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UPDATED: August 14, 2014 NO. 33, AUGUST 14, 2014
When Interventionism Backfires
Libya's dysfunctional political system caught between competing militias offers a cautionary tale of Western interference
By Qin Tian

After the civil war, successive Libyan governments have made efforts to establish a cohesive national army. For instance, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has established the Supreme Security Committee as a parallel security force to the army and police, the Ministry of Defense has set up the Libya Shield Force, and former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan pushed for the creation of a national guard when he was in office. All these forces are made up of anti-Gaddafi elements. But in practice, these factions attach more importance to the interests of their own organizations, and do not take orders from central authorities. There is little unity and coordination among the forces, some of which have attempted to blackmail the Libyan Government by asking for higher salaries or promotions. The so-called government troops are actually still mercenaries, and are incapable of suppressing militia groups.

Second, a two-camp political structure has slowly taken shape in Libya with Islamist groups pitted against pro-secular forces. Islamist militias were the major force behind the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. After the civil war, Islamist groups were unwilling to share power with the remnants of the Gaddafi regime—not even the defectors. In May 2013, Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood pushed the Libyan parliament to enact new laws prohibiting former officials of the Gaddafi regime from participating in government and political affairs. The influence of Islamist groups in the parliament continues to grow. Since the beginning of this year, Islamist groups pushed the parliament to cast a vote of no confidence against the secularist Prime Minister Zeidan, which finally led to his stepping down in March. The two camps then underwent a public split, with military conflicts following soon afterward.

Third, in terms of modern nation-states, Libya is still at an immature stage. At the beginning of the 20th century, Western colonists invaded the region and forcibly merged Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south into one country—Libya. Tripoli was made the political and economic center of the country, thus planting the seeds for disunity in Cyrenaica and Fezzan.

The people of Cyrenaica suffered greatly from discrimination under Gaddafi's reign, making them eager participants in the anti-Gaddafi movement. This group also sought more power after the war. Early in March 2012, some of the elites in east Libya held meetings to declare the area's autonomy. Though the common people in the region do not have much aspiration for independence or autonomy, they still demand more political power and greater economic interests.

Militarily, there are numerous armed forces in the east that are independent of the Tripoli authority, whether they are Haftar's self-proclaimed "national army" or Islamist militants groups. In this sense, it is not an exaggeration to say that there are two governments and several armies in the country.

The deviating tendencies also extend to the economic sphere. After the civil war, the Libyan Government established the Petroleum Facilities Guard to defend oil facilities. The production and export volume of oil recovered to close to pre-war levels, but in the second half of 2013, armed forces led by Ibrahim Jadran, head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard force in the central region, took over three of Libya's most important oil terminals in the east and tried to smuggle oil through foreign oil tankers. The revelation led to a sharp decline of Libyan oil production, dealing a huge blow to the central authorities that are heavily dependent on oil export revenues.

Against such a complicated backdrop, the chaos in Libya is sure to continue. National reconciliation and political integration may not occur within the foreseeable future.

The author is an assistant researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Email us at: liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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