To understand the fault lines of the Libyan turmoil, one needs to move beyond the one-dimensional narratives peddled by various actors in the conflict and take a step back in history.
By Avijit Goel
Arab lands hate a power vacuum. Most of them still seek fragile peace or a semblance of governance in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which saw long established power structures being demolished. With thousands of lives violently taken, millions of lives affected and the futures of at-least two generations shoved into perpetual uncertainty, this revolution has achieved little apart from blind optimism at its start in 2011.
With the Arab Spring domino, which started in Tunisia, a most devastating and long standing impact has been felt in neighbouring Libya, which also happens to be one of the most complex North African nations. Imagine a long train with diverse and unstable carriages, held together only by the grit of an extremely driven engine driver, chugging along a bad neighbourhood. A badly planned projectile takes out the engine driver, and what you have is a train wreck of unimaginable proportions, innocent hands asking out of the mangled remains and a neighbourhood in a plunder, kill and loot orgy.
The engine driver was Gaddafi. The train wreck is today’s Libya.
Understanding the fault lines of Libya’s turmoil requires moving beyond the one-dimensional narratives peddled by various actors in the conflict. And a stepping into history.
Over the millennia, the territory that comprises the modern state of Libya has been divided between north and south, west and east. City-states in the northern coastal area had been prosperous and ruled by conquerors from the Mediterranean, while in the south- nomadic tribes (Tuaregs, Tubu) living in pastoral economies have had little involvement with, let alone interference from, those in the north.
Until Gaddafi’s overthrow in the 2011 revolution, just two regimes had ruled Libya since independence: King Idris from 1951 to 1969 and Gaddafi from 1969 to 2011. King Idris’s government was minimalist in practice with little influence. Oil was discovered during his reign, in 1959 and Libya subsequently went from being among a handful of the world’s poorest countries per capita, to one with a broad social safety net, and one of the wealthiest in North Africa.
Following the 1969 revolution, in which Gaddafi deposed King Idris in a coup and abolished the monarchy, Gaddafi built a rentier, socialist society in which essentially all basic needs (water, electricity, cheap energy and food, health care, and education for both genders) were met by the state. But these were at a cost: no meaningful political rights and in which, wealth beyond the basics was divided between the “haves” (those favoured by Gaddafi) and the “have-nots” (everyone else).
This understanding is critical in assessing the biggest blunder by the Western world in adjudicating the post-Gaddafi scenario that was, that of the Western powers being silent on an arbitrary law enacted by an intimidated legislature in 2013 in Tripoli, the Political Lustration Law, which prevented anyone with even a distant connection to the Gaddafi regime from holding public office during the country’s transition.
This disastrous law was widely seen as a vengeance and one-sided justice by the have-nots during Gaddafi’s regime aiming to deal a fatal blow against anyone competing for power who they could label as “Gaddafites.” The lustration law covered anyone who had worked for Gaddafi, even if they had participated in and supported the revolution against him. In practice, it meant that those subject to the law were both delegitimised and removed from politics. It allowed those responsible for enacting the law, to consolidate their power by wiping out their opponents. This action paved the way for the civil conflict that precipitated a year later. Western diplomats working on Libya generally agreed that their biggest collective mistake after the revolution was the failure to take action in May 2013 to refuse to recognise the lustration law for what it was — a power grab.
This laid down the seeds for a full blown civil war, which, over the years has led to two key power bases. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and a parallel administration backed by Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east (Tobruk).
Adding to all this is the complexity of the external players taking sides, with UAE, Saudi and the Egyptians supporting Haftar while the Turks and the Qataris opposing him.
Since April, 2019, when General Hafter launched his effort to take Tripoli by force from the internationally recognised GNA under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the timing was planned just 10 days before the UN had scheduled a national assembly to bring Libyans together to negotiate a compromise, and only five days after local elections, the first to take place in Libya in five years. Hafter successfully thwarted any move into political stability which wouldn’t suit him, taking the civil war into its next phase. The protracted conflict, might sadly, be here to stay.