“As you know, our nation is facing an enormous security challenge manifested by the proliferation of arms and the government’s inability to solve the problem … Many forces are working to undermine our efforts to establish a national military institution, and they are harming the training program the government adopted, with international forces, to build the army.” These words were written this week by Libya’s interim prime minister, Ali Zeidan, in a statement distributed to the Libyan media.
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Among the examples Zeidan lists in his long missive, he mentions that three important Libyan ports – as-Sidra, Ras Lanouf and Zwitina – have fallen under the control of armed militias, which are preventing their operation. “Our efforts to resolve the crisis by offering to pay for stolen arms turned into the authorities, enlisting influential tribal leaders, and mediating via a parliamentary committee have all failed,” he writes.
He also details his own abduction from the seafront Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli on October 10, by more than 100 armed members of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room. The men forced him and several of his aides from the hotel room that has been his home and office, and imprisoned him in a cell in a lockup designed for the crime-fighting authorities. In his statement, Zeidan said that “a group of young people and residents of the al-Furjan neighborhood where the lockup is located broke into the building and rescued me.”
This astounding admission hints at the anarchy Libya has become, almost exactly two years after the killing of former dictator Col. Muammar Gadhafi. The organization which seems, despite its denials, to have been responsible for Zeidan’s abduction was founded three months ago by Nouri Abusahmain, the speaker of the Libyan parliament, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Abusahmain appointed Sheikh Shaban Masoud Ahdieh - one of the rebel leaders who worked with NATO forces in 2011 to attack the regime’s bases - as head of the Operations Room, which numbers some 7,000 fighters. But Ahdieh is also a radical Islamic leader who, according to Libyan reports, was the right-hand man of Abu Anas al-Libi, an Al-Qaida leader apprehended by special American forces at the beginning of October. While the speaker of the parliament has subsequently decided to appoint someone else to head the Operations Room, it seems that, at least for now, the militia continues to take orders from its previous leader.
This is not the only militia active in Libya. At least 12 similarly armed, trained and financed militias are working to impose order in the country. Some are affiliated with tribal chieftains, while others are no different than street gangs. The absurdity is that most are financed by the government itself, including the militia that abducted the prime minister. This is the government’s way of buying peace and quiet in the absence of a regular national army that could impose order on all the districts.
As if the bizarre and complex connection between the government and the militias - and the former’s total dependence on the latters’ goodwill - weren’t enough, one could go back to January 2013 when Zeidan appointed Khaled al-Sharif as deputy defense minister. Sharif was deputy emir of Al-Qaida’s forces in Libya, and formerly one of the key Al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan. After the American attack on Afghanistan in 2001, Sharif fled to Pakistan, where he remained until 2003. Then he was extradited to the Americans, who held him for two years before turning him over to Gadhafi. Sharif was released in 2010, jailed a year later, and released again after the revolution, when he established the National Guard with none other than Abdel-Hakim Belhaj – Sharif’s former cellmate and purported Libyan Al-Qaida head.
Sharif’s appointment to the post of deputy defense minister was part of Zeidan’s efforts to enlist the heads of the militias - including the Islamic ones - to work for the government, by appointing them to senior positions in government ministries. At least 11 militia leaders were appointed to such jobs, but every militia head continues to maintain his own private army.
These armed groups ostensibly serve national security, but in practice are leverage that tribal leaders use in Libyan politics - if one can call the government’s conduct politics. In addition to the enormous security challenge – i.e., the government’s complete failure to ensure the nation’s safety and well-being – Libya is also facing a dissolution into independent districts.
The northeastern district, with its regional capital city of Benghazi - home to the country’s oil reserves - is under independent control. It's split between Ibrahim al-Jatran, a former rebel leader who commands a force of some 20,000 soldiers, and Ahmad Bohtata, the commander of an Islamist militia apparently responsible for last week’s murder of the Benghazi military police commander and that of the American ambassador to Libya in September 2012. And rebels in the former governorate of Fezzan, in the country’s southwest, declared independence - or at least an autonomous region that will be part of a Libyan federation should one ever come into existence.
The declarations of independence in Benghazi and Fezzan were complete with the erection of checkpoints, independent police and security units, and a tax collection system that does not pass its proceeds on to the national treasury. These militias, totaling some 250,000 armed men according to some estimates, are the real rulers of a country incapable of establishing orderly governing institutions, drafting a constitution acceptable to most of its citizens, or imposing law and order on them.
Given these difficulties, Zeidan is trying to soothe the criticism leveled against him by raising wages by 20 percent, at a time when the country’s oil output is still well below what it was in Gadhafi’s day. This month, Zeidan announced that the country is producing some 600,000-700,000 barrels of oil a day, compared to the 1.6 million during the Gadhafi era. And last month Libya managed to produce only 200,000, thanks to a series of strikes and work stoppages. It remains unclear where the money to pay the promised wages is going to come from.
Hope for Libya depends on a small group of politicians and tribal heads reconciling. For now, though, the impression is that they are far from arriving at a consensus, and that Libya will continue to be torn to pieces.