Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1139, 14 - 20 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Bokha Libyan brawls

As crises in post-Gaddafi Libya demonstrate that the country is less stable than it seems, Libyan leaders are beginning to understand their own limitations, notes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The long-running crisis over the running of a post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya has met its moment of truth this week with the escalation of violence in various parts of the sprawling North African oil-rich country. In retrospect, history is likely to treat the late Libyan leader more kindly than the bad publicity in the Western and Arab media suggest. The see-saw of tribal war and the frustration of trigger-happy militiamen is inevitably leading to violent showdowns. Escaping this dynamic is the task of statecraft beyond the strategic reach of post-Gaddafi Libya.

The principal actors in today’s Libya are the tribal militias. Libyans must constrain their tribal instincts and go for radical change. The task of a post-Gaddafi government is not easy. An overhaul and radical reform of the entire political system promises to be a time-consuming exercise. This process of change may yet work technically, but if it does, it would probably only be sustainable if and when the tribal militias are brought under the control of the central authority in Tripoli.

Beneath the surface of the Sahara and the olive groves and hillocks of the Mediterranean coastal strip, a complex secret and systematic campaign of sabotage by the tribal militias is underway to destabilise the country. This Machiavellian political process also reduces the need to negotiate directly with tribal leaders over the terms of a grand bargain with the warlords that would bring Libya in from the cold and remake the strategic future of the oil-rich country.

The question is whether a tribal war can be averted long enough to allow the Libyan 17 February Revolution to ripen. And, to permit Gaddafi’s successors to rise to the challenge of uniting Libya on a non-tribal basis. Four people died and a dozen were injured in clashes in Sebha last Sunday between Libya’s largest tribe, the Werfalla and the Qadhadhfa of the late Libyan leader.

Sebha was the scene of the bloody battles between the Qadhadhfa and the Awlad Suleiman tribe that left several people dead and wounded. Sebha, the capital of the southern province of Fezzan, Libya’s poorest, and home to the country’s largest dark-skinned indigenous people, has become the focus of racial rioting. 

Ali Sheikhi, the spokesman of Libya’s chief of general staff was reported in the English-language daily the Libya Herald that the clashes began after a youth from Sebha was reportedly killed by Warfalli militiamen. The victim’s family responded by trouncing the tribal the militia.

However, the Libyan authorities are playing down the angst. Sheikhi said that order had now been restored by the security forces and an investigation into the killings was under way. The problem is that the rule of law cannot be enforced by the Libyan authorities and tribal conflicts are usually settled by tribal elders’ councils. The status quo is preferable to a resort to modern legal systems that do not work properly in contemporary Libya for lack of technical expertise and professional personnel. The tribal showdowns are mostly theatre even when they involve the loss of life.

Where does that leave Western policy? The United States prospects of policing Libya as it did post-Saddam Hussein Iraq hold little appeal. The US State Department ordered all non-emergency American government officials to leave Libya, one day after the infamous terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that left US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three staff members dead. The State Department subsequently declared the US Embassy in Tripoli and consulates in Libya as “an unaccompanied post” because of security concerns in Libya. “The security situation in Libya remains unpredictable,” a US State Department advisory declared. “Sporadic episodes of civil unrest have occurred throughout the country.”

The US State Department also stated that it was advising against unnecessary travel to Libya because of instability and violence in the North African country.

One a more mundane matter, the incident this week that highlighted illegal alcohol consumption in Libya proved that it was a widespread phenomenon. The consumption and sale of alcohol is illegal in Libya, but it is available on the black market. There are no official statistics on the state of dipsomania or wanton drunkenness in Libya. What is known is that insobriety is widespread because of the brewing of highly intoxicating and often lethal alcoholic drinks. The situation is now serious enough for the Libyan authorities to declare a state of emergency in Tripoli’s hospitals.

This week, at least 51 people died in Libya after consuming homemade alcohol — many drug addicts, unemployed youth and militiamen. Official statistics indicate that 378 drunks have been taken to the capital’s hospitals since last Saturday, and the total number may rise further in the course of next week. What is also known is that a majority of the deaths occurred from methanol poisoning and that many patients were undergoing kidney dialysis for treatment. The alcohol in question is a cheap albeit potent local brew known as Bokha. It is distilled from various fruits like figs, dates or grapes. However, unscrupulous brewers add industrial spirits — like methanol — to increase the potency of the traditional Bokha. Alcoholic beverages — spirits, wines and beer — are also smuggled into Libya from Tunisia, Algeria and Malta where they are not banned.

It is against this lurid backdrop that Libya’s parliament has said it will temporarily suspend its main activities due to security concerns, following an incident in which armed protesters stormed the parliamentary assembly. The Libyan parliament or General National Congress (GNC) President Mohammed Al-Magariaf on Sunday was quoted as saying the decision was prompted by the lack of security and meetings would resume when a safe venue was found.

Legislators were forced to move from the main parliament complex in Tripoli in early February when it was occupied by wounded veterans of the 2011 uprising demanding medical treatment abroad. Last Tuesday, armed protesters stormed a meeting of the Congress at the alternative venue legislators have been using. The protesters demanded that officials linked to the ousted regime of Gaddafi be banned from public life.

Speaker Al-Magariaf’s official vehicle came under fire as he escaped unscathed from the parliamentary deliberations amid much commotion and  mayhem. Libya’s Interior Ministry warned that gunmen demanding that legislators pass a bill barring former associates of Gaddafi from power. The gunmen shot at the car of the GNC Speaker Al-Magariaf, a former ambassador to India, who had already survived a gun attack at his home in January. He was unharmed and no other MP was hurt in the shooting.

Meanwhile, Libya’s borders with neighbouring countries have witnessed scenes of sporadic violence primarily because of the systematic and lucrative arms smuggling. The Wazen-Dehiba border crossing linking Libya and Tunisia was closed this week following clashes between Tunisian traders and their Libyan counterparts.

Fuel smuggling has become a regular feature on both the Ras Jedir and Wazen-Dehiba crossings in the post-Gaddafi era, because of petroleum shortages in Tunisia. The Tunisian government’s decision last week to increase petrol prices left many Tunisians desperate for Libyan oil. The incident at the southern Wazen-Dehiba spotlights the problems engendered by the porous borders of Libya and it is not clear whether the Libyan authorities can rise to the challenge. Posterity should reward the hapless Libyan authorities for having the serenity to know that the proliferation of arms, ammunition, alcohol and petroleum smuggling only increases tensions both inside Libya and among its neighbours.

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