Towards anarchy

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in Tripoli on October 10, shortly after he was freed from captivity. Photo: Mahmoud Turkia/AFP

A protest in Benghazi on October 11 with portraits of senior Al Qaeda figure Anal al Libi, who was captured by U.S. commandos. Photo: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

Migrants at a temporary prison in Tripoli on October 19 after they were caught during an attempt to reach Europe in fishing boats. Photo: Mahmoud Turkia/AFP

The abduction of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, the strikes in the oil industry and the rash of assassinations are only indications that Libya may soon join the ranks of “failed states”.

LIBYA HAS BEEN SURELY BUT STEADILY SINKing into unbridled anarchy since the killing of Muammar Qaddafi on October 20, 2011, and the change of regime that followed under the Western military supervision. If any further proof was needed of the state in which the country finds itself now, it was provided by the kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in the early hours of October 5. Zeidan was taken away by an armed militia from the tightly guarded “five-star” Corinthia hotel where he resides. He was released unharmed in the afternoon. Subsequently, he appeared on television and accused an unnamed group of planning a coup against his government.

The incident happened in the wake of the abduction of a former Al Qaeda leader, Nasih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, popularly known as Anal al Libi, from outside his home in Tripoli by United States commandos. The U.S. claimed that the operation, which was timed to coincide with a similar action by its Special Forces in Somalia, had the approval of the Libyan government. (The attempt in Somalia to kill or capture a wanted al Shabab leader ended in failure.) Washington hailed the capture of al Libi, who was on the U.S.’ “most wanted” list, as a big success. The American authorities said al Libi had played a key role in planning the bombing of its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam in 1998.

The Libyan authorities criticised the capture of al Libi, describing it as kidnapping. Government officials, including the Prime Minister, had initially claimed that they had not been consulted about the U.S. commando raid. But U.S. State Department officials were quick to rebut these claims. They told the media that the Libyan government had given permission for two commando raids, one to capture al Libi and the other to nab an important militia leader responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the killing of Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other American citizens. U.S. officials have not explained the reasons for not going ahead with the planned operation in Benghazi, which has become a stronghold of militias having marked radical Islamist tendencies. The head of Libya’s police force, Ahmad al-Bargathi, was assassinated in Benghazi in the second week of October as he stepped out of a mosque after prayers.

Following the U.S. commando raid, the Swedish consulate in Benghazi came under a bomb attack. The Egyptian consulate in the city, the cradle of the Libyan counter-revolution, was bombed in August. In June, the “Libya Shield Force”, a prominent militia co-opted by the government in Benghazi, used lethal force to subdue a peaceful demonstration, killing 31 people. Many of the militias and groups that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had propped up in its fight against the secular government of Qaddafi had known connections with radical Islamist groupings such as Al Qaeda. Many of the leaders of these groups, including al Libi, were allowed to return to Libya after the death of Qaddafi in 2011. Qaddafi had warned on several occasions that the opposition was dominated by known Al Qaeda sympathisers. Now, Washington has once again identified Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies as the new enemies to be targeted in Libya.

The kidnapping of Zeidan took place after it became known that the Libyan government had prior knowledge of the U.S. commando operation in Tripoli. On October 20, Abdelmonem Essid, the head of the Libyan government’s Interior Ministry’s anti-crime unit, told journalists in Tripoli that he was “responsible” for the “arrest” of the Prime Minister and was “proud” of what he had done. Two groups, the Operations Cell of Libya’s Revolutionaries and the Brigade for the Fight against Crime, had claimed responsibility for “arresting” Zeidan on charges of endangering the sovereignty of the country. A senior member of the militia told the media that Zeidan was “arrested” after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had said that the Libyan government was aware of the commando raid.

Zeidan, meanwhile, said that his captors had tried to force him to resign from office during the period he was in captivity. He told a separate news conference that those opposed to him had tried “to resort to force to oust him”. He had earlier said that “a political party” was behind “the criminal and terrorist act”. Political commentators said that he might have been referring to the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. Zeidan is likely to face a strong challenge in Parliament in the coming days. Islamist parties dominate Parliament, and the popular mood seems to have turned against the U.S. though the Prime Minister insists that the Libyan people are grateful to Washington for the help it provided in “liberating” the country. Al Libi’s capture has inflamed public opinion, especially since he was living in the capital since 2011 after returning from the United Kingdom, which had given him political asylum. At that time, he was an outspoken critic of Qaddafi and had made no effort to conceal his identity.

The Islamists in Parliament have the backing of several powerful militias, which are de facto in control of the country. The militias, particularly those in the east of the country where much of the oil is pumped, seem intent on secession. Zeidan said the country lost $4.98 billion in oil revenues owing to oil strikes in recent months and that crude production was less than half the normal daily output. According to reports, oil production dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) earlier this year to 160,000 bpd. The government is now dipping into its cash reserves to pay the salaries of civil servants, doctors and teachers.

During the ferocious bombing campaign in 2011, NATO was careful to ensure that Libya’s oil infrastructure remained intact. Oil and gas account for 70 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and 95 per cent of its exports. Oil production reached its pre-war production level in 2012 before the downward plunge began when the militias started demanding their pound of flesh and workers in many refineries and oilfields went on strike demanding higher wages.

Many Western oil companies, which had hoped for a bonanza in the wake of the ouster of Qaddafi, have started scaling down their expectations. Some of the Western oil majors such as ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell warned that they would further scale down their projects in the country. The militias are in control of all the oilfields and export terminals. They are selling large quantities of oil on the black market to unscrupulous foreign traders. Zeidan had threatened to use the air force to bomb unauthorised tankers entering Libyan waters.

Rash of assassinations

After the assassination of the U.S. Ambassador, very few businessmen from the West have been visiting Tripoli. Killing of journalists and politicians has become a routine affair in Libya. Col. Yussef Ali al-Asseifar, who was given the job of investigating the rash of assassinations, was himself eliminated by an unidentified group, which placed a bomb in his car. According to a report titled “Torture and Deaths in Detention in Libya” prepared by the United Nations, thousands of people are locked up in prisons controlled by the militias.

“Some have been detained apparently on the basis of belonging to certain tribal or ethnic groups, including Warfalla, Tawergah and Mashashia, as these groups are collectively perceived by some as having supported the former regime,” the report said. The report cited instances of 27 detainees being tortured to death this year. It warned that “there is a danger that torture will become institutionalised within the new Libya.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he was “deeply concerned” about the issue.

“Right now, the only factor significantly bringing down the number of detainees being mistreated and tortured is the number of mass prison breaks that are taking place,” according to Amnesty International’s researcher in Libya, Magda Mugrabi.

Libyan Justice Minister Salah Marghani acknowledged recently that the country was facing a serious law and order problem. “We are still in a state of revolution. You can see the amount of weapons that are spread around. The amount of control that you can have in this situation is limited,” he admitted.

There have been other consequences for the Libyan people as a result of the Barack Obama administration’s “humanitarian intervention” in 2011. Basic services, which the Libyan people had taken for granted during Qaddafi’s rule, have been affected. Tripoli recently had to go without water and electricity for one whole week. In the third week of October, soldiers from the Libyan Army briefly occupied the Prime Minister’s office, demanding wages. Their salaries have remained unpaid for months together.

Libya has once again become the staging post for migration to Europe. Many of the boats carrying migrants, which sank off the Italian coast, had started their journey in eastern Libya. A U.S. political scientist, Alan J. Kupperman, writing in the journal International Security, concluded that NATO intervention “increased the duration of Libya’s civil war by about six times and its death toll by about seven times, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and neighbours”.

Already there are dire warnings that Libya may soon join the ranks of “failed states” despite having the fifth largest oil reserves in the world.

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