On February 17, Libya celebrated the first anniversary of the revolution that ousted late Colonel Gaddafi. One year on, the country is far from stable: inter-militia violence is rampant, the interim government’s authority is increasingly challenged and the economy is crippled by mounting corruption. As a result, the much-expected transition to democracy is becoming a distant prospect. Patrick Haimzadeh, a former French diplomat in Tripoli from 2001 to 2004 and the author of Au cœur de la Libye de Kadhafi (Inside Gaddafi’s Libya), spoke to Al Monitor about possible scenarios for Libya’s reconstruction.
Al-Monitor You have visited Libya several times since Gaddafi was toppled. How would you describe the situation?
Haimzadeh The end of Gaddafi’s regime, after months of civil war, has revived tribal tensions. Now, there are between 250,000 and 300,000 armed militiamen, a National Transitional Council and an interim government that have little control over the situation. The country is marred by violence with almost daily clashes between militias, almost everywhere. Young people don’t want to give up their thuwar [rebel] status just yet. In certain regions, there is illicit trafficking of alcohol and even women, though to a lesser extent. This state of affairs is, I hope, transitional but one can wonder about ways to move past it and not plunge into an all-out civil war.
In the end, today’s Libya is not so different from that of Gaddafi’s. The country still relies on an oil-rent economy and a patronage system whereby people see their relation to the state as the body that redistributes oil revenues, privileges or government jobs where preferably they don’t have to work too hard. Many observers in the West wanted to see in the revolution a real change, which in fact is not the case. Libya is still the same but without Gaddafi. One doesn’t change a political culture in six months or a year.
Al-Monitor You’d go as far as to say that nothing has changed for the best?
Haimzadeh The only notable thing is that people aren’t afraid to speak out anymore. There are 150 print media outlets, 14 television channels and tens of websites. Freedom of speech can no longer be curbed, but this also contributes to the country’s instability: when the interim government wants to pass a new measure, there is an immediate outcry and the government backs down. It is clear that the government does not have a monopoly on legitimate force — the rebels do.
Al-Monitor Won’t the June general elections help the country transition to democracy?
Haimzadeh I think it is simply impossible to organize a vote in three months’ time. Electoral lists have to be drawn up, there needs to be minimum of functioning institutions, civil servants, policemen, which is not the case. So far only 500 to 600 rebels have been integrated into the regular forces, and only in Misrata and Tripoli. In the rest of the country, rebels are not giving up their weapons. Some were offered 500 dinars [$400] a month to join the regular forces, which is not attractive to them. On top of that, most rebels don’t recognize the current interim government and the regular forces, which are still often headed by former Gaddafi generals, whom they loathe. It just doesn’t work. It’s a vicious circle: the rebels won’t join the regular army and as result the regular army is weak and not in a position to protect citizens and encourage them give up their weapons. It’s just unimaginable to hold elections in this context. The economy is in tatters, nobody knows where the oil money is going, billions of assets held abroad were unfrozen and yet civil servants are not paid; the reconstruction effort has yet to start. Many people are starting to wonder about the government and the NTC’s [National Transitional Council] poor handling of the crisis and whether it is actually in the interest of the NTC to dissolve and allow for elections.
Al-Monitor What scenarios can then be envisaged for a successful democratic transition?
Haimzadeh Well, it depends on the timeframe. It will take time, at least a decade. Look at Iraq! Though I would say the situation is not as bad and as complicated in Libya: the state was not destroyed, there was no long-term foreign intervention and there is not sectarian problem. The level of violence is much less in Libya, but the country seems to be stuck.
What we can imagine is the country splitting up geographically and becoming a federation or a confederation. On the anniversary of the revolution, Libya interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib made an interesting statement, talking for the first of “decentralization.” This I believe may work for Libya if there are truly democratic governing bodies at the local level, a redistribution of oil wealth and a fair representation at the federal level. Militias may then be convinced to disarm and participate in local politics. The electoral map that has been drawn up for the upcoming elections shows four regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, Fezzan and the central region. This could serve as a model for a confederation.
Al-Monitor That’s the good scenario, what about the bad one?
Haimzadeh The other scenario would be similar to what is happening now only worse, with an escalation in violence, with increased trafficking outside any government control — this is already taking place along the border with Egypt. In areas outside government control, we could eventually see dangerous groups infiltrating the Libyan territory such as AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and other Jihadist movements. Another worrying trend is the infighting between tribal militias in different regions, which could ultimately reach Tripoli — the much-coveted center of power. Foreign interference is also damaging to the stability of Libya. Whether it be from Qatar supporting Islamist leaders such as Abdelkarim Belhaj [the head of Tripoli military council] or Sheikh Ali Sallabi or from Western countries. I’m especially worried about the multiplication of private security companies in Libya to protect Western interests. These people carry weapons and are yet new, armed actors in the picture. We saw what it led to in Iraq.
Al-Monitor What can influence the materialization of one scenario over another?
Haimzadeh I’d say the level of violence. Blood calls for blood, especially in a tribal society. We saw terrible clashes in Kufra in the past few days with scores of victims. In Bani Walid, the truce is fragile. Clashes usually last a few days, tribal leaders undertake a mediation effort and then the situation calms down… but not always. At the same time, we don’t have a sectarian puzzle like in Iraq, so violence may not spiral out of control. It’s difficult to say. But one thing is for sure: the constant low-level violence is not conducive to the country’s reconstruction, all the more so that there is no legitimate, unifying actor to undertake that effort. The NTC does not have much control; their leaders are forced to hold secret gatherings not to be attacked by militias. The best thing may be for the NTC to dissolve.
Al-Monitor Is there anything the international community can do to help Libya?
Haimzadeh One can help in the reconstruction effort by training able police forces and civil servants. I know that Jordan and Turkey are involved in this. Turkey is bound to play a major role in Libya. [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan was the first Muslim leader to come attend a collective prayer in Libya [after the fall of Gaddafi]. The first commercial flight after the war was operated by Turkish airlines. Many Libyans consider the Turkish model to be an example worth following: that of a Muslim state anchored in modernity. It is difficult for Western countries to operate in Libya; it is a very decentralized country. Colleagues at the French foreign ministry tell me that when they meet with government officials they soon realize that local leaders must be engaged at every level to have an impact on national policies. Europeans are not used to that. At any rate, reconstruction will be a long and complex process.