Libya: Must it get worse before it gets better?

The Economist reports: “The only road to paradise,” runs a joke doing the rounds in the cafés of Tripoli, Libya’s seafront capital, “is the one to the international airport.” Most Libyans still revel in the freedom and sense of possibility brought on by the NATO-backed war that ousted Colonel Muammar Qaddafi two years ago. “Yet before, when someone disappeared, you knew they were with Qaddafi forces,” reminisces a rebel-turned-security man. “Now we have no idea.” That was made clear earlier this month when the government denounced the kidnap of the daughter of Abdullah al-Senussi, Qaddafi’s former spy chief, only to discover that one of its own forces had nabbed her; she was freed a few days later.

Libya has hit its rockiest patch since Qaddafi’s demise. No one has managed to reassert full authority over the tribes, regions and groups welded together under the colonel’s iron rule. Institutions of state, absent under Qaddafi, have yet to take firm shape. In the past few weeks the country’s key oil ports have been blockaded by disgruntled workers and militias. Assassinations and carjackings are rife. Water and electricity have been cut off in Tripoli for the past week. On September 11th a bomb was defused in Tripoli; another went off in Benghazi, the cradle of the anti-Qaddafi revolt and the main city of the east.

Security is the biggest complaint. “A state at its most basic has a monopoly of force,” says Anas al-Gomati, who runs Sadeq, a Libyan think-tank. “Here you can argue that the government works for the militias.” The authorities, with Western help, are in the process of building an army and police force which are supposed to take over from the militias on its payroll, most notably the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a collection of former rebels which functions as a temporary police force, and the Libyan Shield, a group of Islamist militias that form a quasi-army. But a third of the men in these groups will refuse to drop their guns and come under the authority of the new security forces, reckons Hasham Bisher, who heads Tripoli’s SSC. Islamists in particular are loth to disband, fearing they may then be suppressed, as they were under Qaddafi.

So the government’s ability to keep law and order outside Tripoli is weak—“and arguably within it too,” says Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. The starkest illustration of this is the authorities’ inability to end the blockade that has reduced oil exports, the government’s main source of revenue, to under a tenth of the 1.6m barrels a day produced before the uprising. Some factions appear to be trying to sell oil to fund a campaign for federalism, with Benghazi as the capital of an autonomous eastern region. Others are protesting against the government’s general incompetence. [Continue reading…]

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