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Libya: The Puzzle and The Reality?


Dr Muhamed Mufti*

Dr Muhamed Mufti*
Dr Muhamed Mufti*

Even for me, a Libyan, an ex-political prisoner for several years under Gaddafi and a writer interested in Libyan social history, I remain puzzled by the sudden and baffling metamorphosis of Libya, since the fall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Particularly, since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified, with so much devastation, deaths, population displacement and misery. Destruction of Civilian infrastructure has pushed living conditions back to medieval standards.

While we may applaud the perseverance of the UN envoy, Mr Bernardino Leon in trying to bring peace to Libya, the conflict’s realities, however, are much more intricate and multilayered. For a start, Libyans with their inherent suspicion of outsiders, regard external intervention as one form of conspiracy. In other words, the solution to the current crisis must be forged by Libyans, inside Libya. This, may be difficult to fathom, but carries a lot of psychological as well as practical implications.

Furthermore, the situation in Libya is critical and urgent. The menace of humanitarian disaster is imminent, while the threat to the Mediterranean region is real and grave.

Flawed Democracy?

The present chaos is obviously the result of many factors. These include the availability of weapons, the rise of extremist religious militias all over the middle-east, and finally the heritage of Gaddafi’s 42 years of dictatorship.

To me, lack of effective leadership, is the main reason for failure to contain the present chaos. Paradoxically, this may have been the result of what I call the selection process. After the fall of Gaddafi, there was, naturally a desire to establish some form of democracy. This was encouraged by Western powers who helped the Libyans in their struggle against Gaddafi. But, democracy in Libya, has been somehow applied more like an exercise in an educational workshop in an NGO organisation. Many members of both the Tobrug Parliament and the Tripoli Congress, “won” their seats on a meagre 1000 votes. Without doubting their sincerity, one may ask how representative and effective in their constituencies?

By contrast, in the Libyan cultural context, leadership, or becoming a regional or a tribal sheikh, is acquired not by vote, but by events and time, initiative, wisdom and credibility. Lack of such attributes, may explain why present Libyan leaders have been so ineffectual, though some might have been academically qualified or even clean handed.

The Libyan Mosaic

By geography, Libya has always been a mosaic of oases, villages and towns, strewn in an enormous desert. Distances, naturally encouraged local cohesion especially against outsiders. More importantly, Libyan society remains transitional, with varying degrees from the traditional to the urban. The process has been accelerated, thanks to the Oil wealth. Now, since the collapse of central state power, these localities have coalesced, each into a quasi-“City-State”, with a marked degree of autonomy. Each region is an alliance dominated by one or two large tribes. Economically, they remain dependent on the Central Bank of Libya, which channels Oil royalties as salaries to all citizens. All this has great relevance to the political process.

Many of these important so-called city-states are absent from the dialogue halls in various Capitals of the world. But, in order not to digress too much, I only mention estranged or neutral groups/regions/tribes, whose presence, I strongly believe is necessary as guarantors, as moral deterrent and in order to maintain a balanced representation. These include for example, warfalla , a powerful tribe/region. They also include the Gaddadfa ( Gaddafi’s tribe), the Amazig or Berbers, the Magarha of Fezzan, the Jufra (the 3 town/oases of Hun, Waddan and Sawkana), the Busaifies ; reknowned peace-brokers for decades. And of course, the Tuareg and Tebu of Southern Libya, and so on.

More than one million Libyans have been displaced by the fighting to Tunisia & Egypt, deserve representation in deciding the future of their country. Tripoli & Benghazi , together with a population of 3 million ( half the total population of Libya) should be represented honestly.

Political Islam & Micro-analysis

Clearly the world has been witnessing a general surge in a worldwide militant politico-islamic movement, probably as predicted by Samuel Hamilton in his book the Clash of Civilisations. But how valid his thesis is, remains a matter of speculation.

Historically, Libya, has been a moderate Muslim society free of any divisive sects. But Gaddafi’s failure to attend to problems of unemployment, and his heavy handed approach to political organization, nourished the Islamisation of politics in the country. Gaddafi’s prisons became schools for propagating the call and for winning new recruits from amongst the dissatisfied youth.

Libyan militias constitute a wide spectrum from the westernised to the fundamentalist. It is a mistake, in my opinion, to group them all under one heading as when the Tobruq Parliament indicted them as terrorists. Such a move was probably motivated by a desire to induce the West to intervene.

Micro analysis of armed groups is necessary in order to see the trees in the wood! The list is long, but examples may be noted. For instance, The Fajr (dawn) of Libya militias, control the capital Tripoli and are trying to extend their hegemony to the Oil ports. It is a wide coalition, led by Misrata. In Benghazi, the army, led by Marshall Hefter, is fighting the Dru’u ( Shields) who are a close clone to the Fajr militias.

The way out?

Is there a way out? Yes, there must be. Despite all the enmities, chaos and strife, Libyans possess more that unites than what divides them. There are many other unifying factors which include the common cultural traditions and heritage, intermarriage as a result of internal migration over the centuries, as well as the Oil wealth, which has, so far, prevented social collapse and famine. However hesitant, Europe cannot and will not allow Libya to continue as a failed state. Libya also has great potential, to permit speedy recovery once the fighting stops and the country decontaminated of weapons.

While everybody accedes that the solution is political, the approach, I think, has to be modified. Current dialogue will not be fruitful, as it is being carried between ineffective politicians.

Dialogue has to be inside the country, between genuine natural Libyan leaders with strength and vision. The Militias must be engaged, and should participate. In the long term, Gaddafi’s sympathizers (not henchmen) must also be included.

Finally, by and large, the Libyan case is not a struggle between vested interests, but, of wills, or even psychological as one friend remarked “more of a state of mind bent on self-destruction”.

All this, leads me to conclude that: unless all these interdigitating and overlapping factors are taken into consideration, dialogue and mediation will be more of a miming act, but with no audible music!


*Libyan author and commentator.