Current Situation in Libya: Failing Democratic Experiment
Libya’s failing transition to democracy began in 2011, when a popular uprising aided by NATO’s intervention brought down four decades of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. In a short civil war that ended with Qaddafi’s killing in September 2011, local residents and army deserters formed armed militias which – backed by NATO’s air power – defeated the government forces. While initially hailed as liberators, the militias refused to disarm after the war and began openly to challenge the new transitional authorities.
State territory became divided into semi-autonomous regions controlled by hundreds of militias which now pose the biggest threat to the political process. Elections were held in July 2012 but the central government remains weak, and the state security apparatus is incapable of maintaining law and order. This has bolstered regional identities, and some politicians in the oil-rich eastern Libya are calling for self-rule that would keep oil profits from flowing to the capital Tripoli.
The government tried to ease tensions by recruiting former anti-Qaddafi rebels into the army and police. But this in effect outsourced basic security services to powerful militia commanders who remain largely unaccountable to any authority. Violence is endemic, including turf wars between rival militias, shadowy Islamist extremists trying to seize power on the local level, and various criminal networks taking advantage of the state’s weakness.
1. Latest Developments: US Arrests an Al Qaeda Suspect, Lawlessness Deteriorates
The chaotic situation in Libya hit a new low in October 2013 when gunmen associated with one of the state-sanctioned militias briefly detained Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, in a brazen act of defiance which showed just how little regard the militias had for the central government.
The incident came just shortly after the US forces snatched Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a Libyan militant suspected of involvement in in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. It's not clear whether Zeidan was detained in reaction to the US raid, but militias in Libya regularly harass government officials and interfere in the work of the parliament.
2. Who is the Government in Libya?
- General National Congress (GNC): Libya’s transitional parliament holds the legislative power, but has so far failed to make any progress toward adopting a new constitution for the post-Qaddafi Libya. The most powerful political group is the liberal National Forces Alliance, followed by the Justice and Construction Party, an Islamist party linked to Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. However, most seats in parliament are held by independent candidates. This makes it difficult for any party to form a stable parliamentary majority.
- Prime Minister Ali Zeidan: Head of Libya’s first government with a popular mandate is a former diplomat who abandoned Qaddafi’s regime in the 1980s, and played a prominent role in the 2011 uprising. Zeidan is a respected human rights lawyer with liberal leanings, but he has proven largely powerless to counter the militias, which remain the de-facto rulers in much of the country.
3. Libya’s Militias
- Regional Militias: Libya’s regular armed forces and police are outnumbered and outgunned by the tens of thousands of former anti-Qaddafi rebels. Most militias are organized on the regional basis, and they purport to defend the interests of their hometowns against the capital Tripoli. But they also have supporters inside the government, resulting in a very complex political situation.
- State-Sanctioned Militias: Large number of regional militias has been put on the state payroll, after formal efforts at disarmament failed. The biggest such structures include the Shield Forces, a coalition of militias integrated into the Defense Ministry, and the Supreme Security Committee which is under the Interior Ministry’s command. In practice, most of these armed groups remain loyal to their own commanders, and the state’s control over gunmen is tenuous at best.
- Militant Islamists: Some Islamist militias do not recognize the current political system, and are fighting to establish a fundamentalist Islamist state. Among the most notorious is the Ansar al-Sharia militia in Benghazi, believed to have played a role in September 2012 events that led to the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens.