It may be tempting to describe the increasingly complex political and security morass ensnaring Libya as the inevitable outcome of the 2011 Nato-backed armed uprising that toppled Muammer Gaddafi. But a granular look at the many and, in some cases, easily avoidable mistakes committed by the international community and Libya’s political elite since the downfall of the previous regime serves not only to identify how the country can be put back on track but as a cautionary tale for future political transitions worldwide.
Though foiled by a US navy SEAL team, the bizarre attempt by autonomy-seeking rebels of warlord Ibrahim Jadran to smuggle a shipment of oil out of the country reminded the world yet again of Libya’s continuing disarray. Hours later, at least nine Libyans were killed and seven injured in the bombing of a graduation ceremony at a military academy in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the latest in a series of attacks by presumed Islamist militants against vestiges of the Gaddafi regime’s armed forces.
Though it may not be on the verge of civil war or partition, oil-rich Libya is unravelling dangerously along regional and ideological lines, a process that astute observers say could have been stopped and may still be slowed.
Haunted by the Iraq misadventure, the Libyan uprising’s foreign backers vowed not to place boots on the ground after the toppling of Gaddafi’s regime, and proud Libyans agreed. This may have been a grave mistake. Once Gaddafi’s forces melted away, there was no credible force on the ground to maintain security and take control of weapons depots, leading to the rise of the armed militias that continue to hold sway over the country and prevent its political progress.
Weak interim governments kept themselves weaker by continuing to cave in to the demands of the ever-growing militias. The very forces undermining the government’s credibility are on government payrolls.
While each militiaman gets paid about $1,000 a month, none of the interim governments ever launched a jobs or public works programme to lure young men off the streets, even as it spent $55bn a year on wasteful food and fuel subsidies and a public sector that does little but push paper.
Despite Libya’s vast financial resources, none of the interim governments that took over after Gaddafi’s demise ever presented a credible weapons buyback programme or made more than symbolic efforts to bring weapons under national control. “There was no strategy for disarmament,” said Claudia Gazzini, of the International Crisis Group.
Because of this fight for power they traded in everything – from minority rights to disarming militias– Unnamed Libyan political commentator
In many ways the interim governments’ political mistakes were even more easily avoidable. For example, successive governments dismissed small demands by Libya’s Amazigh, Tuareg and Tebu minorities for basic language and cultural rights, throwing away potentially valuable allies in their struggle to forge a new state.
Despite promises, the bloated, ineffective public sector was never subject to reform or made more transparent, fuelling perceptions of continued corruption.
Anger over that corruption spawned the rise of Ibrahim Jadran, who seized the country’s main eastern oil terminals last July and more than halved the oil production in the name of “federalism”, the movement demanding more of Libya’s resources be devoted to the long-neglected east.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, influenced by events in neighbouring Egypt, Libya’s political elite became engaged in a nasty and reckless battle pitting the country’s Muslim Brotherhood against its opponents. With its army and institutions, Egypt and even neighbouring Tunisia could withstand such infighting. But in fragile Libya it has meant the political class has set aside critical, time-sensitive issues of institution building in a quest for power.
“The entire mindset was wrong,” said one Libyan political commentator. “Because of this fight for power they traded in everything – from minority rights to disarming militias. A kind of vigilante atmosphere took hold. Scores were settled to get power.”
Once Gaddafi fell, everyone expected some political infighting. But international actors could have made more of an effort to secure Libya, even if for their own interests. Meanwhile Libya’s political elite could have opted for a far more consensual style of politics. Many believe they still can.
By Borzou Daragahi in Cairo
This article was originally published here.