There was a widespread belief in the Western world that a post-Gaddafi Libya would be sympathetic, and quite possibly take on the form of a democratic, secular government. This belief was fueled by the fervor with which rebel forces rose up across Libya, and the eagerness with which they parroted Western talking points when accepting aid and military assistance. As the months marking the fall of Gaddafi turn to years however, it has become increasingly apparent that the situation in Libya is still mired in factional violence and crime, with the nominal government having no choice but to recruit militias to keep some semblance of peace.
The most memorable example of this trend occurred just under six months ago, when the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked, killing four American citizens, including J Christopher Stevens, the serving ambassador at the time. While the attack was initially blamed on spontaneous outrage that arose in response to a slanderous anti-Islam film, it later became clear that it was in fact a premeditated terrorist attack, conducted by one of the many violent factions vying for dominance in post-Gaddafi Libya.
But the most shocking part of all is that Ansar al Sharia, the group believed to be responsible for the attack on the American consulate, is among the militias that the central government has deputized in order to fight the wave of crime, kidnappings, and drug trafficking that is surging through the country. Ansar al Sharia is a Salafist group devoted to spreading strict Sharia law across Libya.
To be sure, the government’s partnership with Ansar al Sharia is one born from desperation and the need to impose some kind of stability; nonetheless, government endorsement of such a radical group highlights the relative immaturity of Libya’s political and security apparatus, or to put it another way, the impossibility of Libya adopting a Western-style government any time soon.
The interim constitution of Libya, though establishing Islam as the state religion, nonetheless guarantees freedom of religion for non-Muslims, and provides for independent judiciaries and multi-party democracy. Hardline groups such as Ansar al Sharia, on the other hand, wish to impose a strict, puritanical Islamic law across the nation. The Nawasi brigade, one of the most powerful groups, have been abducting and detaining men for allegedly practicing homosexuality.
Protests, counter protests, and riots have been erupting as segments of the population gather to express support of, or rejection of, various groups and what they stand for. While these factions were previously united in their opposition to Gaddafi, and occasionally in a vague commitment to establishing a representative government in Libya, for many of them, the similarities stop there.
Just this weekend, Libya was forced to temporarily halt gas exports from the Melitah complex over fighting between rival militias. The conflict was eventually snuffed out after Libyan armed forces were dispatched to the scene, but given the fact that state resources are already stretched, the Libyan army can’t be expected to be putting down sectarian conflicts everywhere at once.
The way in which the Libyan army dealt with the clash at the Melitah complex illustrates the tenuous position of the Libyan state. The army did not move in immediately upon arriving on the scene. Rather, it initially stood back and tried to act as an arbitrator between the two groups, and only after both of the militias had spurned their offer did they move in and clear the complex by force of arms. The army’s preference for negotiation is not owing to any enlightened aversion to violence. On the contrary, it’s a practical consequence of the legitimacy deficit at the top of the Libyan political hierarchy. In the absence of widely accepted political institutions that could legitimate the current rulers of Libya in the eyes of the people- all people- across various factions, the state security apparatus becomes a militia like any other. As such, it has to be careful not to antagonize other militias by asserting its coercive power and inducing them to band together against the center, and consequently Libyan politics remain terminally decentralized.
It is clear that there is far less support for West-leaning politics than many of the countries who participated in the NATO intervention expected. This resentment has been bubbling to the surface lately, in the form of threats targeting Westerners in Libya. Though American and British leaders have been unclear on whether or not they’ve been receiving notice of specific, planned incidents, they have been strongly encouraging their citizens in Libya to leave Benghazi and avoid travel to the country in general.
This should not be especially surprising, as none of this factionalism is new. Gaddafi’s rule was, essentially, a series of strategic alliances and agreements with diverse and often warring groups. The tribe or clan mentality that many have noted since Gaddafi’s fall is simply the long-time cultural landscape of the country re-asserting itself.
In particular, Gaddafi was an expert at stomping out radical Islam. With him removed, the people of Libya are free to pursue self-determination, however, contrary to what the West often assumes – liberated societies are not necessarily liberal societies. Significant segments of the population may favour a strict religious society. These groups may be numerous enough to achieve their goal through democratic means, or driven and fanatical enough to succeed via other means in the event they are not the majority.