Gaddafi era rivalries still haunt Libya

Turf battles emerge between tribes, civil war fighters as officials look on helplessly.

Sirte, Libya 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sirte, Libya 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
More than seven months after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power, his legacy of divide, rule and suppress has bequeathed Libya with simmering grievances now boiling over into fierce turf wars, analysts say.
The latest instance came in ferocious fighting between rival towns in western Libya, which left more than a score of people dead this week as militias battled each other with tanks and artillery. The week before, internecine fighting in the remote desert oasis of Sabha between tribes killed about 150 people and left hundreds displaced. In both cases, the governing National Transitional Council (NTC) looked on helplessly.
“It’s certainly worrying,” Charles Gurdon, managing director of the British political risk consultancy Menas Associates, told The Media Line. “At the moment, the NTC really doesn’t have control over the whole country and there isn’t an army strong enough to maintain control. The most powerful forces in country at the moment are the major militias.”
The failure of the NTC to maintain order threatens to undermine the country’s transition to democratic rule and revive the economy.
Libyan government spokesman Nasser Al-Manaa told journalists in Tripoli on Wednesday that the instability could delay June elections for a constituent assembly. “Freedom does not have to mean chaos and rights should not be claimed by picking up arms,” Manaa said, urging the sides to act with restraint.
Libyan oil production is up to 75% of pre-war levels and last month the local stock exchange opened for business. But an international trade fair opening this month in Tripoli will likely draw half the participants it did two years ago as foreigners fear traveling to the country. Libyan airlines were barred Wednesday from the European Union after the two sides agreed the country’s jets didn’t meet safety standards.
Moreover, the post-liberation chaos in Libya is almost certainly influencing world leaders hesitant to intervene in Syria, which remains gripped by fighting between the government and opposition. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned this week that by comparison with Libya – where NATO forces intervened to help what he termed an organized and united opposition against a universally hated leader – Syria could be headed toward a period of worse violence.
Libya enjoyed more than four decades of political quiet under Gaddafi, but he accomplished that by ruling with an iron hand that suppressed the traditional tribal rivalries that are now breaking out in the new, freer atmosphere. His “Africa-first” policy lured sub-Saharan Africans to the country, where they were often favored with jobs and other privileges that provoked jealously among indigenous Libyans.
Last week’s violence in the desert oasis town of Sabha, about 750 kilometers (450 miles) south of Tripoli, was the result of clashes between Tibu, who arrived in Libya at Gaddafi’s urging years ago from neighboring Chad, with ethnic Arabs who see them as outsiders.
Meanwhile, the rivalries of the country’s five-month-long civil war are still being played out in places like western Libya, where militias in the town of Zuwara, whose largely ethnic-Berber population fought Gaddafi while their mostly Arab neighbors from towns like Regdalin and Al-Jumail remained loyal to the deposed leader.
Other turf wars are being fought over smuggling routes, particularly in western Libya where militias, criminal gangs and other interested parties are vying to take over in the chaos.
Gaddafi’s style of personal rule prevented the creation of government institutions, which means the NTC has inherited little in the way of a bureaucracy or army to effectively rule Libya. The militias that rose up during the civil war are loath to put down their arms and many of them outgun the official forces because the NTC hasn’t offered sufficient incentives, said Tarek Alwan, managing director of London-based consulting firm SOC Libya.
“If I have a gun and you would like to take it from me, you need to give me a reward in term of money, salaries, training programs, scholarships, jobs,” Alwan told The Media Line.
Gurdon said a government program to pay civil war fighters a stipend has not only encouraged the militias to remain intact at state expense but has created a boondoggle. The number of actual fighters in the war was not very large, but with the economy in the doldrums and few jobs to be found, non-veterans have been staking claims.
“If you’re being paid 500 dinars a month by the government because you were a revolutionary fighter, you become a revolutionary fighter. There is nothing else to do,” Gurdon of the Menas consultancy said. When real militia men are integrated into the national army, they tend to be recruited though their militia rather than as an individual, so they remain loyal to their commanders rather than the army, he said. 
The key date for Libya is June 23 when elections for a constituent assembly are scheduled. Despite government warnings that the chaos may force cancellation both Gurdon and Alwan predicted the vote would go ahead as planned and, if it is conducted freely and fairly, would help establish the credibility of the government.
Will elections convince the militias to lay down their arms?  “I don’t think before [the vote], but definitely afterwards,” Alwan said. “Some military groups have already given up arms, even though others are cautious, not fully convince that current government will lead the country to democracy.”
He expressed confidence that the turf wars wracking the country would die down and that they do not constitute a fundamental threat to stability and order in the long run.