international analysis and commentary

Libya’s struggle: weapons, military factions and generals

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Contrary to what many might believe Libya’s unrest today is not the product of a simple Liberal vs. Islamist antagonism. Rather, it is  due to an old-fashioned tug-of-war between competing military brigades whose sense of regional allegiance, tribal loyalty and family kinship generally trump any sense of commitment to both local and national political organization (including that of political Islam). In the past, Libya’s longstanding social cleavages were suppressed and organized under Gheddafi’s dictatorship. After his ousting, these conflicting forces have been unleashed. The creation of Libya’s first parliamentary body, the General National Council (GNC), after the revolution has provided the physical and psychological space for this chaos to peacefully manifest and evolve, until recently.

The story of the GNC goes something like this. Libya revolts and overthrows a ruthless dictator in 2011. Key revolutionary officials, including former regime members, organize politically into a National Transitional Council (NTC) gaining international recognition and support. This transitional council then oversees a general election that leads to the creation of Libya’s GNC with a landslide victory for the National Forces Alliance in 2012. This liberal coalition led by former chairman of the NTC, Mahmoud Jibril, wins 39 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is only able to claim 17. As for the other 120 seats, they are reserved for independent members that represent their local constituencies. The GNC’s mandate is to oversee the drafting and adoption of a constitution that can transfer Libya into a new democracy.  

Although a minority, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic political parties are able to win the sympathy and support of many of the 120 independent council members. This support includes key legislative and sovereign issues. One notable example is a December 2013 vote to make shari’a law the foundation of all legislation and state institutions in the country and the formation of a committee tasked to review all preceding laws to ensure that they are shari’a compliant. This decision comes shortly before a vote to form a 60-member committee responsible for drafting Libya’s new constitution. More importantly, many in Libya feel that the influence yielded by pro-Islamist forces in the GNC is contributing to an enabling environment in which militant Islamists and other fundamentalist groups are thriving.

The resulting usurpation of power inside the GNC –  not the Islamist inclination of its members, per se – is met with serious opposition especially amongst the leaders of the country’s largest military brigades. Unable to assume definitive power inside the GNC they resort to military force against pro-Islamic militias and council members. The campaign led by General Khalifa Haftar, a senior military officer in Libya and former resident of the United States, has been able to garner a good amount of national and international support. This armed conflict is further reinforced by a regional and international political climate that is grappling to determine the new political character of Libya. As a result, the country has progressed to the brink of widespread armed conflict.

In this context, the struggle between pro-Islamist and pro-Haftar forces in Libya is a façade covering the real struggle for political supremacy in the country, with strong participation of both regional and international powers. In Libya’s struggle for stability, the fragility of the country’s political system is often blamed exclusively on the legacy of Gheddafi’s dictatorship. This is not the case anymore. It is true that Libya is emerging from four decades of tyranny with premature state institutions and fragmented political representation. It is also true that Libya is emerging from its revolution with no unified security apparatus or army to protect the sovereignty of the state as a unitary entity. These are grave challenges indeed, but the current crisis has shown us that even more fundamental challenges are facing Libya’s future. These challenges can be mitigated by feasible actions on behalf of Libya’s political class. First, the country lacks a consensus on the non-violent nature of the transition process. Second it lacks an actionable political culture and respective political organization that can contribute to the development of national political institutions. Third it lacks the necessary popular values and incentives to restore and uphold an overarching national identity. These are the true building blocks of a stable and participatory Libya and they have been lost to the sound of gunfire, foreign intervention and the power mangling of generals.

Where Libya is headed in light of these armed conflicts is difficult to determine, if not impossible. However, the country may not be lost to chaos. With new GNC elections on the horizon, Haftar’s armed insurgency is setting the stage for the incoming Libyan government, also in terms of political rhetoric. According to his recent statements there will be no tolerance towards Islamic fundamentalism in Libya. The coming weeks will allow us to see how the more moderate proponents of political Islam decide to react. But one thing is clear, the success of Libya’s future does not depend on the triumph of liberalism nor political Islam. It is about moving beyond tribal and regional affiliations towards an affiliation that is more conducive to building a country. It is about using democracy as a platform to convene national constituencies rather than to control them under a whimsical dictatorship of 50% plus one.