Saharan domino dancing
Libya's new leaders may be more open to democracy than Gaddafi, but less able to bring a change of course in the country, contends Gamal Nkrumah
So much for high principles in politics, especially when top officials and disgruntled militiamen wielding menacing weapons are engrossed in a discourse of self-interest and cant. It is always about power.
Instead there was another fudge, with neither the Libyan government nor its Western allies and neighbours doing enough to rectify the deplorable situation. Parliamentary polls were scheduled for 19 June, now they have been indefinitely postponed, tentatively planned for sometime in mid-July.
As you read this article a vicious power struggle is tearing Libya apart. Is it really that bad? Yes, unfortunately it is. The Libyan authorities this week issued an arrest warrant for the International Criminal Court (ICC) lawyer Melinda Taylor, an Australian national. She was arrested in due course for allegedly trying to pass "dangerous documents" to Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, the son and onetime heir apparent of the slain Libyan leader.
Seif Al-Islam is incarcerated in Zintan, a town in the impregnable Nefusa Mountains 136km southwest of the Libyan capital Tripoli. He was jailed on 11 November 2011 and has since been in incommunicado as the Libyan authorities and the Zintan militia that captured him restrict visitors to Seif Al-Islam. The Commander of the Zintan Brigade Al-Ajmi Ali Al-Trefi that is holding Seif Al-Islam captive described Taylor's conduct as a "security breach".
Brandishing documents in a televised statement the Zintan Brigade Commander insisted that Seif Al-Islam be tried in Zintan and that he will neither be handed over to the ICC or to the authorities in Tripoli. Al-Trefi claimed that Taylor attempted to pass on secret documents from Seif Al-Islam's former aide Mohamed Ismail, now resident in Egypt, to his former boss.
Taylor and her interpreter are apparently "under house arrest", according to Al-Trefi. "We are very concerned about the safety of our staff in Libya," conceded ICC President Sang-Hyun Song. A state of lawlessness threatens to undermine the credibility of Libya's post-Gaddafi rulers.
Moreover, Libya's Prosecutor-General Abdel-Aziz Al-Hassidi appears to be in an unenviable position. Al-Hassidi reiterated that the late Libyan leader's former spymaster Bouzeid Durda appeared in a Tripoli court accused of atrocities during the Libyan conflict and fomenting trouble among the tribes, but Durda denies all charges. His lawyer asked for the adjournment of the case.
Meanwhile, Libya's late leader's intelligence chief and brother-in-law Abdallah Al-Senousi, currently resident in Tunisia, is wanted in vain by the Libyan authorities. The Tunisian authorities refuse to hand him over to Libya for humanitarian considerations.
To stiffen their courage, Libya's new leaders have promised sweeping reforms, including the judiciary. The cases of Durda and Taylor are being regarded as test cases for the capacity of the Libyan authorities to try high-profile members of the ousted regime. A Libyan Foreign Ministry official ominously noted that "the woman [Taylor] will be with us for a while".
The Libyan authorities, however, claim that Taylor, part of a four-member ICC team of lawyers, is not technically incarcerated by the Zintan Brigade. "[Taylor] tried to deliver messages to the accused. The documents have nothing to do with the case of Seif Al-Islam. They represent a grave danger to the security of Libya," declared Ahmed Al-Jahani, the official Libyan lawyer in charge of the case of Seif Al-Islam and who acts as chief liaison between the Libyan government and the ICC.
But unbeknownst to any of them, the Muslim Brothers were secretly plotting a new "national unity" coalition. They aim at securing the largest number of seats in the forthcoming Libyan legislature, emulating their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. The Green Resistance, Gaddafi loyalists, are determined to stop them in their tracks.
The deep uncertainty over what will happen next in Libya unnerves the North African country's neighbours. At least 17 people were killed in clashes between troops loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) of Libya and the militias of the Tebou, or Toubou, tribal group in the southeastern oasis town of Kufra.
The July election will hinge on whether the NTC can persuade Libyans that it is representative of all sections of Libyan society. The NTC is seeking safeguards for the new political dispensation in Libya. Yet, it is clear from the case of Taylor that the NTC cannot intervene in cases where the militias have the upper hand.
For all the fuss about Seif Al-Islam and Taylor, the main failure in Tripoli -- or is it Benghazi? -- was to draw up a national plan to deal with the chaotic situation in which authority is delegated to local militias and government authority is being systematically eroded.
Curiously the Zintan Brigade Commander Al-Trefi also revealed that the NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil had requested the immediate release of Taylor, but indicated that he will ignore the "preposterous request" by the so-called leader of the country.
The legal framework in which the United States sanctioned its aggression against the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi during last year's Libyan crisis is being seriously questioned. In Libya's second city Benghazi a bomb went off just outside the US consulate and a rocket-propelled grenade was hurled by suspected members of the Green Resistance on the motorcade of the British Ambassador to Libya Dominic Asquith.
Can the NTC do a somersault? The late Gaddafi skillfully managed to unite Libyans, but how did he succeed to unite them all? The answer is through a combination of political expediency, shrewd albeit fumbled tribal diplomacy and inept tactics.
What is often described as tribal feuding in Libya is a tenacious expression of racial conflict. The Tuareg people of the southwest and the Toubou of the southeast are restless and feel that their civic rights that were guaranteed under Gaddafi are now being systematically denied them.
The conflict is also a form of class struggle. The Toubou stalwarts who see themselves as fighting a war for survival were hemmed in the shantytown of Tiyoura, on the outskirts of Sebha, a major Saharan town in Fezzan, Libya's southwestern province.
Toubou and other black-skinned African ethnic groups converged on Sebha and Kufra from neighbouring countries to the south of Libya. They arrived in large numbers to defend their kith and kin in Sebha. The conflict is clearly racial.
Libya's Prime Minister Abdel-Rahim Al-Keib has been conspicuously absent and refrained from issuing any statements. Presumably Al-Keib stands for the notion of promulgating laws that instill discipline into the new national constitution and harness the Libyan government's institutions to punish profligacy and brutal excesses by the militiamen. The ratification of the new national constitution depends on the detail.
The militias duck central authorities. Although the alliances of various militias were greeted upon Gaddafi's demise as the acme of the post-Gaddafi Libyan solidarity. All across Libya there are murmurs that the NTC is fast losing its grip. If the policies of the NTC were to begin with widely viewed as expedient, the tactics and tribal diplomacy were not. Clans and disgruntled tribal groups will withhold their support for any NTC initiative. Worse, the NTC itself may become a target for popular rage.
Instead of mending fences the NTC seems to be closing the doors of reconciliation between the various protagonists. In short, the airy debate about the Libyan elections next month is really a brutal fight over power.