Libya’s Unquiet Election

In Libya in late June, the village of Cheguiga in the Jebel Nafusa saw continuing clashes between the Zintan, who led the uprising against Moammar Gathafi (killed in October 2011), and the Machachiya who supported him. Mukhtar al-Akhdar, the charismatic leader of the Zintan, welcomes the renewed conflict; though wounded, he has returned to his post as commander in chief.
The road to Al-Awiniyya was blocked on 13 June, pending the end of the offensive, and all Machachiya left the village. The only traffic allowed to pass was Zintan pick-up trucks armed with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers, and ambulances bringing back the wounded. The source of the conflict was unclear. The Zintan claimed that the Machachiya killed one of their men in an ambush, with help from officers who formerly served under Gathafi. Wounded members of the opposite camp, interviewed in the Gharian hospital, insisted however that they were the victims of a campaign to clear them off their land, like the operation in August 2011 when 40,000 people in Tawergha, suspected of supporting Gathafi’s men, were forced to leave and their houses systematically destroyed.
The defence minister Osama al-Juwali and the commander of the western sector Colonel Mokhtar al-Fernana were known to be in the vicinity, and this might suggest that the Libyan authorities were seeking a settlement. But these officers are essentially Zintan, both judge and party in their own cause. It was a familiar scenario: The official version, reported in the Tripoli press, was that the operation had been organised by supporters of the old regime or members of a “fifth column” opposed to the 17 February revolution. On 20 June, after ten days’ fighting, a ceasefire was finally arranged, as always, by delegations of wise old men from other towns and regions (Misrata, Cyrenaica). The provisional casualty count is more than 100 dead and 500 wounded. And the dispute has not been settled, so there may well be further outbreaks of violence.
The official end of the civil war, on 23 October 2011, was hailed as a triumph by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron. In their view, military intervention under the aegis of NATO was the only way to protect the civilian population and end the crisis in Libya. There have since been more or less continual clashes between militias and tribes in Tripolitania and the southern part of the country. In rural areas, these usually arise from ancient inter-tribal conflicts, dating back in some cases to the days of the Ottoman empire. Gathafi used these disputes to serve his own purposes when he was in power, occasionally reversing traditional hierarchies by granting land or influence to small tribes that were poorer or less prestigious: in 1978, the Machachiya who originally lived in the southern desert areas, were given grazing land in former Zintan areas.
The disputes between pro- and anti-Gathafi forces are resurfacing in a context in which all parties are excessively well armed and the state is no longer in a position to arbitrate. In border towns and regions, the battles are often for control of the illicit trades that flourish when there is no state power to stop them. There is a great danger that the mafia economy, which developed there during the civil war and is a source of further violence, will become permanently entrenched in these areas.
Two hours away by road, the people living in Tripoli appeared to be unmoved by the clashes in Cheguiga -- or by the continuing clashes all over the country. Notices inviting citizens to vote in the first Libyan elections on 7 July were posted next to the graffiti tags of the militias that captured the capital and caricatures of the dead leader.
The symbolic stakes are enormous: A 200-strong constituent assembly is to be elected, to supersede the present National Transitional Council (NTC) as the body representing the Libyan people. It will appoint the new government and draft the future constitution, which will then be the subject of a referendum. The election is eagerly awaited; people have rushed to get their names entered on the electoral roll (2.7 million of the 3.4 million old enough to vote have now registered).
As far as the logistics are concerned, things are looking good. Voting forms have been issued and polling booths set up with the help of UN experts. The constituency boundaries, officially established on the basis of the 2006 census, have so far been disputed only by some of the people in Cyrenaica.
On the political front, the constituent assembly will consist of 120 independent members, elected by majority vote from a list of 4,000 candidates, and 80 members elected by proportional representation from lists drawn up by some 370 parties officially in the running. The balance of power in terms of organisation, resources and political awareness is tipped in favour of the parties close to the Muslim Brotherhood, two in particular: the Justice and Construction Party (Hizb al-adala wal-bina) led by Muhammad Hassan Sawan, imprisoned under the old regime for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood; and, the Nation Party (Hizb al-watan) founded by former jihadist Abdel Hakim Belhaj -- self-appointed military governor of Tripoli in August 2011. Both parties are said to be receiving substantial financial and organisational support from Qatar.
The main non-Islamist parties are described as “liberal” -- but all the parties here are keen supporters of the neoliberal economic system. The best known among them is the National Forces Alliance (Tahalouf al-quwwa al-wataniyya) led by Mahmoud Jibril. This wealthy businessman worked closely with the dictator’s younger son Saif al-Islam Gathafi, helped to liberalise the Libyan economy in the early 2000s, was a founder-member of the NTC along with Mustapha Abdeljalil, and was in regular contact during the civil war with Sarkozy and Bernard-Henri Lévy (the French writer who called for western intervention). Other parties, in the eastern region, are the National Front Party (Hizb al-jabha al-wataniyya), once known as the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, founded by Muhammad Yousef Megharief in 1981, when he was in exile in the UK.
Most Libyans are deeply interested in these elections (although, close to the event, they still didn’t know the names of the candidates in their constituencies) but this does not apply to the forces who control every town, every tribe and every part of the capital, and who are not standing for election anywhere. No matter who is elected, the real power may well continue to be held by the people who have a monopoly on violence and no interest at all in this budding political life. They include former army officers, such as Colonel Salem Joha in Misrata and Colonel Salem Waar in Bani Walid, former pillars of the old order who hastened to join in the revolution, such as Abdel Maji Miliqta in Tripoli, and former civilians who served with distinction in the war.
In Misrata, the third largest town in the country with a population of 450,000 and no less than 250 militias, the most highly respected and probably the most influential man is Colonel Joha, head of the military council during the war. Officially, he no longer holds any public office, but he receives visitors in the local municipal council’s luxurious premises. He is now busy retraining Misrata’s 30,000 militiamen, some for the Higher Municipal Security Council, theoretically attached to the ministry of the interior, and others for the local branch of the “Libyan Shield” (Daraa Libya) division, attached -- at least on paper -- to the defence ministry. Asked about his political ambitions, he assured me that he simply wanted to be “a Libyan citizen like any other, content with the air he breathes, the water he drinks and a piece of bread.” Colonel Joha is a perfect example of the new strong men who have little chance of making their mark at national level but who will actually be far more legitimate and have far more power than faceless technocrats elected on the basis of their alleged honesty and managerial skills.
To strengthen their positions, all these little local warlords have taken over as leaders of rallies whose only common denominator is the magical term thuwar (plural of tha’ir, revolutionary). So in every major town, there are countless unions, rallies, coalitions, councils, and associations claiming to represent the interests of all the thuwar in Libya but really representing only the interests of their own town, or even a few parts of it, as in Tripoli.
Mukhtar al-Akhdar, a member of the Rally of Libyan Thuwar (Tajammu thouwar libia), feels a distinction must be drawn between the original rebels, combatant and non-combatant, and the late-comers, the “spray-paint rebels” (thuwar al-bakhakha) whose sole contribution to the uprising was to paint revolutionary slogans on the walls when Tripoli was about to fall. It is a question of “protecting the revolution,” or in other words, organising an alternative to the institutions established after the election.
So national reconciliation, watchword of the NTC, is proving elusive. The model prison experiment in Misrata deserves a mention, as one among many. Here, in a city that is famous for its martyrs and generally averse to any form of pardon, the governor Fathi Abdessalam Dard is happy to explain to visitors his plans for rehabilitating former enemies through Islam. A splendidly bearded adherent of Wahhabi Salafism, he shows visitors all round the prison -- which currently has 728 inmates, mainly former members of Gathafi’s forces. Almost all have beards and shaven heads. They are full of praise for the governor, who cracks jokes with them and is always ready to listen to any complaints about the physical conditions. The Salafists, unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, have no political ambitions and are not to be confused with the jihadists who claim responsibility for the recent attacks on foreign interests in the eastern part of the country and also in Misrata.
The official image of Libya promoted by the NTC and the governments of the western powers that intervened in the war is the image of a united country entering a new phase of prosperity and democracy, but the reality is not so rosy. The complex mosaic of regions, towns and tribes has never looked so fragmented, so disunited, a collection of mini-estates each with its own feudal lord and its own army. The structure of the state and the relationship between local and national authorities are the crucial issues here, but at present no-one can see what form the changes may take. There is a danger that the current situation -- “neither peace nor war” -- may continue, with a high level of residual violence, less serious than the violence reported in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 but still a cause for concern.
On the economic front, the return of the foreign oil companies established in the country before the war (Italian company Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi, French Total, German Wintershall, Spanish Repsol, and US companies ExxonMobil and Marathon Oil), operating mainly on sites guarded by local tribal militias, means that by the end of May 2012 Libyan production was back to the pre-intervention level of 1.6m barrels a day. The rebuilding operations, at an estimated cost of $200bn over 20 years, could prove to be more complicated than expected for the foreign undertakings on account of the widespread violence. On the other hand, instability offers substantial opportunities for private security firms and military outfits to make good money, and more than a dozen have already been engaged by France alone -- all paid for out of the pockets of the “Libyan people,” the people NATO forces were sent to rescue. Translated by Barbara Wilson Patrick Haimzadeh was a diplomat at the French embassy in Tripoli from 2001 to 2004. He is the author of Au Coeur de la Libye de Kadhafi (Inside Gathafi’s Libya), Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 2011. Copyright © 2012 Le Monde diplomatique – distributed by Agence Global