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Libya’s descent into anarchy

Since the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been mired in chaos. The country is in a state of civil war; violence between rival militias is out of control; arms proliferate; and the rule of law and order is practically non-existent.

The government established after the fall of Gaddafi has struggled to maintain any semblance of control. This is partly because of the legacy of 42 years of dictatorship; the structures for democratic rule were simply not in place, and decades of repression meant that there were no established political parties to step in. It is also partly because of poor post-conflict planning from the international community, which intervened to assist the rebels in toppling Gaddafi. Writing recently in the New Yorker, Libyan writer Hisham Matar described the current situation in the country: “The state was designed around an individual and his family; it resembled more a mafia than a political structure. And so ending the dictatorship meant ending the state.”

As the situation has worsened in Libya in recent weeks, members of the international community have left. The American ambassador was evacuated recently, as were representatives from Britain and other EU countries.

But the Libyan government is calling for more intervention, not less. With violence in the capital Tripoli and the second city Benghazi ongoing, Libya’s parliament passed a motion calling for foreign intervention to protect civilians from these deadly clashes between rival militia groups.

MPs met in Tobruk in the east because of the violence in other cities, and 111 out of 124 supported the call. “The international community must intervene immediately to ensure that civilians are protected,” said MP Abu Bakr Biira, quoting from the decree. It wasn’t clear whether they wanted a foreign peacekeeping force, or some other form of intervention.

Shortly afterwards, the parliament also voted to disband all militias, but the state has no means to enforce this measure. The Libyan army is still in formation and the police force is weak (just this week, the Tripoli police chief was shot dead in an ambush). The state has little authority to force militias to lay down their arms.

It also seems unlikely that the call for foreign intervention will be heeded. The decree calling for foreign help to protect civilians was a bold move by the parliament, but ultimately, it is symbolic. Thus far, the international community has not offered any intervention, instead demanding an end to the violence and encouraging dialogue between the two militias engaged in the current bout of fighting.

There is little appetite in western capitals for costly involvement in a complex civil war in the Middle East. This was evident in the decision not to get involved in Syria, a conflict which received far more media attention than that in Libya. Currently, the media spotlight – and government and military resources – have been directed at Iraq. The inevitability of increasing western involvement in the fight against ISIS further reduces the chance of assistance for Libya. Even the decree received very limited coverage, pushed down the agenda by the news that Britain will send arms to the Kurds in Iraq. For now, it seems, this forgotten conflict will continue.

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