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The Hijacking of Libyan Democracy


Nothing is going to plan in Libya. It took the death of the US ambassador in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi on 11 September to turn western media interest to the security situation, even though it has been deteriorating since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. Back in July, the media did notice when the “liberal” National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril beat the Muslim Brotherhood in the general election, winning 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties; the Brothers took 17 (1).

Many commentators pronounced Jibril the man of the moment. Confident of their skill in political science and the analysis of election results, they failed to grasp the complexity and fragmentation of the political landscape. A few weeks later, their predictions were confounded when the new General National Congress appointed as its president Mohammed Magarief, whose National Front party (self-professed moderate Islamist) had only won three seats at the election. On 12 September, the congress chose Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister over Jibril, by two votes.

Supported principally by the Islamists, Abu Shagur had been deputy prime minister in the previous “transitional” government. The choice of Shagur demonstrates the difficulty in applying conventional party political models to Libya, where local or even tribal allegiances and rivalries often take precedence over the divide between “Islamists” and “liberals” that is the frame of reference normally used in the West.

The two candidates based their campaigns within the congress on clientelist negotiation rather than ideological debate. The question of the role and weight of religion in government will be one of the issues in the drafting of the new constitution. It is still uncertain whether the committee of 60 experts responsible for the drafting will be appointed by the congress or elected by universal suffrage.

Though only recently elected, the congress already seems to have lost touch with the real Libya, which chose Jibril as its leader at the July elections only to see him excluded from the new government. Many Libyans doubt Shagur’s ability to impose his will, rebuild the state and unify the country. Criticisms of him relate mainly to his participation in the National Transitional Council, which was a failure (especially on security), his links with the Gulf states, where he spent time as an engineer and academic, and his lack of knowledge of Libya, which he left in 1980 and only returned to in May 2011.

The powerlessness of the technocratic elite, due to Libya’s lack of a proper state apparatus or reliable security organisations, partly explains the current problems — starting with the deteriorating security situation, which has now gone beyond tribal clashes, score-settling between militias and the kidnapping and assassination of officials.

Jihadist attacks

The attack on the US consulate in Benghazi is one of many perpetrated since this January by Salafist jihadi groups. The attacks are increasingly well prepared and executed, aimed at western (or supposedly western) targets, such as the US consulate, offices of the UN and Red Cross (ICRC) and the British ambassador. There have been many in Benghazi and Misrata, and they could easily have claimed more victims. Two bodyguards were injured when a car carrying the British ambassador was attacked in Benghazi in June.

Responsibility for the attacks on the Red Cross in May and the US consulate in June has been claimed by the Imprisoned Omar Abdel Rahman Brigades (IOARB), supporters of the Egyptian sheikh serving a life sentence in the US for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The group has strong support in eastern Cyrenaica, especially in the town of Derna.

Over the last few months there have also been attacks on marabout tombs and Sufi mausoleums, which offend against Islamic orthodoxy according to the Salafists. The Salafist militia Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Sharia), based in Benghazi, has been implicated in attacks of this kind, but has always distanced itself from those on western targets. Its seasoned and well-armed fighters, some of whom had their first taste of combat in the Iraqi and Afghan resistance in the 2000s, joined the anti-Gaddafi insurrection early in February 2011 and were involved in every battle until the fall of Sirte. They remobilised this year, joining the Libya Shield Brigade, officially under the orders of the defence minister. The brigade was sent into Sebha and Kufra in March to restore order after clashes between Tubu (an ethnic group living mainly in Chad) and Arab tribes. On its return to Benghazi in July, the brigade was entrusted with various security missions by the city’s preventive security command, itself made up of former Islamist fighters. These forces have real revolutionary legitimacy and support within the interior and defence ministries that are being set up.

It is the same in Tripoli and Misrata, where there is complicity between some Salafist militias and the city security commands, which officially report to the interior ministry but in fact only answer to their leaders, who belong to the Islamist movement. Over the last few months, Sufi zawiyas (monasteries) and marabout tombs in the centres of Tripoli, Benghazi and Zliten have been destroyed in broad daylight, while the security command militia looked on.

It is often the civilian population itself that rises up to oppose the militias. On 21 September, several thousand demonstrators in Benghazi calling for the dissolution of the Salafist militias attacked compounds belonging to three of them. After clashes that resulted in an official death toll of 11, the government made a show of taking a firm stance and announced, once again, the dissolution of militias not under the authority of the interior or defence ministries. In rural areas, too, local people have taken up arms to defend the tombs of their holy men.

The Gaddafi regime was characterised by official structures that were largely facades, with limited powers. Is post-Gaddafi Libya following the same path, with a political system whose power is only nominal? Technocrat ministers with degrees who have spent most of their lives in exile and politicians who are out of touch with reality are getting paid nearly $7,800 a month and living in suites in five-star hotels in Tripoli at $325 a night. But they have no real authority over those entrusted with the legal use of force. It is clearly in the interest of small local warlords, the Salafist groups, the interior and defence ministry militias close to them ideologically, and the organised crime groups that have taken advantage of the situation to develop flourishing businesses, to prolong this situation.

The losers are the Libyan people, who showed by their 60% turnout at the 7 July elections (2) that they had high expectations of the electoral process. Nearly a year after the death of Gaddafi, the deteriorating security situation and living conditions, lack of a state and the actions of the Salafists — whose ideology most Libyans do not share — do not encourage optimism. The tendency to fall back on local identity is likely to strengthen.

In the short term, the new prime minister, under pressure from the US to take firm action against those responsible for the attack on its consulate, will have little room for manoeuvre. Lacking a reliable military force familiar with the mountainous area where the IOARB (whose involvement is suspected) is based, he is likely to be limited to an auxiliary role in joint operations with US forces. The worst scenario for the sovereignty of the new Libya would be for the US to decide to use drones to carry out targeted killings of the suspects (“extra-judicial executions”), as it has in Yemen or Pakistan.

Translated by Charles Goulden.

Patrick Haimzadeh was a diplomat at the French embassy in Tripoli, 2001-2004. He is the author ofAu Coeur de la Libye de Kadhafi (Inside Gaddafi’s Libya), Jean-Claude Lattès, Paris, 2011.


(1) See Patrick Haimzadeh, “Libya’s unquiet election”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2012.

(2) Around 70% of the voting-age population had registered to vote.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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