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Libya poll fails to halt slide towards civil war

On 21 and 22 June, voting took place in Libya’s general election. The poll to elect a new national parliament went ahead despite the fact that much of the country is in the grip of the worst violence since the 2011 uprising.

The election was seen as a chance to end the lawlessness that has prevailed in Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in 2011. The results are still to come; but the vote itself was marred by violence and a low turnout. Just 630,000 people voted out of a total of 1.5 million registered electors, while at least five were killed in clashes between government forces and militants in the eastern city of Benghazi.

This was the third election to be held since the 2011 uprising. It represents a turning point, as the 200-seat House of Representatives will replace the General National Congress, which has been deadlocked in recent months because of disputes between Islamist politicians and their opponents. In the new system, all candidates had to run as independents rather than in political blocs, in an attempt to reduce infighting. Of course, the current political deadlock is just one part of the picture; in practice, these newly-formed political institutions have wielded hardly any real power.

When the west intervened in 2011, with airstrikes that tipped the balance in favour of the rebels and led to the fall of Gaddafi, it was hailed as a great victory for foreign intervention. So why, three years later, is Libya so lawless?

Since the uprising, there has been, essentially, a state of anarchy, with no-one really in charge. Libya has been beset by violence; there are up to 1,700 armed groups, with widely varying goals. Some are Islamist, some are liberal and some are secessionist. They are also divided along ethnic and religious lines. While these groups were united in their hatred of Gaddafi, as soon as he was ousted, divisions emerged. Because there was no single group leading the 2011 rebellion, different militias fought separately in different cities. Several felt that they had paid a high price during the conflict and should be rewarded. Perhaps the only common denominator in the aims of these disparate militias is to gain money and power; this is achieved largely by seizing territory.

As these different militias vie for authority and land, there are growing fears that Libya could descend into civil war. The armed groups have shown little desire to compromise in order to build a new state, and Libya has had five governments since the 2011 revolution. It is hoped that the House of Representatives will have more authority and longevity than previous incarnations.

Of course, many of the problems faced by Libya today can be traced back to the four decades it spent under strict authoritarian rule. Gaddafi did not permit any opposition to flourish, and encouraged tribal divisions to secure his own grip on power. Restrictions on daily life also meant there was a significant brain drain as educated people moved abroad. As a result, many of the militias that were instrumental to the revolution have little understanding of democracy and the compromises required for nation-building.

There is also a sense that Libya has been abandoned by the international community. Both western powers and the Arab League appear to be more concerned with instability in Syria and Egypt, and there is no top-level mediation effort to bring peace or to clear the country of arms. This is short-sighted; the country is awash with weapons that are destabilising not only Libya but also African countries like Mali and Niger. It has also been suggested that weapons smuggled from Gaddafi’s arsenal have made it to Syria, Sinai and Gaza. The US has pledged to help the new government recover these weapons, and to send a small number of troops to train the army, but overall there has been little assistance.

“These elections are an important step in Libya’s transition towards stable democratic governance,” said the UN Security Council in a statement this week, but the new government has many challenges ahead of it. An 11-month blockade of most of Libya’s oil production by rebels has cost the country $30bn. A previous agreement between the government and rebel leaders has broken down. People in Benghazi, who see their city as the home of the revolution, have argued for greater autonomy as, it is claimed, they are being marginalised by the Tripoli government. Previous governments have struggled to build a strong army and police force, and to stop defections to militia groups. All of these issues will have to be addressed if the new government is to bring an end to violence, as is hoped.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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