Libya on the edge of a precipice

LIBYA-POLITICS-UNREST-MILITIAS

Time for an international peacekeeping force

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

Another day and more bad news from Libya. This morning the Reuters news agency reported that a gun battle was raging between two rival militias around a security headquarters building in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. At least five people were wounded in the clash.

According to Reuters, residents in the south Tripoli district of Sidi Khalifa said the fight erupted just after midnight on 3/4 November when two militia units authorized by the official Supreme Security Committee got into an argument over a detained member of one of the militias.

We have real patients with real needs. These rogue militias need to leave us in peace so we can do our jobs. (Khalid Bin Nur, doctor at Tripoli hospital)

“We called the police early in the morning to help us stop the shooting, but no one came,” a resident said.

A bullet shot through the nearby Tripoli Central Hospital, causing doctors and nurses to run for cover. One doctor, Khalid Bin Nur, said that five casualties from the fighting had been brought in, adding: “We have real patients with real needs. These rogue militias need to leave us in peace so we can do our jobs.”

Meanwhile, in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, and cradle of the revolution that toppled the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, a car exploded outside a police station, wounding four police officers.

According to the French news agency AFP, two unknown assailants drove past the station and lobbed a bomb under one of the police vehicles parked outside. The blast occurred before dawn, destroying the entrance of the building, unhinging a door and shattering windows, an AFP photographer said.

This kind of gangsterism has become the norm in Libya. Almost everyday incidents similar to the ones described above take place across the country.

It may be foolhardy to predict anything in a situation such as that prevailing in Libya, where the main actors are wild and irrational, but I am prepared to predict that the violence and anarchy will not only continue but will get much worse. Unless it is checked as a matter of urgency, it will reach a point where it will no longer be possible to contain and extinguish it.

…to those who understand Libyans and the Libyan psyche well, the prospect of a complete breakdown of society is a real one.

There are plenty of countries where lawlessness has been allowed to escalate beyond control. Somalia and the DR Congo come to mind. Libya is not there yet and, to media correspondents, diplomats and other outsiders temporarily visiting the country, comparing it to Somalia and DR Congo may seem far fetched. But to those who understand Libyans and the Libyan psyche well, the prospect of a complete breakdown of society is a real one.

The fact that Libyans have managed to get rid of the Gaddafi tyranny is no small achievement. Years of repression, betrayal and frustration finally boiled over on 17 February 2011 when, encouraged by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans finally overcame their fear and began the fight that eventually resulted in the overthrow of the Gaddafi family.

However, this was all done in a characteristically chaotic Libyan way. Foreigners got a glimpse of the chaos on their TV screens – the to’ing and fro’ing of men in pickup trucks and the imbecilic firing into the air by fighters short of ammunition – but the reality on the ground was much, much worse. As I have said previously, Libyan society is chronically backward, with no political culture, civil society institutions or history of tolerance or political participation, and this state of backwardness was put in a deep freeze for the 42 years of Gaddafi’s reign. It will take time to move on but, in the meantime, with the country flooded with weapons and up to 1,700 militias wreaking havoc and lawlessness, it is time to take drastic action.

Libya is now Mad Max country and the Libyan people will take many years – perhaps generations – to recover from the years of stagnation under Gaddafi. But as matters stand right now, we need help and we need it urgently.

As a Libyan, I am sad to say that my compatriots cannot organize a piss-up in a brewery, to use an English colloquialism. But we are now on the edge of a precipice and dire situations call for drastic solutions.

Libyans have never had an opportunity to learn how to organize themselves and this has left its mark on the psyche of virtually every Libyan. I am reminded of an incident in the mid-1970s when Gaddafi sent two secret service agents to murder an opposition figure who had taken refuge in Egypt. The agents managed to find Cairo but instead of tracking their target decided to make their way to a bar, got drunk, started shouting Allahu akbar (God is the greatest) while inebriated and discharged their pistols into the bar’s ceiling, upon which they were disarmed and arrested.

As a Libyan, I am sad to say that my compatriots cannot organize a piss-up in a brewery, to use an English colloquialism. But we are now on the edge of a precipice and dire situations call for drastic solutions.

Libya will continue its inexorable descent into chaos and violence, unless the international community – the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations or even the devil himself, it no longer matters – acknowledge our lamentable reality and dispatch a sizable peacekeeping force to establish law and order, disarm the militias – by force if necessary – and give the nascent Libyan authorities a chance to grow up, look in the mirror and live up to their responsibilities. The post-Gaddafi Libyan authorities, from the National Transitional Council to the recently formed government of Prime Minister Ali Zidan, have a uniquely idiotic security concept: building an army composed of a coalition of “approved militias”. This will not work. WIth 1,700 militias plaguing the country and respecting no one, it is a recipe for endemic violence and a complete breakdown of society.

If Libya is to survive as a state, then steps must be taken right now to mobilize an international peacekeeping force and authorize it to intervene to disarm the militias, bring about security and train an army and police force.

When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he inherited from the monarchy a small but fairly well trained army and a respectable, professional police force. His was a bloodless coup d’état, not a revolution, and he was able to govern the country using the security apparatuses of the regime he overthrew. But from the 1980s he set about dismantling the armed forces, which were replaced by “security brigades” – praetorian guards of mercenaries – and demoralizing the civilian police, who were disempowered and critically undermined by the armed thugs of the “Revolutionary” Committees. Then came the revolution of 17 February 2011, which eventually resulted in the destruction of the praetorian brigades and the disappearance of most of what was left of the police, which collapsed along with other state structures.

If Libya is to survive as a state, then steps must be taken right now to mobilize an international peacekeeping force and authorize it to intervene to disarm the militias, bring about security and train an army and police force. It is better to bite the bullet, swallow our pride as Libyans and do this now before it is too late.

I realize that by calling for this I will bring upon myself the wrath of the faux leftists and many of my compatriots alike. This does not worry me. I am a patriot and a pan-Arab nationalist. I would not be advocating such a radical course of action if I did not sincerely believe that the alternative is my country’s self-destruction.

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