After three years of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya is facing new challenges in its struggle to build a nation with state institutions based on the rule of law and the principles of democracy. Since the fall of the dictatorship, Libya has been through many troubling and chaotic times, but the current crisis that began since the June 2014 elections seems to be the most challenging, which could lead to more crises in the country’s transition process.
The current Libyan crisis was the result of many factors, notwithstanding the legacy of despotism that the new state institutions inherited from the fallen regime, but it was combined by a polarised political atmosphere in a country that had absolutely no political experience before the revolution.
The political instability reflected the incompetent leadership in different governments leading to the weakness and the fragmentation of the official state security bodies, which could not confront the rise of local armed groups, some with political and ideological backing while others were pursuing a local, regional and often personal agendas to achieve more political power and possibly manage to control a stake in the countries oil and gas wealth, all of these factors led to a political atmosphere of distrust leading to an inevitable confrontation.
The roots of the current Libyan crisis can be traced back to the final months of the National Transitional Council (NTC) tenure in power in Libya, which due to its limited mandate couldn’t actively manage the country’s arms proliferation problem and postponing dealing with the major causes of conflicts, for the next elected parliament, namely the General National Congress (GNC) to deal with.
Due to the nature of the elections law, the General National Congress’ election outcome were inconclusive for a certain party or political faction to dominate, which paved the way for local, regional and tribal elements that were elected as independents to the proto-parliament to hold the sway of power in the country, which led to the formation of different blocs and alliances that reflected the economic and social and armed divisions.
The political divisions became more apparent after the GNC approved in June 2013, in a controversial vote, the political isolation law that was intended to prevent Gaddafi regime officials in different aspects of government and society form assuming official positions in the new state institutions, this led to more violent forms of political means to achieve goals and deepening the sense of distrust and animosity between the main political, regional, tribal and ideological factions.
By the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, it became apparent that the political factions began to coalesce into few camps. In the west of Libya, the Islamist political movement and its military arms forged an interest driven alliance with regional political players in Misrata and some smaller towns and local militias in and around Tripoli. While on the other side the anti-Islamist political bloc (sometimes is inaccurately described as liberal) forged an alliance with local and tribal armed groups in Zintan, Weshafana and other local militias.
In the eastern side of the country the picture is different, the regional political movement that used the years of marginalization and deprivation by the Gaddafi regime to mobilise the idea for federalism sometimes resorting to confrontational tactics to push its agenda. While the political Islamist movement lost lots of ground in the east, it was replaced by the rise of militant extremist groups that waged its own war, assassinating army and security personnel, journalists and rights activists, bombing and terrorising local populations mainly in Derna and Benghazi. This last element was countered by a rogue military campaign of the former army General Khalifa Haftar and other sections of the fragmented remains of the Libyan army, exacerbating the fragile security situations and aligning itself with the anti-Islamist political and military camp in Western Libya.
In the southern part of the country, where state authority is nearly non-existent, tribal and ethnic power dominates the political and social life, Arab, Tebu and Tuareg tribes fought each other to control borders and vast swaths of the desert which brought with it lucrative smuggling routes and trade, often blowing up after the loss of any authority in the region and flaring into full out armed confrontations without much resolve.
International and regional powers had also an influence in the current political crisis. The main western powers, US, UK and France didn’t follow their military campaign to overthrow Gaddafi with a coordinated, coherent and competent strategic plan to support and rebuild the new state institutions, which opened the door to regional powers like Egypt and some Gulf states to forge alliances with different factions and players inside the country, causing more harm than good and hampering efforts of the international community and UN to reach peaceful resolution to the current conflict.
The June 2014 elections, which resulted in a crushing loss for the Islamist political movement and its political and armed allies, caused the postponed confrontation to blow up in the Tripoli area, while the bloody, often pointless, confrontation between the quasi-army and extremist militants in the east complicated the security situation further.
But among the complex political and power structure in the country, the main driving force for most of the problems in Libya is the oil and gas wealth that in my view can be a source of stability and instability for millions of Libyans.
The political polarisation which led to violent local civil wars is bringing with it more challenges for transition in Libya. It’s yet to be seen if the current crisis will affect the constitutional challenge, when the Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA) presents its draft constitution to Libyans for approval possibly in early 2015. But even if Libyans manage to bring a new constitution into life, it will be hard to imagine a viable political life and state institutions if the current divisive and polarising political dynamics continue to persist, especially with the presence of rogue armed groups from various sides.
Libya has always proven to be hard to predict, and the post uprising years were rife with lost historical opportunities that could have realised people’s hopes and expectations. The current conflict could be one of Libya’s worst but it might not be the last, before the peace.
* An edited version of this article was published on Free Arabs. Libya’s 1001 Wars.