Failed? – Libya’s Bleak Future

When refuse collectors went on strike last year, Tripoli's rubbish started to pile up
When refuse collectors went on strike last year, Tripoli’s rubbish started to pile up


Sometimes people ask me “So what’s the situation like in Libya right now” and I struggle to answer.

This morning in East Libya a breakaway faction demanding greater autonomy from the Tripoli government and blockading the biggest oil fields in the country went through with its promise to sell oil (350,000 barrels to a North Korean ship owned by a Saudi citizen in this case) externally from the interim Libyan government.  The President reacted by ordering the bombing of the offending vessel only for the air force to refuse to carry out the mission.  Elsewhere, in Benghazi Islamist attacks on high ranking political and security figures remain an almost daily occurrence and nobody seems to have any kind of a solution.  The militias still refuse to give up power or weapons and the country’s porous borders have resulted in it becoming a global magnet for trafficked drugs, weapons and people.  Vast sections of the country remain essentially ungoverned and ungovernable and recent events suggest certain groups are exploiting the weakness of the State to dish out Libyan passports to any foreign jihadists who need a second identity.  There have been explosions, massacres, protests and a few failed coups, one led by an allegedly CIA affiliated General who still seems to be trying to rally support for his coup weeks after it became clear that he had no military to command.  This being Libya, though, he may still be successful.

The problem with Libya right now, the reason behind its continued and almost inevitably ongoing deterioration into chaos, is not one simple reason.  It is many.  It is a tangled web of stories, grudges, power plays and ideologies with no single strand, theme or narrative to tie them to.  Various journalists and commentators have tried to pin Libya’s troubles on the militias, the tribal loyalties prevalent through the population, foreign interference in domestic policy, the heavily armed populace, the destabilising ambitions of radical militants and the weakness of the interim government.  They are all right without any one of them covering all the bases.  Libya is condemned to suffer through a perfect storm of situations and events that mean it may be decades before a stable, functioning State is able to take its place in the international community.  And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

For every step forward the country somehow manages to stumble and fall even further back than it was at the starting line.  Enough that some have already donned the rose tinted spectacles required to look back fondly on Ghaddafi’s tyrannical rule.  And more join them each day.  The air of frustration growing among the population has completely erased the jubilation that flooded the country in the wake of the revolution’s success.  Security issues, economic problems and the exceptionally slow pace of transition to a democratic government have left people feeling hopeless and abandoned.

That transition shows no sign of speeding up, either.  The General National Congress (GNC), the interim government elected to oversee the mechanics of the State has been hampered by in fighting between the Muslim Brotherhood associated Justice and Construction Party and the more moderate National Forced Alliances.  The congress has already extended its mandate once and is in the process of agreeing a road map to prepare for the possibility that the country’s new constitution will not be ready by this summer.  The chances of that constitution being ready by then are almost zero.

In order to create the constitution Libyans went to the polls a few weeks ago to elect the body of 60 who would agree a the draft version.  Only 47 of the intended 60 were elected with violent attacks closing polling centres across the country .  As the government or the election committee were unable to find any way to secure those centres the 13 seats at the table remain conspicuously unfilled.  Add that to the fact that the Amazigh population of the country boycotted the vote entirely and that of the 6 million people in Libya less than a million even bothered to vote and the picture becomes worse and worse.  If the body of 60 ever were to come together they would have to agree a constitution and for it then to pass into law, marking the true rebirth of the nation, it would have to be agreed by a national referendum with at least two thirds of the vote.  Unfortunately, in an ever more divided and angry Libya, the chances of either of those things happening are slim.

I’d like to point to the hopeful, optimistic signs but they’re so few and far between that they’re barely worth mentioning.  A wealth of resources flooded back into Libya during and after the revolution as members of the Diaspora returned with the intent of helping to rebuild their country.  I’ve had countless conversations with people like this – intelligent, driven and experienced professionals in all fields – and they all seem to agree on one thing; that they came, they tried, they failed and now they’re looking to get themselves and their families out again as soon as possible.  Petty crime is on the increase and carjacking is a constant worry, even inside the capital which is supposedly policed by a foreign-trained police force.  Saadi Ghaddafi’s recent extradition from Niger back to Libya was greeted with celebratory fireworks and gunfire but his return asks more questions than it answers.  When and where will he be tried?  And what will he be charged with?  And it also highlights the situation surrounding his brother, Saif, who is being held by one of the Zintani militias near the Western mountains and whose prosecution and fate is being fought over by Zintan, Tripoli and the International Criminal Court.  Libya has the natural resources that should allow it to be one of the richest States in Africa but with oil ports blockaded all over the country it is struggling to pay its bills.  With a production capacity of over 1.4million barrels per day, Libya is currently producing less that 250,000.  Every day this continues not only puts a strain on the Libyan economy but also sends a clear signal to foreign investors that this might not be the best place to take a risk right now.

Having only just scratched the tiniest part of the surface of all the problems I’ve mentioned and having omitted countless more I find it hard to reach any other conclusion than the depressing and reluctant admission that it will be a long time yet before Libya finds the peace, security and progress that it’s people so bravely earned in the uprising of 2011.  The intricate collage of narratives, separate yet overlapping and none with a happy ending in sight, means that Libya it is likely to descend further into violent and destructive chaos.  I hope I’m wrong.


Published by: chubbywordsmith

32 year old nerd. Areas of nerdery: Global Development, International Relations (especially MENA, South and South east Asia), Political Economy/Macroeconomics. Lived/Worked in Palestine, Libya amongst other places. Works for an INGO focussing on peacebuilding and conflict issues. Loves Manchester United more than is healthy. @anarchasm

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