Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Libya, militia state

The recent kidnapping of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan suggests that the country may well be on the way to becoming a state ruled by competing militias, writes Richard Falk

Al-Ahram Weekly

Two apparently related and revealing incidents have turned public attention briefly back to Libya just after the second anniversary of the NATO intervention that helped rebel forces hostile to the rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to overthrow his regime.

The first incident involved the infringement of Libyan sovereignty by an American special forces operation that seized the alleged Al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas Al-Libi (also known as Nizah Abdel-Hamed Al-Ruqai) on 5 October, supposedly with the knowledge and consent of the Libyan government. The second incident, evidently a response to the first seizure, was the kidnapping a few days later of the country’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, while he lay asleep in his hotel lodgings in the centre of the capital Tripoli.

Zeidan was easily captured by a squadron of 20 militia gunmen who arrived at the hotel around 2am and proceeded without resistance from security guards to carry off the head of the Libyan state. Such a bold assault on the state’s essential character as the sole purveyor of legitimate violence (according to the famous conception of the German sociologist Max Weber) is a tell-tale sign of a political system of shadow governance, that is, without security.

The capture of Zeidan was reportedly prompted by anger at the government’s impotence in the face of such an overt violation of Libyan sovereignty by the United States, as well as serving to warn the political leadership of the country that any further effort to disarm the militias would be resisted.

Zeidan’s seizure was largely symbolic — he was held by his captors for only a few hours before being released. Nevertheless, the ease of his kidnapping sent shivers down the spines of the Western countries that had been so proud of their regime-changing intervention under NATO auspices two years ago. The incident also reinforced the impression in the West that prospects for lucrative foreign investment and substantial oil flows from Libya would have to be put on hold for the indefinite future.

According to journalistic accounts, the militia responsible for this daring challenge to governmental authority in Libya seems to have been recently formed and is headed by Nuri Abusahmen, the speaker of the Libyan General National Assembly. Revealingly, Abusahmen sat serenely beside the prime minister as he addressed the nation shortly after regaining his freedom. For those conscious of Libyan realities, such a juxtaposition was a further indication that the capabilities of the elected government in Tripoli are modest as compared to those of the militias and can be overridden at will by recalcitrant civil society forces.

Perhaps more to the point, there appears to be a seamless web in Libya between the government and the militias, between what is de jure and what is de facto, and between what is lawful and what is criminal. Of course, it was also highly disturbing that a prominent Al-Qaeda operative should have been roaming freely in Libya and seemingly enjoying some level of national support.

There is no doubt that Libya is now so pervasively armed that even the US National Rifle Association might find it excessive. Supposedly, every household is in possession of weapons either acquired by raids on Gaddafi arsenals as his regime was collapsing or acquired from NATO benefactors. Unlike several of the other countries that have experienced a troubled aftermath to the Arab upheavals, Libya is a rich economic prize, with the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves generating a cash flow that could be a boon to the troubled economies of Europe that carried out the intervention and have acted subsequently as if they had an entitlement to a fair market share of the economic opportunities for trade and investment.

Two years ago, the concerns that prompted NATO to act in Libya were overtly associated with Gaddafi’s bloody crimes against his own people. The use of force was authorised in a circumscribed 17 March 2011, UN Security Council Resolution premised on protecting the entrapped civilian population of Benghazi against imminent attacks by the regime, primarily through the establishment of a no-fly zone.

The non-Western members of the Security Council were sceptical and suspicious at the time of the debate about authorising military action, fearing that more would be done than claimed, but they agreed to abstain when it came to a vote, relying with reluctance on reassurances from pro-interventionist members of the council that the undertaking was purely humanitarian rather than what it became, a political initiative with a regime-changing character.

As it turned out, almost from day one of the intervention it became clear that NATO was interpreting the UN mandate in the broadest possible way, engaging in military operations that were obviously intended to cause the collapse of the Gaddafi government in Tripoli and only incidentally focussed on protecting the people of Benghazi from immediate danger. This manoeuvre was understandably interpreted as a betrayal of trust by those Security Council members who had been persuaded to abstain, especially Russia and China. One effect of such an action was to weaken, at least in the short run, the capacity of the UN to form a consensus in response to humanitarian crises, as in Syria, and it may also have undermined prospects for stable governance in Libya for many years to come.

The Libyan future remains highly uncertain at present, with several scenarios being plausible: partition based on fundamental ethnic and regional enmities, essentially creating two polities, one centred in Benghazi, the other in Tripoli; a perpetuation of tribal rivalries taking the form of the cantonisation of the country with governing authority appropriated by various militias, and likely producing a type of low-intensity warfare that creates chaos and precludes both meaningful democracy and successful programmes of economic development; or a failed state that becomes a sanctuary for trans-national extremist violence and then becomes a counter-terrorist battlefield in the manner of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali, the scene of deadly drone attacks and covert operations by special forces.

There has even been talk of the return to power of Seif Al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, who might indeed provide the only road back to political stability. The seizure of Al-Libi and the subsequent kidnapping of the prime minister may be metaphors of what governance in Libya has now come to signify.

The European media and political leaders are worrying aloud about these disturbing scenarios, but they rarely hearken back to reassess the imperialist moves of 2011 that were at least partly designed to restore European influence and create economic opportunities in Libya. This is one more instance of the post-colonial unwillingness to respect the sovereign autonomy of states, or at least to limit foreign interference to operational undertakings in genuine emergency actions strictly within the scope of a UN mandate and truly restricted to the prevention and mitigation of humanitarian catastrophes.

The dynamics of self-determination may produce ugly strife and terrible human tragedy, but nothing can be much worse than what Western intervention produces. The logic of a state-centric world order needs to be complemented by regional and world community institutions and procedures that can address the internal failures of sovereign states and the machinations of global private-sector manipulations of domestic tensions that have contributed so insidiously to massive bloodshed in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

There are obviously no easy answers, but there is no shortage of obscurantist commentary either. For instance, there is an image of a “failed state” as being one that poses a threat to Western interests or that fails to govern in a manner that precludes its territory from being used to mount hostile violence directed at the West or its property. A strong and oppressive state, especially if not anti-Western, is seen as compatible with geo-strategic interests even if it commits terrible crimes against humanity against its domestic opponents.

We can only wonder whether Libya as of 2013 is not better understood as a “militia state” rather than a “failed state”, which seems like an emerging pattern for societies that endure Western military intervention. The parallels of Libya with Iraq and Afghanistan are uncomfortably suggestive.


The writer is Albert G Milbank, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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