The year 2012 was not a normal year for Libya. During that year, Libya held its first genuine multiparty democratic election after decades of authoritarian rule by Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who was overthrown and killed in 2011 by a NATO-backed popular uprising. But despite the elections, which happened peacefully, the country has suffered political, regional and tribal chaos largely due to problems inherited from the previous regime as well as increased activity by so-called Salafist-jihadist groups that seek to implement Shariah law in the new Libya.
The year 2012 is ending in the same way it started: The authority is in the hands of both the Transitional National Council (headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil) and the transitional government (led by Abdul Rahim al-Kaib), which are trying to achieve some stability amid the chaos that followed the bloody revolution against Gadhafi. But the council and its government are carrying the heavy burden that was bequeathed by the former regime to the new “free” Libya. Serious problems have emerged between the cities and tribes, especially in the country’s west and south. The problems are the result of some Libyans choosing to take Gadhafi’s side during the revolution. Since the revolution ended with a winner and a loser, the victors are naturally trying to shape Libya’s future according to their vision by seeking to control the government, which used to be the exclusive preserve of individuals and tribes loyal to Gadhafi.
Conflicts erupted among the tribes in the west, as happened between al-Mashashia (pro-Gadhafi) and al-Zintan (pro-revolt) tribesmen in Jabal al-Gharbi district, between Zuwara (pro-revolt) and al-Jamil and al-Riqdalin (pro-Qadhafi) on the coast near Tunis, and between tribes in Warshefana (pro-Gadhafi) and al-Zawia (pro-revolt). The conflicts spread to Libya’s south where there were bloody confrontations in Sabha, one of the largest cities in the Libyan desert. An even bloodier confrontation took place between the Tabu and Azwaip tribes in al-Kufra, which is the gate of the southeastern border with Chad and Sudan and an essential smuggling route for goods and commodities.
But despite the bloodiness of these conflicts, the new government has largely been able to contain them by means of local tribal mediation aimed at bringing together the warring parties to resolve their differences amicably. But such a solution was not possible for Bani Walid, the town located southeast of Tripoli and which stayed loyal to Gadhafi. In early 2012, gunmen from the Warfala tribe, which considers Bani Walid its stronghold, took back control of the town from the Tripoli-linked local council. The Warfala tribe then established a different council to manage the town’s affairs. Even though Bani Walid’s new rulers assert that they are part of Libya’s new order, their rivals maintain that they are part of Gadhafi’s regime, that they fought by its side till the end, and that they harbor persons wanted for crimes committed before and during the revolt.
Warfala kept control of Bani Walid until October 2012, when it was taken by gunmen — some of whom came from Misrata. The gunmen have complained that the “former regime’s supporters” in Bani Walid have kidnapped and tortured to death a young fighter named Omran Bin Shaaban for being one of the rebels who captured Gadhafi near Sirte in October 2011.
Eastern Libya, which had gotten rid of Gaddafi’s rule early in the revolution, seemed immune from the tribal conflicts afflicting Libya’s west and south. Eastern Libya saw the emergence of powerful groups advocating a return to the federal system that was in place at the beginning of the monarchy. At the time, Libya was divided into three regions: the east (Cyrenaica), the west (Tripoli), and the south (Fezzan). The federal system’s supporters organized massive popular demonstrations to press for their demands. In March, they appointed Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sharif Senoussi as president of the “regional transitional council.” Although federalism’s supporters asserted that they do not wish to secede, their move was faced with broad opposition by many Libyan political currents, which considered that the move paves the way for the country’s partition.
Eastern Libya also saw the emergence of a Salafist-jihadist current that called for the application of Shariah law. In a massive show of force, that current organized in June a large conference in Benghazi where they displayed their military forces. There has also been news of Salafist-jihadist training camps in many Libyan areas, attacks on Sufi religious shrines, and a series of attacks on Western symbols. Examples of the latter are the desecration of the graves in Benghazi of British soldiers who fought in the Second World War, the attack on Red Cross headquarters in Benghazi and Misrata, and the attacks on the British ambassador’s convoy and the US consulate in Benghazi. The most serious of these attacks was what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, when gunmen attacked and burned the US consulate and killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The US called the incident a terrorist act without identifying the perpetrators.
But despite all that, Libya was able to hold its first genuine multiparty election after decades of dictatorship. In July, millions of Libyans freely voted to select the 200 members of a General National Congress. Emerging victorious was the National Forces Alliance (composed of liberal and nationalist parties, and led by former transitional council prime minister Mahmoud Jibril). The alliance won most seats allocated for political parties (39 out of 80). The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party came in second with 17 seats, while Salafist and jihadist parties had a modest showing. The election’s structure made it impossible for any one party to rule if it does not attract a large number of deputies that ran on non-partisan lists (120). Mohamed Maqrif, the leader of National Front and Gadhafi’s arch-enemy for decades, won the General National Congress’s presidency, while Ali Zeidan became prime minister.
The new government’s main tasks are to rebuild the state, especially the army and police (whose duties are now being performed by armed groups nominally linked to the defense and interior ministries), put an end to the chaos, prepare a new constitution and put it up for referendum, and organize fair trials for Gadhafi regime officials. Among those officials are Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and former intelligence chief, Abdullah Senoussi, who was extradited from Mauritania, and Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who was arrested in November 2011 in Zintan. These challenges will certainly not be easy. But how the government will address them will shape the new free Libya for years.