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PV Vivekanand: Serious questions over Libya
April 04, 2012
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Libya is fast becoming one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It was destined to be that way because of its very nature that was shaped by the slain autocrat, Muammar Qadhafi, in the 42 years of his despotic rule, and the inability of its new rulers to address the chaos that followed Qadhafi’s ouster and killing late last year.

The absence of institutions and the delay in constituting them have compounded the problems that face Libya today. Qadhafi played one tribe against the other and exploited their differences and conflicting interests to perpetuate his grip on power. Today, those tribes are fighting with each other, vying for a share of the pie of the oil- and gas-rich country.

Libya always had deep cultural, religious and ethnic differences. The British colonial power, which took over from Italian rulers after World War II, bound three distinct ethnic regions – western Tripolitana, eastern Cyrenaica and central Fezzan which was under French control – and their tribes together in 1951 under a UN resolution and installed a Cyrenaican monarch who himself did not want to rule the new entity but had no choice, according to historians.

Qadhafi exploited the weakness of the monarch to oust him and take control of the country in a military coup in 1969. He had never allowed the slightest trace of dissent and brutally suppressed every challenge he faced since then.

The result was an indoctrination of violence among the people, and it burst out into the open when they got an opportunity. That is not belittling the sacrifices the Libyans made to get rid of Qadhafi. They deserve high praise for their perseverance and determination.

The scenes of the violent anti-Qadhafi uprising – heavily armed men running around as if they were demonised – showed the other side of the battle against Qadhafi.

The fighters acted as if they were enjoying the opportunity they got to use weapons that were long denied to them. And they realised the importance of having weapons not only to protect them but also to challenge others who questioned what they considered as their right.  That should partly explain why the different militia groups which came together only because of their desire to get rid of the Qadhafi regime refused and continue to refuse to be disarmed.

Today, reports from Libya say that guns begin spitting fire at the slightest of provocations, even an argument over traffic. Looting is rampant. When gunmen are arrested, their colleagues storm the prison and free them. There is no judiciary worth the name.

There is no such thing as respect for human rights in Libya, according to Amnesty International. The watchdog said in a report marking the first anniversary of the beginning of the rebellion that at least 12 Libyans died in militia custody since September after being tortured.

The Amnesty report said militiamen  in recent months have seized hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Libyans from their homes or from roadside checkpoints into makeshift jails on suspicion of being Qadhafi sympathisers or having fought for the ousted regime.

Sadat Al Badri, deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council, phrased it accurately. “We went from complete dictatorship to complete freedom in one step, and everyone is doing just exactly what they want,” Badri was quoted as saying in a recent report carried by the Washington Post.

Qahdafi never allowed the country to be institutionalised except for exporting oil and investing oil proceeds abroad. He feared that political institutions could prove to be a challenge to his rule.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), which formed an interim government after Qadhafi’s ouster, is only nominally in power in Tripoli. It does not have the security forces necessary to check the armed fighters running amok in the capital itself, let alone the countryside where militiamen who fought Qadhafi hold sway backed by an unknown quantity of weapons and ammunition looted from Qadhafi’s warehouses.

The council has been booted out of the eastern town of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolt and the capital of what was once called Cyrenaica, because of what the easterners felt as discrimination by the western-dominated new regime in Tripoli. 

The Berbers of the Western Mountains – described as the oldest inhabitants of Libya – have for long complained of discrimination. Now they are clamouring for their rights and threaten to wage a new revolution if they do not get what they want.

The NTC is working on a transition process that begins with the drafting of a new constitution leading to parliamentary elections. It doesn’t look like the Libyans could wait that long.

Emerging from the chaos of post-rebellion Libya is a powerful Islamist movement. By nature, most Islamist movements are highly organised and disciplined. (That accounts for the success of the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt.)

The most influential Islamist politician in post-revolt Libya is said to be Ali Sallabi, who has no formal title but commands broad respect. Sallabi is well known as an Islamic scholar and populist orator who was instrumental in leading the uprising against Qadhafi.

A Muslim Brotherhood figure, Abel Al Rajazk Abu Hajar, heads the Islamist-dominated Tripoli Municipal Governing Council.

An underground Islamist group, Etilaf,  has assumed for itself the role of a revolutionary guide and continues to issue religious edicts although few Libyans seem to take note.

Abdul Hakim Belhaj, who was once aligned with Al Qaeda, is today one of the most powerful military leaders in Tripoli. He was kept out of the NTC government, perhaps because of pressure from the West, whom he accuses of extraditing him to Libya to be subjected to torture in the hands of the Qadhafi regime.

Despite being denied the job of defence minister in the new government, Belhaj opted to say on because his position as the head of the Tripoli Military Council afforded him the opportunity to organise Islamists as a potential political party to run in free Libya’s first parliamentary elections.

People like Belhaj would not have a dearth of followers. Libya’s mainstream Islamists want to emulate the example of the Tunisians and Egyptians and come to power through the ballot box. And, unlike other groups constituted on the basis of regions and political ideologies, the Islamists would have greater credibility because of the common bond of faith.

The question in most people’s minds is whether Libya will be able to survive the ongoing chaos and remain as a united entity by the time the interim rulers finish the process of transition,  and political parties, including the Islamists, are ready to test their strength in elections.

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