Last week, Tripoli airport was seized by several hundred armed Tarhuna militiamen, who parked armoured vehicles on the runway preventing all flights. Those tasked with maintaining the airport’s security could do little more than shrug.
Only later, after a gun battle with fighters loyal to the National Transition Council (NTC) did the pro-Gaddafi Tarhuna surrender.
This chaotic scene is illustrative of the current state of affairs in Libya, where the interim NTC has been unable to disarm the disparate militia that fought in the revolution — not all on the same side. These militia are engaged in turf wars with other battles based on money, tribal loyalties or ethnicity. Some estimates put the number of militia at about 400, in a country where, in the absence of an army, police force or judiciary, an armed brigade is the only form of security.
On a recent trip to Tunis, I spoke to the head of airport security, who reported that flights arriving from Libya are his worst headache, because they bear smugglers of arms, drugs or people. Nor is this lawlessness confined to the streets. Billions of dollars of unfrozen Libyan assets are said to have disappeared from the national treasury. The current state of anarchy in Libya has international implications. Without border controls, migrants from Africa who wish to cross the Mediterranean to Europe can pass unchallenged through Libya.
It is not only law and order that has failed to materialise in post-revolutionary Libya. Mountains of rubbish have been accumulating on the capital’s streets since December, since there is no organised waste disposal system, and the main landfill site has been commandeered by an armed militia who refuse access to rubbish trucks.
Locals joke that it is only traffic lights that still work in Tripoli. Of course, the new Libya was always going to face teething problems — for 40 years all decisions were taken by a handful of people. But the problem in Libya is that, unlike Egypt, there is no administrative infrastructure. There were no government departments under Gaddafi and no civil service to advise the new incumbents how to run a country. The high-fliers who became the ‘Friends of Libya’ during the struggle to depose Gaddafi have not been seen since the NTC ensured a return to pre-revolutionary levels of oil supply. Advice and practical training from these countries could have been invaluable for the nation-building.
Today, administrative fragmentation is a real prospect. In March, the oil-rich eastern region, Barqa, declared itself a semi-autonomous state with Benghazi as its capital. The east always felt marginalised compared with Tripoli and the west of the country, and consolidated its self-determination last month by holding the first local elections in Libya for 40 years. In a bid to halt the disintegration of Libya, the NTC has called for reconciliation talks. Paradoxically, these include negotiations with pro-Gaddafi tribal confederations. At the end of May, Ali al-Salabi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure on the NTC, held secret meetings in Cairo with the former regime’s “tribal co-ordinator”, Ali al-Ahwal and Gaddafi’s cousin, Ahmad Gaddaf al-Dam. At the same time, the NTC’s own conduct has thrown up barriers to unity. Amid accusations of human rights breaches, the NTC passed a new law on May 2 granting immunity from prosecution for those acting “with the goal of promoting or protecting the revolution”.
Elections to a new, 200-member parliament have been postponed but remain imminent, and this is the brightest prospect for Libya’s future. The new legislative body will replace the NTC, appoint a government and write the constitution. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the ballot box, with 80% of those eligible to vote having registered to do so. If the elections produce a credible government representing all Libya’s people, the militias might voluntarily combine to form a national army and ensure nationwide security. Anything remains possible in the new Libya, so long as its leaders do not follow in the footsteps of the erstwhile ‘Friends of Libya’ and abandon themselves to self-interest.