 brigade on Ansar al-Sharia, suspected of carrying out the attack. The group has since gone underground following an arson attack on their headquarters in Benghazi, thanks to a popular revolt by Benghazi citizens.
But that is not the end of salafist jihadism in the country. When Ahmed Boukhatala, a salafist jihadist seen by the government as a “prime suspect” for the U.S. consulate attack was confronted with the accusation by a western journalist in Benghazi, the chief of the Abu Ubaidah Brigades – a ferocious militia sub-group operating under the command of Ansar al Shariah – replied with a smile: “if that’s what the President (Mohammed Magariaf) is saying, then he should come to my house and arrest me”, indicating the group’s readiness for an armed confrontation with central government.
Superior firepower and alliances with other Islamist militia groups sympathetic to their cause means salafist militias still retain the capacity to strike at will against western interests in a country where the central government lacks real authority and has to depend on militias for its very own survival.
This is putting strains on the country’s foreign policy not only with its western backers but also with Africa as thousands of Black Africans remain in detention without trial in militia-controlled areas more than a year since the ouster of the Ghadaffi regime.
Until the government asserts real authority across the country, there is little its diplomacy and foreign policy can achieve especially with its western backers who are keen to see the perpetrators behind the deaths of the four Americans apprehended and brought to justice.
On Africa, despite the presence of so many African diplomatic missions in the country, Libya’s foreign policy towards Africa remains lukewarm a year on since the death of Ghadaffi, a man whose influence on the African Union led it to oppose NATO’s military action of regime change in the country. While it could be argued that most Libyans were never in favour of Ghadaffi’s close ties with Africa, however it was the A.U’s support of Ghadaffi that left the union isolated following the change of regime in Tripoli.
Despite A.U.’s efforts to reset diplomatic ties with the country, the new government is yet to define its policies in dealing with Africa. But one thing is certain: when they do become defined, such policies will never be the same again.