[ANALYSIS] What lies behind Libya’s endemic chaos?

Libya presently has two rival governments – the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) – each with its own central bank and national oil company

Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar
Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar

Libya’s endemic chaos since the revolution which toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011 stems from the absence of any semblance of state institutions. This makes disarming and reconciling rival militias difficult if not impossible. While Gaddafi’s Libya relied on the personal charisma of its revolutionary leader who deliberately subverted any attempt to consolidate state institutions, the institutions created after the 2011 revolution have remained fragmented and weak.

Libya presently has two rival governments – the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) – each with its own central bank and national oil company. And both governments rely on the support of rival militias and tribal networks.

Instability has also been fuelled by external interference from regional powers which have been supporting opposing sides in the Libyan conflict both politically and militarily. Countries like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have supported Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, who has taken over eastern Libya with his army. Qatar and Turkey have been accused of providing political support for Haftar’s opponents in western Libya.

Italy and France have also clashed on what is to be done to restore order in Libya. The French have pushed for new elections to be held this year while the Italians have adopted a more cautious approach.  Underlining these tensions is commercial rivalry between the two countries. This is because the Libyan revolution had thwarted an agreement signed with Gaddafi in 2008, which secured a dominant position for Italy. This was secured through a commitment by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to compensate Libya for damages incurred during colonial times. Underlying this agreement were Gaddafi’s threats to inundate Italy with African migrants.

In May, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA and General Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army – which controls much of eastern Libya – met in Paris and agreed on a timeline to hold nationwide polls by the end of the year.

But other Libyans are insisting that a new constitution should be voted on first in a national referendum. Agreeing on a new constitution may provide a framework for holding presidential and parliamentarian elections.

But the greatest obstacle to stability and institution building in Libya is the power of rival militias. After the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the national army was too weak to disarm the militias. Instead these private armies took control of oil facilities, ports, ministry buildings, airports, border posts and barracks. Militias are also deeply involved in human trafficking activities turning detention centres in to a business operation. Ironically their legitimacy has been enhanced by Italy’s attempt to present Libya as a safe country for migrants. Militias are principally motivated by the prospect of looting national resources to enrich their members. This periodically results in “arrangements” between dominant militias and the exclusion of others. Subsequently these groups plot their way back to power fuelling further instability. Libya’s oil wealth ensures that there is enough loot to keep this musical chairs game running for a long time.

Speaking to MaltaToday, journalist and migration researcher Mark Micallef explained that for roughly the last year and a half, while disagreements did exist between the various militias, these never resulted in much conflict, maintaining the status quo in the country.

Micallef said that the “situation is predictable. Militias that control the status quo are given money and resources while smaller factions are not, and they are now fighting back.”

This may be what is happening right now in Tripoli. Street battles on Monday and Tuesday pitted the Seventh Brigade, or Kaniyat, from Tarhouna, a town 65km southeast of Tripoli, against the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigades and the Nawasi, two of the capital’s most powerful factions. Reports about the wealth and conspicuous lifestyle of some Tripoli militia commanders have increased the resentment of militias who feel that they have not taken a fair share of the pie. In the absence of any semblance of national institutions Libya risks drifting further into chaos.

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