2014: A year of hope for Libya

Libya has the potential to become a regional leader and see its society and economy flourish, vindicating the bloody and violent Arab Spring.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government has yet to rein in various militias that have been undermining its authority.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's government has yet to rein in various militias that have been undermining its authority.

As most of the world was busy celebrating Christmas and the New Year, reports emanating from Libya showed that the country did not have much to celebrate about.

In a matter of days, four American military personnel were briefly taken into custody at a checkpoint in north-western Libya, two foreign teachers were shot and killed close to an oil and gas complex in western Libya and a Turk was stabbed to death in the Turkish Airlines offices in Tripoli.

Such events have become a daily occurrence and armed militias have taken to cutting off the flow of electricity, oil, gas and water in a ploy to extract concessions from the government.

With the central government still struggling to disband and co-opt its myriad of warring militias into the national army, the government has little control over the country.

This weakness has fomented further public frustration at the lawlessness and insecurity in Libya, whose very territorial integrity is under threat, with two of its three provinces declaring autonomy in 2013 amid accusations of economic and political marginalization.

The unabated violence, inexistent rule of law and repeated calls for the Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's head mean that Libya's prospects in 2014 remain quite tenuous.

Despite the turbulence, Zeidan's transitional government insists that the revolution has not failed. Although the government has shown resilience and good will to carry out the necessary changes, Zeidan remains a hugely unpopular figure in Libya.

For months now, there have been concerted efforts to replace Zeidan as prime minister and despite his resilience, his gaffes, willingness to appease his enemies, and naive belief that he can face down his opponents without the use of force have fuelled calls for his resignation.

Admittedly, Zeidan has so far failed to stamp his authority on the country, but most of his government's energy and focus has been taken up by the continuous jostling for power by various factions.

Apart from the power struggle, the country has yet to determine where it wants to go, with different factions and groups holding divergent ideas on how to organise the nation.

Economic woes
While the prospect of Libya splitting in two lingers on, militias and local groups command greater respect than Zeidan's provisional government.

Plagued by weak institutions, Zeidan's government has yet to be able to rein in these militias and disarm the groups. Moreover, the practice of cutting off the flow of electricity, oil, gas and water as a tactic in extracting concessions from the government, the central government's revenue, is constantly shrinking.

This week, the country's labour minister said strikes at major ports and oilfields drying up oil exports were seriously undermining Libya's ability to pay public salaries and deter foreign investment.

"There's a huge impact of this (strike) issue. Salaries for Libyans are now at risk," Mohamed Swalin said.

Militias and tribesmen have seized ports and oilfields across the country to press for political or financial demands, cutting output to around 220,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 1.4 million bpd in July.

With oil being the government's main source of income for the country's budget and purchase of food imports, the country is eating away at its foreign reserves.

Although the government has denied reports that it has withdrawn US$7 billion from its foreign currency reserves, the Libyan government is expected to run a budget deficit of 1.9% in 2013, marking a reversal from an extremely large surplus of 31.9% of GDP in 2012.

Western powers who played a vital role in the downfall of former despot Muammar Gaddafi now fear the North African country will slide into instability as the government struggles to rein in militias that helped topple Gaddafi in 2011.

Yet, in these troubled times there are a few signs of hope, with 2014 expected to bring a new constitution along with a new legislature that could serve as a boost for the government's public perception.

Moreover, threats directed at Zeidan and his government have stopped at just that, with the militias seeming unwilling to bringing down the government through brute force.

Zeidan, who in October was briefly abducted by members of a disgruntled militia, sounded an optimistic note in a recent interview, saying, "If they were capable of doing so, they would have done it already."

The majority of Libyans agree that a change in leadership and a sense of shared purpose is sorely needed, however Zeidan's resilience and the reluctance of militias to drag the country into a spiral of violence and instability has led to a status quo.

Zeidan's weak government has not only bestowed legitimacy to militia leaders but it has also damaged the country's reputation abroad.

This weakness is compounded by continued presence of Gaddafi-era officers in the military and police and the armed brigades' capacity to influence the highest levels of government by blockading or occupying government facilities, including ministries, the floor of the General National Congress (GNC), and important oil and gas sites.

Although Britain, France and Italy are training government security forces, Zeidan's government does not command sufficient trained forces to counter these armed groups.

Optimism does not come easy to Libyans. However, Zeidan can take some comfort in the growing resentment against the militias, especially after a number of groups have turned out not to be the guardians of the people that they claim to be.

The desire for militias to disarm is growing, with a recent survey showing that the vast majority of Libyans agree that militias that do not abide by government authority should disband.

Moreover, the Libyan National Army is gradually uniting and gaining power, as shown by its presence in Tripoli after the militias began to withdraw towards the end of 2013. This is a positive step, though it seems unlikely that the militias will have entirely disbanded in Tripoli and Benghazi by 31 December, 2013, as decided by the Libyan General National Congress.

Another major obstacle to uniting the country is the risk posed by Islamist groups, especially in Benghazi. The largest organised political currents in Libya today are the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the relatively liberal National Forces Alliance. The struggle between the two blocs has caused a fair amount of political deadlock. Inept leadership, combined with the fallout from the continued oil strikes with shortages in electricity, fuel, and occasionally water, has led to a loss of confidence in the General National Council and the Zeidan government.

Constitutional reform
In the coming months, public confidence could be partially restored as the GNC is expected to launch constitutional talks, which should be followed by fresh elections.

The council's decision to extend its legislative mandate to December 24, 2014 beyond the original February 2014 deadline in the draft constitutional declaration has been met with protests and more than ever political stability and legitimacy hinges on a new durable, inclusive constitution.

Elections for the constituent assembly that will draft the constitution are expected to be held in the second half of January, but at the time of writing no firm date had been set.

The greatest risk to the success of the political process would be boycotts by major social groups of the constituent assembly election, and later the constitutional referendum. If this were to materialise, the fate of the country as a unitary republic would be in serious peril. If democracy is replaced by brute force, the project of a united Libya will fizzle out, leading to further instability in the whole region.

It is imperative for the West and other big players in the international community to aid the Libyan government in its efforts to fill the vacuum. While the international community can assist in creating robust security institutions and providing educational and economic alternatives to militia membership, it cannot disarm the militias outright.

A disarmament process needs to be accompanied by training programmes for official security forces, ensuring that these are not infiltrated by Islamist forces, and capacity building in public administration.

However, despite playing a pivotal role in removing Gaddafi, the West must understand that Libya's nation-building project cannot be imposed from the outside.

The healing process of national reconciliation is ultimately up to Libyans to embrace and apply. Outsiders can assist in suggesting best practices and acting as impartial mediators, but the goals of the national dialogue and constitutional process in restoring a sense of ownership of the political process are Libya's to create.

If Libyans embrace the rule of law while coming to terms with newfound human and civil rights and a free market economy, Libya's future, and the region's, will be brighter. With its vast resources, small population and rich history,

Libya has the potential to become a regional leader and see its society and economy flourish, vindicating the bloody and violent Arab Spring.