After Gaddafi, Libya instability deepens

2012-03-04 22:39

Benghazi - A large map of Libya hangs on the wall in the home of Idris al-Rahel, with a line down the middle dividing the country in half.

Al-Rahel, a former army officer, leads a movement to declare virtual autonomy in eastern Libya, where most of the country's oil fields are located. The region's top tribal leaders meet on Tuesday in the east's main city Benghazi to consider unilaterally announcing an eastern state, linked to the west only by a tenuous "federal union".

Opponents fear a declaration of autonomy could be the first step toward outright dividing the country. But some easterners say they are determined to end the domination and discrimination by the west that prevailed under strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Al-Rahel points to the capital Tripoli on the map, in the west. "All troubles came from here," he said, "but we will not permit this to happen again".

The move shows how six months after Gaddafi's fall, the central government in Libya has proved incapable of governing at all. Other countries that shed their leaders in the Arab Spring revolts - Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen - are going through rocky transitions, but none has seen a collapse of central authority like Libya.

The collapse has only worsened as cities, towns, regions, militias and tribes all act on their own, setting up their independent power centres.

After liberation from the rule of Gaddafi, Libyans dreamed their country of 6 million could become another Dubai - a state with a small population, flush with petro-dollars, that is a magnet for investment. Now they worry that it is turning more into another Somalia, a nation that has had no effective government for more than 20 years.

Libya may not face literal fragmentation, but it could be doomed to years of instability as it recovers from four decades of rule under Gaddafi, who pitted neighbour against neighbour, town against town and tribe against tribe. The resentment and bitterness he incubated is now bursting forth in general lawlessness.

"What Gaddafi left in Libya for 40 years is a very, very heavy heritage," said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, which in theory rules Libya but doesn't even hold sway in the capital Tripoli. "It's ... hard to get over it in one or two years or even five years."

Signs of the government's weakness are everywhere.

Militia control

Tripoli remains under the control of various revolutionaries-turned-militiamen, who have resisted calls to integrate into a national army.

Kufra, deep in the deserts of the south, is a battleground for two rival tribes, one Arab and one African, who killed dozens in two weeks of fighting last month.

And Misrata, the country's third-largest city and just two hours' drive east of the capital, effectively rules itself, with its militias ignoring government pleas and exacting brutal revenge on anyone they believe to have supported Gaddafi.

At a Misrata garage that has been turned by militiamen into a makeshift prison, one detainee, Abdel-Qader Abdel-Nabi, shows what remains of his left hand: The fingers have been cut off in a ragged line about halfway down. Abdel-Nabi said militiamen lashed his hand with a horse whip until the fingers were severed.

"Then they threw me bleeding down the stairs," he said. His interrogators were trying to get him to confess to working with Gaddafi's forces during last year's civil war and collaborating in the killing of rebel fighters.

Around 800 other detainees are held in the same facility, which militiamen allowed The Associated Press to visit. The detainees are accused of involvement in killings, torture, rape and other crimes under Gaddafi.

There are no courts at the moment capable of addressing the suspicions, so the detainees are entirely at the mercy of militiamen.

Medics in a clinic set up in the garage said they have treated dozens tortured in interrogations. One medic said he had seen nine prisoners whose genitalia had been cut off, and others given electric shocks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation by the militiamen.

Misrata was one of the few major cities in the west to rise up against Gaddafi last year, and paid for it with a months-long, devastating siege by regime forces. 

Found Gaddafi

After repelling the assault, its militias joined the final march on Tripoli that captured the capital and brought down Gaddafi in August. It was Misrata militiamen who found Gaddafi in his final stronghold, the city of Sirte, and killed him in October.

Now the city seems determined to decide its own fate, creating a de facto self-rule. Last month, it held its own elections for a new city council, after forcing out a self-appointed council formed in the uprising which came to be seen as corrupt and ineffective.

In the isolated southeastern town of Kufra, 990km from Benghazi, fighters from the powerful Zwia Arab tribe have besieged the African Tabu tribe in a battle for the past two weeks.

The Tabu, an ethnic minority indigenous to the area, were heavily suppressed under Gaddafi. After Gaddafi's fall, the National Transitional Council assigned the Tabu to police the nearby borders with Chad and Sudan to stop smuggling - a trade dominated by the Zwia.

The Tabu say fighting erupted on February 11, after a Zwia smuggler killed six Tabu border guards. The Zwia in turn say the Tabu attacked them in an attempt to declare their own state in the area, which the Tabu deny.

Zwia, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles, took control of the streets and entrances to the town of 700 000, battling with Tabu gunmen. They surrounded the main Tabu district, where an Associated Press reporter saw widespread damage to homes from rockets.

The district's tiny, three-room hospital was packed with the injured, with only one doctor and 15 nurses. Empty water bottles were being used as blood bags. The doctor, Tarek Abu Bakr, said he has recorded 54 people killed. One Tabu leader, Eissa Abdel-Majed, put the toll at more than 100.

After two weeks of fighting, independent militias in the region finally mediated a tenuous truce. Authorities in Tripoli could do nothing, despite bluster about sending troops to separate the sides.

The violence highlights the weakness of the National Transitional Council, made up of representatives from around the country. The Council is overseeing the transition to democracy after Gaddafi's fall, including the organising of elections set for June. But besides having little ability to enforce decisions, it has been mired in its own divisions.


NTC chief Abdul-Jalil, a former reform-minded justice minister under Gaddafi, was largely welcomed as a clean and well-intentioned figure. But many feel he is not providing strong enough leadership.

Mohammed Ali, a politician who works closely with Abdul-Jalil, described his style as that of a boxing referee. "He stands on the side watching to see who wins, then raises his hand to declare him victorious," said Ali.

A frustrated Abdul-Jalil admitted mistakes. "But democracy is the reason," he told AP. "In every single decision, I have to get the vote" of 72 Council members.

The Council's attempts to put together a law governing the election are weeks behind schedule. It has put forward three drafts, each met by a storm of criticism from various factions that forced a rewrite.

The election is to choose a 200-member assembly tasked with writing a new constitution and forming a government.

The drafts allocate about 60 seats for the east, compared to 102 for the west, because the drafters say the breakdown reflects the larger population in the west. But for angry easterners, it smacks of the years of discrimination under Gaddafi, who focused development in the west while largely neglecting the east and its main city, Benghazi.

The east was long a centre of opposition to Gaddafi, the source of failed coups and assassination attempts against him - and Gaddafi punished it by depriving its cities of funds for services, health care and schools. However, the east, with its oil fields, is also the source of the vast majority of Libya's revenue.

"The westerners have been milking us like a cow," said al-Rahel."They built towers, airports and hotels while we were deprived of everything."

Benghazi was the first city to shed Gaddafi's rule last year, and the entire east quickly followed. But after his death, the National Transitional Council moved from Benghazi to the capital, and formed an interim Cabinet dominated by figures from the west.

Revive federation

The fight is also fueling a movement to revive a federal system that existed in Libya under the monarchy before it was toppled in the 1967 coup led by Gaddafi.

Under that system, Libya was divided into three states, Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica - or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic - which encompassed the eastern half of the country.

Al-Rahel's National Federal Union movement calls for a return to that system, giving each region its own capital, parliament, police and courts. Al-Rahel cites the American model of states and a federal government.

On Tuesday, at a gathering of about 3 000 easterners in Benghazi, planners aim to announce the creation of Barqa state and call for other regions to follow in forming a federal system, said Abu Bakr Baaira, a co-founder of the group. He dismissed worries the move will break Libya apart and said Barqa would seek UN backing if Tripoli refuses.

"Are the US, Switzerland and Germany divided?" he said. "We hope they don't force us to a new war and new bloodshed. This is the last thing we look for."

Easterners have already formed their army, the Barqa Supreme Military Council, made up of revolutionary fighters who rose up to battle Gaddafi last year. Their commander, Colonel Hamid al-Hassi, said his forces are now willing to fight for autonomy if Tripoli doesn't grant it.

"Even if we had to take over the oil fields by deploying our forces there or risk another war, we will not hesitate for the sake of Barqa," he told AP.

A spokesperson for the Tripoli government, Ashour Shamis, said the NTC rejects the plan, and instead backs a decentralisation that would give considerable authority to local city or district governments but preserve a strong central government.

Even some easterners are worried. Fathi al-Fadhali, a prominent writer originally from Benghazi, says Libya isn't ready for such a system. First, the country has to overcome the poisons of Gaddafi's rule and establish a civil society where rights are respected.

"We are all polluted by Gaddafi's evil, violence, envy, terrorism, and conspiracies," he said, "myself included".

  • Sydney - 2012-03-05 00:05

    I'm in search of "Fred" where is he?

      Fred - 2012-03-05 19:43

      Silly. It would reflect more character if you explained your absence from the stories depicting the deaths and maimings of innocent civilians by the hundreds of thousands by Islamist suicide and car bombers, instead of somehow blaming these on the so-called West.

  • Sipho - 2012-03-05 00:15

    21stcentury idiot! where are you?

      Anthony - 2012-03-05 07:13

      @Sipho, It is that no one commenting here, knows you are "thatsickbrotherfromthestates", Although , it seems most of these, have totally opposing views re Libya, as myself, I have no doubt in my mind, that when they get to know you a bit better, they too will shun you. Most certainly , in the past years, you have been the most disturbed racist, full of hatred, that has been on this site. You know NOTHING about Africa, or for that matter ANYTHING outside of New York. The kind of racism and hatred you spew out, is foreign to us in Africa, and is ONLY known in certain parts of the USA. Even, the so called, radicals in Africa, HATES you. Stay where you are, and keep your SICK posts!!!!!

  • pduveen - 2012-03-05 04:19

    Didn't read the whole thing, which was a long-winded exercise in blaming the victim. The NTC was merely an excuse so that the West could declare Gaddafi dumped so he would have no recourse to make a case against the West for its now-confirmed crimes in an international forum. Very stupid people--and there are a lot of them--take an article like this at face value.

  • Anthony - 2012-03-05 07:00

    After 41 years of tyranny, it is going to take years to get Libya to some ,normality. But the overwelming majority of Libyans are overjoyed that their tyrant is no longer there. That criminal thug gaddafi distroyed EVERYTHING he could; political parties, the security forces, the judiciary, etc ,etc It is only the silly , the naive and the ones with their own program, who will criticize these brave people every part of the way. No wonder, most North African countries have no time for Africa

  • Africa21stcentury - 2012-03-05 11:06

    It is always amusing, when this fruitcake is called a "strongman" In fact this gaddafi was weak as, behaving like a whore, and sleeping with everyone who was prepared to pay him !!!!!!!

      Fred - 2012-03-05 19:48

      Nato's running Libya. Let's see how far we can twist and distort reality.

      Anthony - 2012-03-05 20:03

      Patrick, Not that it would matter much to you, but you continiously insult the Libyan population. They are really not a bunch of retarded children, as that gaddafi whore used to treat them. And what do you mean ? "Its on your shoulders??" What the heck is wrong with you????????????????????????

      nchukana - 2012-03-06 22:06

      I the stupid Libyans can kill each other now because the colonialists have shared the spoils. I the country is stable there would be no benefit. Guns and bomb business will flourish, oil will be looted. Where is the UN now I guarantee it will say Africa must solve its problems. Africa is full Judas

      Anthony - 2012-03-06 23:21

      @Nchukana, If you enjoy making up your own stories, go for it. Have fun !!!

      Fred - 2012-03-08 02:12

      Basie, that whole line of thinking is wrong and makes you stuck

  • Fred - 2012-03-05 16:43

    The thing that stands out for me from the smattering of pro-Gaddafi supporters here is their glee about any story that reflects failure in post-Gaddafi Libya. They want Libya to fail, it seems, so they can be right, and their anti-West neuroses fulfilled. The truth is that any revolution after such a long period of oppression looks like Libya does today in the months, even years, after the initial transition. It's obviously not acceptable, or the ultimate goal. Libya has a bright future. It's just going to take time to realize. This does not condone any human rights abuses by anyone. Human rights watch-groups should continue to be fully present across the country to report on abuses, and the international community must demand the Libyan authority to act against them.

      nchukana - 2012-03-06 22:16

      Fred there was no revolution in the first place. It was about Europe running out of money and deciding where to loot, Asia has nothing to offer. Where is NATO ? to stabilize and advise, Nowhere. Spoils for the loot have been shared, so what the fuss let them kill each other we want no Afgan or Pakistan where it will be difficult to exit like I raq. Damage has been done. Where is Arab League?

      Fred - 2012-03-08 02:24

      Basie, there's a wave of revolutionary change sweeping through the Middle East. The people in this region have not had the right to vote, like it was in South Africa under Apartheid. The revolution started in Tunisia when a street trader burnt himself to death to demonstrate against the oppression of Tunisians at the hands of the then dictator Bin Ali. This dictator had the good sense to step down almost immediately. Because of this, Tunisia's transition to democracy and greater human rights has been the easiest and least bloody. The wave moved to Egypt where people took to the streets in vast numbers. The Egyptian dictator Mubarack tried to hold onto power longer. There was more violence than in Tunisia, more bloodshed. Eventually Mubarack stepped down. The transition of Egyptian society is still happening as the army was given control of the state's resources until the new constitution is written and elections held. From Egypt the wave moved to Libya. There the mad dictator Moamar Gaddafi went crazy and was using the army and other state resources to kill, detain and torture tens of thousands of Libyans. He wanted to hold onto power. He had stolen billions of dollars of money for his own use and for his family that actually belonged to the Libyan people. The Arab League, that represents up to 350 million Muslims of the region demanded protection for the Libyan people who were about to be slaughtered in even bigger numbers.

  • Tau - 2012-03-05 21:00

  • Richard - 2012-03-07 02:29

    Yep. This is what happens when dumb western politicians hop on the speech making war mongering band wagon. Our leaders had no idea who these rebels were, or if freedom is what they truely wanted, and didn't seem to care if there was a concept of unity. No. All the cared about was Ghadafi bad, rebel good with no idea of who they were supporting. A few months on, Ghadafi's dead, Libya's "free" and they're on to the next wars, Syria and Iran. However, nobody stops to look at the results of those grand speeches and NATO belligerence. If they did, they'd see no a free country, but one delivered from dicatorship and dropped instead into chaos. This is not improvement. We should all stay out of internal affairs.

      Fred - 2012-03-08 04:47

      Clearly, you've missed a whole lot of what happened, how things unfolded. Yet you write a lot. I recommend checking your facts first. An due sure to drop the negative bias that you clearly hold, for this will lead you to wrong conclusions, which is where you are now.

      Fred - 2012-03-08 04:48

      Clearly, you've missed a whole lot of what happened, how things unfolded. Yet you write a lot. I recommend checking your facts first. An be sure to drop the negative bias that you clearly hold, for this will lead you to wrong conclusions, which is where you are now.

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