/ 17 February 2017

Libya, a failed state in waiting

No end in sight: A member of the Libyan National Army carries an injured comrade during fighting against jihadists in Qanfudah
No end in sight: A member of the Libyan National Army carries an injured comrade during fighting against jihadists in Qanfudah

Libya’s transition has been bogged down by insecurity and chaos, suggesting the country is becoming a failed state six years after the Nato-backed uprising that ended Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.

“We got rid of one dictator only to see 10 000 others take his place,” said Tripoli resident Fatma al-Zawi, bemoaning the multitude of warlords and militias in the North African country since the armed revolt started in mid-February 2011.

Libyans are showing little enthusiasm for the anniversary, which the authorities plan to mark on Thursday with cultural and sporting events in Martyrs’ Square in the capital.

Living conditions have deteriorated through a combination of insecurity, power cuts, water shortages, a cash crunch and the plunging value of the Libyan dinar.

Libya’s executive and legislative branches have been paralysed by fierce rivalries between political movements, ideologies and tribes.

“The protagonists have not understood that no single ideological branch or political or tribal clan can govern the country on its own” in the post-Gaddafi era, said Rachid Khechana, director of the Mediterranean Centre for Libyan Studies in Tunis.

“This is why the country is not ready for ‘classic’ democratic competition” through elections, he said.

In the absence of a strong regular army, the oil-rich country with long, porous borders has turned into rich terrain for smugglers of arms and people from sub-Saharan Africa desperate to reach Europe by making perilous Mediterranean crossings.

Also stepping into the void have been jihadists, especially the Islamic State, which has seized swaths of Libya — although it was expelled in December from its bastion of Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean.

Hopes for a recovery and return to an era of security raised by a Government of National Accord (GNA), set up under a December 2015 agreement brokered by the United Nations and signed in Morocco, has proved short-lived. It set up shop in Tripoli in March last year but has failed to extend its authority, even in the capital where dozens of militias with shifting allegiances control it.

The authority of the GNA, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, is challenged by a rival administration in east Libya, much of which is under the control of armed forces commanded by controversial Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The general, who is in his 70s, was overlooked in the Morocco accord but has returned to the forefront with his forces’ capture of four oil terminals in the east from which most of Libya’s lifeline oil is exported.

Haftar, a sworn foe of Islamist militants, is accused by detractors of aiming to establish a new military dictatorship and has so far failed to woo Western support.

A rapprochement with Russia and the backing he enjoys from regional states such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are prompting the international community to review its position.

The UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, said last week that talks had made progress on “possible amendments” to the December 2015 agreement, and notably on a future role for the military strongman.

But analysts remain sceptical over the prospects for Libya to avoid becoming a failed state.

“It’s now been six years that the international community is trying to impose a democratic, united government when there is nothing on which they can build it,” said Federica Saini Fasanotti, an analyst with the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Libyans must decide whether their country will become a new Somalia, or whether they’ll make difficult choices to steer it in a different direction.”

Fasanotti stressed that “not a single remotely unifying political leader has emerged for the country”.

International Crisis Group’s Claudia Gazzini was also downbeat, ruling out any major political or military settlement in 2017.

“Whether or not this state of suspended animation marks the beginning of Libya as a failed state depends primarily on its economic standing,” she said. “The risk of a further deterioration of the country’s economy is real despite the uptick in oil production”, which has climbed to 700 000 barrels a day. — AFP