Tripoli: Last week, Tripoli airport was seized in broad daylight by several hundred heavily armed Tarhuna militiamen who parked armoured vehicles on the runway preventing all flights. Those officially tasked with maintaining the airport’s security could do little more than shrug.
Only later, after a fierce gun battle with thousands of fighters from at least two different brigades loyal to the ruling National Transition Council (NTC) which pass as “government forces” and the arrival of “pro-government” helicopters from Misrata, 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 over whole towns, Tripoli streets, and even valuable commercial property such as hotels with other battles based on money, tribal loyalties or ethnicity. Recently, the entire black population of a town in the west, Tawergha, was evicted by a neighbouring militia.
Some estimates put the number of militia at about 400, in a country where, in the absence of a properly constituted army, police force or judiciary, an armed brigade is the only form of security.
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. And this week, the Abdul Rahman brigades an Al Qaida affiliate were able to attack the US consulate in Benghazi in retaliation for the killing of Abu Yahya Al Libi, Ayman Al Zawahiri’s deputy.
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 but they are completely ignored. Of course the new Libya was always going to face teething problems for 40 years all decisions were taken by a handful of people and implemented with an iron fist.
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 international 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 more sophisticated countries could have been invaluable for the nation-building and construction of civil institutions the country so desperately needs.
Instead, all the divisions and differences that were suppressed under Gadaffi’s totalitarian regime are emerging with destructive vigour. Administrative fragmentation is also a real prospect.
In March, the oil-rich eastern region, Barqa, declared itself a semi-autonomous state with Benghazi as its capital. The east has always felt marginalised and deprived 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 national 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 coordinator”, 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 to those acting “with the goal of promoting or protecting the revolution”. As Human Rights Watch observes, this politics-based approach to “selective justice” is exactly what the Libyans fought so hard to overcome.
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 per cent of those eligible to vote having registered to do so.
Libya has all the raw materials for a thriving and prosperous country, vast oil wealth and a small population. 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.