From Tripoli to Mitiga
finds that powerful local militias are curiously and simultaneously undermining Libya's nascent democracy process and strengthening the concept of social justice
In recent months there has been a welter of complaints among disgruntled elements, particularly the youth, about the chaotic and fast deteriorating security situation in Libya. One can sympathise with them up to a point.
The sad truth is that beating the war drums serves the anarchists' agenda. Few would have heard about the motley militias that roam the Libyan countryside and instil terror in the sidewalks of Libyan cities.
The urge to manoeuvre past officials of the ruling National Transitional Council has been even stronger among militia groups that suspect that their interests are being eroded by the new political establishment in Libya that appears to be unsympathetic to their local agendas.
Militias representing the various clans and tribal groups, cities and towns perceived to be either sympathetic to the cause of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi or those who on the contrary claim to be the revolutionaries that toppled him are battling each other.
This week's controversial events in Libya paint a disturbing portrait of the state of post-Gaddafi Libyan politics. It would be unfair to dismiss the deep- rooted feelings that the grisly assassination of Gaddafi unleashed. Libya is deeply scarred by tribalism, fostered over the decades by the Italian, then British and French colonial authorities in the last century and re- invented by Gaddafi who himself claimed to stand for a non-tribal Arab nationalist identity for all Libyans. The indigenous Amazigh, or Berbers, were outraged, politically disfranchised and divided. The Tuareg, dark-skinned Amazigh of the sprawling Libyan deserts, tended to side with Gaddafi and he curried favour with their tribal elders and youth, recruiting thousands of Tuareg into his army. The Tebou, another dark-skinned indigenous, not Amazigh but a non- Arab ethnic group in the south of the country were also courted by Gaddafi.
The takeover of Tripoli International Airport on Monday by militias of the Al-Awfea (Loyalist) Brigade, presumably loyal to Gaddafi, said to be from the town of Tarhouna, one of the late Libyan strongman's last strongholds. The residents of Tarhouna, are of course, dark-skinned Libyans.
While the political demise of Gaddafi brought the racial and tribal factor in Libyan politics to the fore, the proposed changes by the post-Gaddafi transitional government are little more than window dressing.
The Al-Awfea Brigade declared that their main reason for storming Tripoli International Airport was to protest the mysterious disappearance of their leader Colonel Abu Ajela Al-Habashi and bring to world attention the plight of the people of Tarhouna and other dark-skinned Libyans in the post- Gaddafi period.
Rocket-propelled grenades, a tank or two, and heavy artillery gunfire were used to overrun the runway of the airport. Foreign planes were grounded and international flights banned. Passengers, including those who had actually boarded the planes and were preparing for takeoff were ordered at gunpoint to return to their hotels. In the eyes of Al-Awfea Brigade, the takeover of the airport was a political satire, replete with symbolism, and above all legitimate.
The accusation against the Al-Awfea Brigade is that it plays on racist stereotypes that have become commonplace in the post-Gaddafi Libya. Nevertheless, their actions have left the Libyan authorities in a state of confusion and panic. All international flights were diverted to Tripoli's military Mitiga Airport.
This is not the first time that disgruntled elements of the Libyan populace have taken aim at national symbols of the country's infrastructure showpieces. The daring assault of Al-Awfea Brigade on Tripoli International Airport is, however, the most defiant and impudent to date.
Not all of this bad news can be laid at the door of Libyan tribal and clan leaders bickering about how to run the post-Gaddafi Libya. Of, course the post-Gaddafi civil service is not perfect. Flights were cancelled, but the authorities quickly overtook the airport by Tuesday morning.
The incident has also permitted opposition forces to renew their attack on the country's ruling National Transitional Council, accusing it of incompetence. The tribes in Libya have historically played a role in holding power to account -- a role played by civil society organisations in other Arab and African countries.
Yet even as the outdated realm of tribal elders has changed beyond recognition, the tribal feuds between rival clans have remained a constant feature of Libyan society. Gaddafi often played one tribal group or clan against another, yet a semblance of law and order was kept intact throughout his 42-year rule. Weak governments are always and everywhere subject to criticism and the weaker they are perceived to be by the general populace, the more the ineffectual and inefficient authorities become a target of political protest.
The heavy-handed security procedures of the Gaddafi era are long gone. Even so, after the immediate ouster and gruesome assassination of Gaddafi a false sense of airport security enveloped the country. At any rate the security situation in the country as a whole is fast deteriorating. Libya is awash with weapons. But there is a broader political context of the airport takeover.
The conjuring up of the old ghost of Gaddafi cannot distract Libyans from the NTC's failures and shortcomings. Insecurity in Libya has been the source of national controversy. Libya is readying itself for the Libyan Public National Conference election in July 2012. The conference and election were delayed from their original date of 19 June. The delay itself is indicative of the state of mayhem and disarray of the NTC.
Once elections have taken place and the conference has convened it will appoint a prime minister, a cabinet and a constituent authority which will draw up a new constitution for Libya. Then, the new constitution, suspected of being drawn up under strict instructions from the Islamists, will be subject to a referendum and if approved, a general election will take place within six months from the date of the referendum. The forthcoming general election is being hailed as the first free and fair election in Libya's history.
Yet the NTC seems to be dragging its feet. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya is presumably supervising voter registration. Be that as it may, uneven enforcement throughout the vast North African country creates the risk of regulatory arbitrage. Several political parties have been created since the fall of Gaddafi.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Justice and Development Party, is by far the largest and best organised. Other parties appear to be regionally based like the Truth and Democracy Party of Benghazi or the Libyan Amazigh Congress which is by implication ethnically based.
Uncertainty casts a cloud over the nascent Western-style Libyan democracy. Are Libyans prepared to embrace multi-party pluralism in face of the chaotic transition process, and will it all end in tears?