Two Years After Gadhafi's Overthrow, Libya Is Still Going Nowhere

A proposal is on the agenda to start a dialogue on Libya's character, but armed militias and other problems are getting in the way.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Benghazi's celebrations for the second anniversary of the revolution that overthrew – and killed – Muammar Gadhafi offered an extra dose of energy. Among the thousands of revelers in the city where the revolution started, people loudly demanded that the Benghazi region have its own government and autonomous economy.

You didn't have to listen to the speeches to understand that a new reality had set in for this eastern province. On the city's outskirts, militias of the Islamist organization Ansar al-Sharia – which took part in the killing of the American ambassador last September – set up roadblocks.

Benghazi isn't the only place calling for a division of Libya into provinces. The southern and western regions also want autonomy – one that will make the central government superfluous. In each of these regions large tribes, aided by armed militias, are in control, and they don't let the police or military enforce the government's authority.

New laws may ban carrying weapons on the street without a permit, driving a vehicle without license plates or installing dark windows on a car, but no policeman would dare enforce those laws. As a result, it's not surprising the government decided not to hold official celebrations to mark the anniversary. We wanted to prevent riots and bloodshed, said Prime Minister Ali Zidan.

It's a situation where the heads of tribes and armed gangs threaten members of parliament, and where the police are scared to wear their uniforms on the street. Meanwhile, people who were disabled during the revolution occupied the government offices and forced ministers to hold a meeting in a tent outside. So there is still no place for official celebrations.

The Libyan government even asked Tehran to prevent its citizens from coming to Libya because it cannot protect them. Citizens of other countries simply aren't coming, not even business people who have started investing in the country.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia where proper government institutions were in place before the revolutions, Libya couldn't make do with weeding out the people of the previous regime. Libya must set up government institutions that will replace tribal ones, which Gadhafi built to manage his affairs. It must establish political parties based on ideology, not just tribal factors, and develop from scratch infrastructure and a managerial culture required of a modern country.

The basic problem is to build a national and civic feeling that will replace the tribes and ethnic [identity]," wrote Musa al-Karifa in an article for Libyan newspaper Al-Watan. "Without it we may split into provinces and tribes and lose the country.

To create a new citizenship, Libya needs a constitution that will be acceptable to most of the population. This is where the land mines threaten the government. Egypt's constitution has already been written, even if it is controversial, and in Tunisia the process of writing a new constitution is moving slowly. But Libya hasn't even yet agreed on a committee to craft a constitution.

After an attempt to establish a committee stoked mass demonstrations throughout the country, the government decided to hold elections for the committee, which will have 10 members. This decision will probably delay the writing of a constitution by at least a year.

Until then, it seems the most active institution in the country will be the Supreme Agency for Standards of Integrity and Nationalism, which examines the past of every government official to get rid of the Gadhafi people. The agency peruses thousands of documents every day, and every few days it publishes a list of people who may not work for the government. These include journalists, writers, former ambassadors, consultants and thousands of other officials, including those who took part in Gadhafi's revolution of 1969 – people who could help the new government run the country.

Libya still is going nowhere. The only realistic proposal on the agenda is to start a national dialogue to agree on the country's character and how it should be run. But there is still no agreement on conducting such a dialogue.

A Libyan woman flashes a victory sign at Benghazi's Tahrir Square during the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gadhafi, February 17, 2013.Credit: AP

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