Libya: In search of a strongman

Nicolas Pelham writes: It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. Local militias have captured the oil fields and ports, starving the government of 90 percent of its revenues; Benghazi is rife with political assassinations; in the south, Colonel Qaddafi’s kinsmen have plugged the Great Man-Made River that funnels water from the Sahara’s vast aquifers to the coast; and tribesmen across the country sporadically cut off the roads or close the airports that tie the provinces to the capital. Libya’s current prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatens to restore order with force, but his men retreat after a few shots. Confusion about whether to rely on the armed irregulars who revolted against Qaddafi or the instruments of the old regime only compounds his powerlessness.

Libyans overwhelmingly aspire to the dream of a new democratic order that animated the ideals of the revolution. But increasingly many consider such a system too delicate to overcome the country’s deep fissures. Since antiquity Libya has been a composite of separate principalities—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south—a division that has played out not only geographically and historically, but also ideologically, with the west gravitating towards the more laissez-faire Maghreb, and the east spawning religious movements, from early Christian communities to Omar Mukhtar, the warrior Muslim mystic who led the revolt against Italy’s colonial conquest. In July 2012, great numbers of the country’s six million people braved the lawless streets—where alarming numbers of weapons have proliferated since the revolution—to register and vote in the first free national election in half a century. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, however, the old regional divisions have reemerged. Only a strongman, many feel, can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

The souqs buzz hopefully with names. Khalifa Haftar, Colonel Qaddafi’s old commander-in-chief, who led Libya’s army into a brutal but woefully unsuccessful invasion of Chad in 1987, appeals to those nostalgic for the old order. After abandoning his men in the Sahara, he fled to Virginia, and, backed by the CIA, schemed with little apparent success to usurp Libya’s crown. When Libya’s revolution erupted in February 2011, he returned with pomp and a convoy of plush cars as commander of Libya’s rebel ground forces.

Raised in the ways of Qaddafi, however, Haftar has failed to shake off criticism that he acts like him. A Western spy recalls meeting him during the revolution in a Libyan oil company’s offices in Benghazi, where he proudly displayed his battle plans for the assault on Tripoli on a tourist roadmap of Libya. Might the agent have a few radios to spare, he asked, so that he could talk to the front? His convoy continues to circle Libya like a medieval travelling court. [Continue reading…]

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