Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Libya’s lost legacy

For better or worse, the ghost of Gaddafi, the Abu Shafshufa or Fuzzhead in colloquial Libyan Arabic, hovered over Libya in 2012. But the glimmers of a new Libya proved to be something of a false dawn, notes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

BLOODY OMENS: The attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi and the subsequent assassination of the US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens on the 11th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington was a defining moment for Libya in 2012.
The Benghazi blast summed up everything that was wrong with Washington’s policy towards the countries of the “Arab Spring”. Whatever surprise it has provoked, the incident overshadowed everything else that was unfolding in Libya throughout the year. In effect, it highlighted the part played by the militant Islamists and relegated the remaining participants in Libyan politics to second rank.
Political Islam has no shortage of barbs to throw at Washington. Ambassador Stevens’s assassination was a watershed in Washington’s policy towards the resurgent Islamists who have taken a leading role in the “Arab Spring”. The explosion that killed the American ambassador was premeditated. It painted an appalling picture that precipitated a rethink in the corridors of power in Washington concerning the ouster of Arab tyrants.
If there was any silver lining, it is the increased urgency with which Washington now views Islamists throughout the Arab world and not just in Libya. The Benghazi blast had ripple effects far beyond Libyan shores. It is perhaps one of the main reasons for American prevarication over toppling Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and fully supporting the Syrian opposition to his rule.
When US President Barack Obama made his historic Cairo University address in 2009, calling for better relations between Washington and the Arab and Muslim worlds, he probably never envisioned the Libyan scenario unfolding as it did in 2012. Washington began unwittingly to knock against the limitations of its hallowed superpower status.
Libya presented a confusing combination of challenges for the Obama administration in 2012. The country cost US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice dearly. She was the main contender for succeeding Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, but her hopes for the top diplomatic job in Washington were dashed primarily because of the manner in which she was perceived to explain away a debacle that was of America’s making. Her handling of the incident is not worth debating as far as rounding up the most significant events in Libya in 2012.
The abrupt withdrawal of Rice’s consideration for secretary of state was only one of several repercussions of the Benghazi terrorist attack. Clinton herself announced this week that she was unable to testify before the US Congress on Libya because she purportedly suffered a concussion. Two congressional committees had scheduled hearings that were postponed indefinitely. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared that the report on the Benghazi terrorist attack was incomplete. The secrecy surrounding classified material points to a bombshell in the making in Washington. Post-Gaddafi Libya in 2012 proved as prickly a subject in Washington as the late Libyan leader was controversial.
Libya looked a touch less poised after the assassination of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. 2012 was a particularly unfortunate year as far as Libya was concerned. Gaddafi was vindicated. He had long warned of the dire consequences of the rise of the Islamist militants to power. Ironically, Libya was the only “Arab Spring” country where the forces of political Islam failed to gain a majority in the Libyan parliament, or General National Congress (GNC). Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya’s neighbours to the east and west respectively, there is no grave power struggle between secularists and Islamists in Libya. This paved the way for a liberal politician Mahmoud Jibril to head the National Transitional Council (NTC). On 8 August, the NTC handed over power officially to the GNC.
The Congress Chairman Mohamed Al-Megaryef is the leader of the National Front Party (NFP), and a sworn enemy of Gaddafi. Jibril is the head of the National Forces Alliance (NFA) which garnered many votes in Tripoli and northwestern Libya with the notable exception of Misrata — a city that spearheaded the struggle to oust Gaddafi in Tripolitania and that insists to this day of having its own militia.
Rhetorically, the principle of Islam as a defining and pivotal characteristic of the Libyan national identity remains as sacred as it was under Gaddafi.
By the same token, there is no clear correlation between the innate conservatism of Libyan society and the Islamists’ standing in local polls. Libya is almost entirely Sunni Muslim and there are insignificant numbers of religious minorities, yet the Islamists do not have considerable public appeal. Islam is taken for granted as an integral part of Libyan identity. Libya’s conservative tribal Libyan society generally regards Islamists as dangerous renegades.
That, at any rate is the narrative that has kept the Islamists in check in Libya in the post-Gaddafi period. The Benghazi terrorist attack only accentuated this widely held suspicion that Islamist militants spell trouble for the country. This attitude towards Islamists had serious political implications, not least for Libya’s post-Gaddafi political establishment.
The militia presumably responsible for the Benghazi terrorist attack is Ansar Al-Sharia (The Defenders of Sharia, or Islamic law). They constitute a secretive and closely-knit group with international links with like-minded militant Islamist groups in Africa and the Middle East.
In March, religious zealots, inspired by Saudi Arabian Wahhabism — the kingdom’s official Sunni Muslim ideology — desecrated the Sufi Sidi Abdel-Salam Al-Asmar Al-Fituri shrine in Zleiten in western Libya. Libyan militant Islamist groups have targeted Sufi shrines. The Libyan militant Islamists, like their Saudi counterparts, consider Sufi Islam heretical.
Even though the outcome of the struggle to destroy Sufi shrines in Libya looks like a fait accompli, the campaign by the militant Islamist groups has been ugly. Sufi Islam has traditionally been extremely popular in Libya as in other parts of northern and western Africa.
In July, the utter destruction of the shrine of Zuhair Ibn Qais Al-Balawi, a Sahaba, or Companion of the Prophet Mohamed, caused something of a sensation that rocked the Libyan nation. Yet the Justice and Construction Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohamed Sowan of Misrata, did not perform as well as its sister parties in Egypt and Tunisia. In the east of the country, the Council of Cyrenaica boycotted the elections altogether.
After much restless foraging, post-Gaddafi Libya has recently found a story to tell about itself, rather than about the slain Brother Leader.

HOLD YOUR BREATH: Seven political personalities dominated political discussion on post-Gaddafi Libya. 2012 saw the political ascendancy and demise of several Libyan political figures. Leaders came and left the political arena in quick succession. Libya’s chief Islamist ideologue, the cleric Ali Al-Sallabi, an Al-Watan Party honcho — who is said to be on the Qatari’s payroll — held his ground.
The wrath that suffuses Libyan politics was vented against the Islamists giving the liberals a comfortable lead. The Libyan general elections, in which almost two million Libyans voted out of an electorate of three million — in polls that commenced on 7 July — elected a General National Congress (GNC) to replace the country’s interim legislative body, the National Transitional Council (NTC).  
Libya’s unruly militias tie the GNC’s iron fists. Violence has strained the public finances of the Libyan government. Security has become the overriding concern of ordinary Libyans. The violence instigated by lawless militias has cast fresh doubt both on the political future of Libya and social stability of the country. In 2012 it became abundantly clear that Libyan politicians must do more to contain the country’s warring militias — militant Islamist, tribal and urban-based. With the deplorable upsurge in violence and as 2012 draws to a close, it is high time that Libya’s post-Gaddafi political establishment set out a serious rebuttal to the warlords’ and the militias’ agendas.
Questions clearly need to be asked about how Western powers and the Libyan politicians failed to anticipate the threat posed by the militias. The militiamen are on the watch-lists of international human rights organisations. A farewell to arms is obviously out of the question as far as the warlords and militiamen are concerned.
It is impossible to make assumptions about contemporary Libya. What is clear is that even though Libya is an oil-rich country in its own right, the Gulf Arab pipers pay and Libyans can only guess who has paid for the election posters lining the streets of their cities in the July parliamentary elections. However, the disparate parties have different, and often contending, Gulf Arab benefactors.
Yet these are still largely uncharted waters for post-Gaddafi politicians. Many of the leading Libyan politicians also hold foreign passports and dual citizenship has become something of a requirement for Libyan politicians. The most astute Libyan politicians — most of them were exiled during the Gaddafi years — have close business and political links with Western powers. There is growing public resentment that the country’s strategic oil reserves are fast being depleted.
No neat technocratic solution to Libya’s challenges exists. A bit of solidarity with Gaddafi’s arch-enemies, the Arab Gulf emirates and sheikhdoms, never goes amiss in contemporary Libyan politics.
Even so, the Libyan Islamist militias’ tactics are far from epoch-making. The moderates often co-opt the militants. One of the seven leading Libyan political personalities of 2012 was Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, onetime Gaddafi’s justice minister, often described as a “moderate Islamist” but perceived by some as old-fashioned and conservative held sway to begin with. He raised eyebrows in Libya and abroad by advocating polygamy and the curtailment of women’s rights. He also insisted on the institutionalisation of Islamic Sharia. And, in an infamous incident ordered a media worker who did not don the Islamic headscarf, hijab, to immediately leave the venue where he was delivering a press conference. She obliged.
But Abdel-Jalil’s star soon waned and Mahmoud Jibril soon overshadowed him. Jibril, a suave and sophisticated liberal, soon surrounded himself by technocrats. He also cemented ties with Gaddafi’s Gulf Arab archenemies. Jibril is purported to be in the pay of the United Arab Emirates, a wealthy oil-rich state that is particularly suspicious of the “Arab Spring” in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.
Generally speaking, Libyan politicians in 2012 tended to espouse rival Gulf Arab benefactors. The Mufti of Libya Al-Sadig Al-Gharyani, the highest religious authority in the land, is rumoured to be a scion of Qatar. Al-Salabi, too, is reputed to be a minion of oil-rich Qatar.
Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, leader of Al-Watan (The Nation) Party and former head of the Tripoli Military Council, is another most influential Libyan politician who made his mark in 2012. Al-Watan is a Salafist party and Saudi Wahhabism in Libya is led today by Belhaj. Like many Libyans at the time, Belhaj left Libya for Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan in 1988 and he is a veteran fighter of the Soviet-Afghan War.
Belhaj was a member of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an anti-Gaddafi militia. He is currently engaged in legal proceedings against the British government because he claims that a tip-off from M16 enabled the CIA to arrest him at Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia, from where he was flown to Bangkok and onwards to Tripoli.
Despite all this, it would be a mistake to write off Belhaj and his ilk as Saudi puppets. It is also wrong to presume that 2012 was the year that militant Islamists effectively took control of Libya.
But only the flintiest churl would deny that the Libyan authorities’ handling of the subject since then has been courageous. Still, the newly elected President of Libya’s General National Congress Megaryef — often mistakenly regarded as Libya’s president — appeared to be at a loss as to what to say. He met with Libya’s Prime Minister-elect Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur and de facto head of state Megaryef met with army commanders and Commander-in-Chief Youssef Mangoush in Benghazi. They resolved to curb the power of the militias and to create an appropriate national army.
Megaryef has come under fire for not controlling the Islamist militias. However, even members of Megaryef’s own National Front Party repudiated Megaryef’s own statements on the subject of the American ambassador’s assassination. “I don’t know what he is talking about,” Abdel-Rahman Al-Mansouri, the security adviser to then outgoing Libyan prime minister Abdel-Rahim Al-Keib cynically retorted tongue-in-cheek. “From the beginning there have been serious mistakes committed. They panicked and were in a state of shock,” Al-Mansouri said of the ruling clique.
People’s power came to the rescue on several occasions in 2012 as angry demonstrators stormed Islamist militia strongholds in Benghazi, the cradle of the anti-Gaddafi uprising and Derna, also a city of Cyrenaica, believed to be the stronghold of Libya’s Islamists. The Islamist militias, dejected and disheartened more often than not, threw in the towel.

GENDER AND RACE: Libya, as an exemplar of democracy in the Arab world, is a farfetched dream. In a land of militiamen and warlords, can women express their opinions freely and can their rights be guaranteed? The parliamentary polls may hint at some clues. Women won 33 seats in Libya’s 200-seat parliament, the GNC. “The UN stipulated that 50 per cent of the people represented on party lists had to be women,” explained Amina Maghribi, a member of the National Forces Alliance. “People just voted for their party without paying too much attention to who was on the list. That is how some women won seats,” extrapolated Maghribi.
Hers is a strikingly modest statement, the more so since relatively few Libyan women were granted ministerial portfolios. One of the few women cabinet ministers was Fatima Hamroush who served as minister of health in Al-Keib’s government. An ophthalmologist born in Benghazi and of dual Libyan and Irish citizenship, Hamroush was an outspoken critic of militiamen and revolutionaries who under the pretext of severe injuries and ailments that could not be treated in Libya sought extended vacations overseas.
Hamroush disclosed that Libya paid out over $3 billion under the so-called Treatment of Revolutionaries’ Programme to militiamen claiming to have sustained severe injuries and ailments that could not be treated in Libya and sought treatment abroad. Needless to say most of the patients were frauds. “I called for the whole thing to be stopped,” Hamroush enucleated.
Her statements and action fleetingly ushered in a mood of cautious hope and optimism. “We had inherited a mess. There was no system. And, we had no money,” Hamroush conceded. The militias and so-called revolutionaries were posing not only a security threat to Libya, but were also draining the country’s coffers.
It is now clear that many of the policies adopted after the fall of the Gaddafi regime were flawed. The NTC was a precursor for the GNC. The central conundrum of contemporary Libya is that the central government, the NTC and now the GNC, does not have the capacity to crack down on the militias.
In spite of elections, the real masters of the Libyan streets are the militias. And, everybody in Libya is astir. The post-Gaddafi political establishment clearly cannot contain the chaos.
Neighbouring countries, too, must not be complacent in thinking this is merely a problem for Libya. For chaos is contagious. The Arab Spring has not been the answer for Libyans. This is the lesson all in North Africa should heed.
Gaddafi’s demise has set in motion motley conflicts in the entire Saharan and Sahelien zones of Africa. The proliferation of weapons being smuggled out of Libya represents a serious threat to the security of Libya’s neighbours, including those south of the Sahara as well as Egypt, Sudan, Algeria and Tunisia.
Dark days ahead, one reckons, for Libya’s black-skinned citizens? There is a risk of setting a precedent in the Arab world of institutional discrimination against blacks. Jibril ought to take this matter more seriously. The blacks of Libya are entitled to feel hard put-upon.
Militiamen descended on the Black Libyan town of Tawargha and left a murderous trail of death and destruction. The militiamen accused Black Libyans of being loyal to Gaddafi. Southern Libyan ethnic dark-skinned ethnic groups such as the Toubou and Tuareg came under attack. Black-skinned African ethnic groups converged on Sebha and Kufra from neighbouring countries to the south of Libya arrived in large numbers to defend their kith and kin in Sebha. The conflict is clearly racial.

CAN IT GET WORSE? The militiamen outgun Libya’s new rulers. And, much of the sprawling country remains lawless. In 2012, Libya failed to recover fully from its long nightmare, and the oil-rich country still has a long way to go. The row between Islamists and Western-educated secularists is becoming increasingly bitter.
Even as blood flows within Libya, the struggle for democracy to bloom in the arid wastelands seems as elusive as ever. It is worth recalling perhaps that Libyan nationals made up the second largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq after Saudi citizens. And, in Syria today, Libyan Islamist fighters are a formidable contingent intent on toppling the regime of Syria’s President Al-Assad. Libyans are still making the tricky switch from warring militias to building a professional national army. There is no way this goal would have been achieved in 2012. Nor even in the foreseeable future for that matter — most certainly not in 2013.
There are other worries. The handover to Libya of Gaddafi’s Black Box, his chief spymaster Abdallah Al-Senoussi, attracted some attention. Can he, and others like Gaddafi’s son and heir apparent Seif Al-Islam, be guaranteed a fair trial?
The spike in violence in the country did not prevent Libya’s newly empowered legislative body, the General National Congress (GNC) from electing Mohamed Al-Megaryef, founding member of the National Salvation Front, as its president. Yet, for all Megaryef’s bravery, his audacious gamble in extraditing Al-Senoussi remains just that.
Al-Senoussi’s undoubtedly extradition entailed a financial bargain. It is interesting to note that Libya’s Finance Minister Hassan Mokhtar Bin Zaqlan was part of the Libyan delegation to Nouakchott that took custody of Al-Senoussi.
According to a statement issued by Al-Keib, Al-Senoussi was to stand trial for the massacre of prisoners in 1996 as well as several acts of terrorism and human rights violations against innocent Libyan civilians. Al-Senoussi vigorously denied such claims and insisted that his trial is politically motivated.
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy as well as current French President François Hollande claimed that Al-Senoussi was the mastermind behind the downing of a French passenger airliner over the Sahara in 1989, UTA Flight 727.
French military intervention and political support for the NATO invasion of Gaddafi’s Libya ostensibly to enforce Security Council Resolution 1973 was meant to “bring the international community together to support Libya’s transition from violent dictatorship and to help create the conditions where the people of Libya can choose their own future”.
Yet critics of the current Libyan regime certainly overstate the significance of uncertainty. In 2012, Al-Keib’s cool pragmatism was a welcome antidote to the hot-headed moralism of the late Libyan leader. Al-Keib overcorrected the mistakes of Gaddafi, though.
Al-Megaryef, like Jibril and Abdel-Jalil before him, also needs to think about how to integrate Libya’s black and politically peripheralised citizens. His government has largely neglected the issue.
Gaddafi’s ruling cliques lived a luxurious lifestyle in mansions that were destined for the knacker’s yard one way or another, and Musa Kusa, the late Libyan leader’s onetime foreign minister knew it. After defecting he sought refuge in the United Arab Emirates. Gaddafi’s once impregnable fortress Bab Al-Aziziya is now Tripoli’s infamous flea market.

LEVY AND LIBYA: Libya needs an industrial revolution to prosper. Such an oil-based economy needs to add more value to the vast hydrocarbon resources by creating a sophisticated petrochemical and engineering industry. Bluntly put, petroleum is not sufficient to ensure the long-term prosperity of the North African country. The GNC has strategic plans for Libya’s economic future, the release of budgets for public sector spending, public works and municipal engineering
Libya’s current Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a friend of French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy author of La guerre sans l’aimer, a study on the “Libyan Spring”, vowed to uphold the “rule of law, the belief in God, His Prophet and a state based on Islam”.
Zeidan’s is a far-from-subtle declaration. He assumed office on 14 November and he inherited a Libya in flux. Pandemonium has been unleashed in Libya 2012. Another year, and yet another set of statistics to make the heart sink.
The Green Resistance became the excuse for post-Gaddafi Libyan politicians to ratchet up the already overheated rhetoric about security. Libya lost its Pan-African and pseudo-socialist legacy.
Zeidan may have his shortcomings but he gives the impression of being aboveboard and straightforward while in truth he is a wily politician with sagacious international connections. This is partly because he appears to be grounded and competent in playing the consensus and conciliatory leader. His trump card is that he tries to be all things to all Libyans.
Central to Libya’s unfolding drama, or rather national tragedy, are the persona of high-profile political prisoners like Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi and Seif Al-Islam Al-Gaddafi. Political instability does the economy no good. Electricity and Energy Minister Awad Al-Baraasi, of the Justice and Construction Party, one of the few Muslim Brothers to hold a key cabinet portfolio has big plans for the Libyan economy.
Yet his strategy does have its flaws. Many Libyans fear their country’s assets are being sold off for a pittance to Western powers. Zeidan has the responsibility to ensure that the political impasse engulfing the country does not slip down the path that plays on racial prejudice and fear, regionalism and religious zealotry.

add comment

  • follow us on