The country we now know as Libya has never known territorial unity until 1934; and that was during the Italian occupation. Before the Italians, the area had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire, and before that by a series of colonizers. In short, Libyans have a long history of struggle but no experience of self rule. Each tribe fends for itself, uniting with others against the enemy of the day. Throughout the Khadafy era, the dictator favoured his tribe and those allied with him. It is no surprise that the uprise that would topple the Colonnel was born more from hatred against him than from a shared vision of a common future.
The divisions, gone unnoticed by Western media covering the civil war, are now surfacing fast. The different groups that fought against Khadafy are now claiming authority in the territory each controls. Militias behave like they were the government. Geographical inequality, power plays and fragmented chains of command have led to armed clashes between them, affecting the country’s ability to develop. Militiamen distrust the national Army, led by Khadafy’s officers, and do not want to relinquish their new found power. Forcing disarmament too hard or too fast will backfire by provoking resistance; left unchecked, militia violence could bring the country back into civil war.
Last February Amnesty International (AI) accused the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) of lacking both the authority and the political will to rein in militias. AI said militias were committing widespread human rights abuses, including torturing detainees, sometimes to death. Detainees told AI they confessed to rapes and murders they had not committed just to stop the torture. Militias seem to enjoy blanket immunity and the authorities are doing little to investigate and prosecute their crimes.
Because militias have tribal leanings, they have empowered tribal leaders and led to a heavy tribal influence over the NTC and the current order. In turn, tribal politicians did not hesitate to push liberal groups, the educated urban youth and particularly women out of the political arena in order to gain power. This tension is likely to continue playing out during the transitional period.
The NTC’s inability to rein in the militias is but a symptom. In reality the NTC is divided by infighting and lacks a mandate for nation building. They are focusing on managing the transition and organize elections, which should take place next June. Another sign that things are not all well is the decision of Cyrenaica – the region east of the Sirte Gulf, to declare partial independence. The people there are tired of the slow pace of change and the little political clout they are being given. The region is rich in oil – 80% of production corresponding to 70% of GDP – water and mineral resources. Yet, it was awarded only 60 of the 200 seats in the new parliament. Everyone knows that semi-autonomous status could easily become full independence (Ahmed al-Senussi, a relative of Libya’s former king, is head of the Cyrenaica council!), precipitating the fragmentation of the whole nation.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the NTC, has vowed to use force to stop the country breaking up. In private, however, he had to admit that the NTC is unable to control the militias, hence incapable to organize a strike against Cyrenaica. Things are not better in the West. In February, the city of Misrata forged ahead with its own municipal elections and established a security zone that prohibits many Libyans from entering. These decisions were taken without the involvement of the NTC.
There is no easy way out, but certainly there are steps that the NTC should take without delay to avoid deeper divisions. First of all, it would be sensible to delay elections until all stakeholders have reached a consensus on how to share power taking in consideration of the plurality of views present in Libya. Secondly, there will not be a smooth transition to democracy unless a process of reconciliation takes place: reconciliations between tribes and clans, but also in a transversal way, including women and youth in the political process. Thirdly, to address inequalities, which have kept many Libyans in poverty for the past decades.
Inclusion of women and youth in shaping the future of Libya is a sensitive issue. Even though there are women capable of tackling political issues of national and international importance, most Libyans would not feel adequately represented by them. When a woman occupies a political position, her tribes feels deprived of an opportunity. This is a cultural issue which will not change overnight. Likewise youth are interested in participating in political decisions. However, authority in Libya has always been associated with age and clout. The youth will not be able to vie for parliamentary seats, much the less hope to be represented at ministerial level.
The West was fast in supporting the war, a conflict that opened up the Libyan market and allowed control of strategic resources. Perhaps, it should get involved more in supporting the growth of a new society. A society firmly anchored to tradition, yet open to a new social structure, capable of answering the aspirations of younger generations.