Ending Libya's free-for-all                 

The "bitter truth", according to a headline in the Daily Mail this week, is that Iraq and Libya "were better off under the tyrants toppled by an arrogant and naive west". In the article below, columnist Stephen Glover asked:

"Where would you prefer to try to live a half-normal life – in Gaddafi’s mostly peaceable Tripoli or in a city fought over by pitiless gunmen? 

"Would it be better to inhabit Saddam Hussein’s Mosul or the city now transformed into a killing field by Islamic State? I know where my preferences would lie."

Oh for the good old days when a firm hand kept control and everyone knew their place! 

But the flaw in this argument is that dictators don't go on for ever. If they are not overthrown they will eventually die in office – and then what? The whole point of being a dictator is to dictate. Dictators accumulate power around their person and construct the state so that it cannot function without them. Fear of what will happen when they are gone is what helps to keep them in power: "Après moi, le déluge," as Louis XV of France reputedly said.

Writing in the New Yorker, Libyan novelist Hisham Matar explains:

"Those who regret the end of Qaddafi's regime ignore how the current chaos is the product of four decades of oppression. 'Wasn't Qaddafi better?' is the wrong question, because it doesn't illuminate the objective reality of post-revolutionary Libya. To understand today's events, one must remember what life was like under Qaddafi. The state was designed around an individual and his family; it resembled more a Mafia than a political structure. And so ending the dictatorship meant ending the state.

"Without a fully functioning national army and police force, and other state institutions, building an accountable and democratic government is going to be immensely hard. Contributing to this is the legacy of Qaddafi’s oppression of dissent. Modern Libya is sixty-five years old, dating from 1951. For almost two-thirds of that time, it was ruled by one voice. In light of this history, creating a political atmosphere that permits and encourages difference and plurality will be difficult ...

"Qaddafi created ideal conditions for intolerant and violent politics."

The current situation in Libya defies all simple narratives. Reuters correctly described it this week as a free-for-all:

"The collapse of Gaddafi's four decades of single man rule has left Libya an armed free-for-all, where cities, regions, charismatic individuals, urban neighbourhoods and rural tribes all field their own armed forces.

"Towns fight towns; Islamists oppose nationalists; federalists rise up against central government; ex-Gaddafi units clash with former revolutionaries – and everyone has guns, artillery, tanks and missiles, taken from the vast arsenals the deposed dictator had stashed across the country."

Though some resort to ideological language in support of their cause, this actually has very little to do with ideology. It's a tussle among competing interest groups, with social and economic factors at the root.

Inevitably, this has brought new calls for foreigners to help sort it out. "It is highly probable that, absent some form of international intervention, these clashes [will] escalate into an all-out armed confrontation," Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council, a Washington thinktank, told the Christian Science Monitor.

But while some kind of international security force might help to keep a lid on the situation, it would not solve the underlying problem – it would simply postpone a solution.

The solution will come when Libyans start to realise that they are all in the same boat and if they allow it to capsize they will all drown. One fact worth reflecting on in that regard is that 80% of the workforce are on the government's payroll: without a government, where is their money going to come from?

A second fact to reflect on is that Libya depends for its money overwhelmingly on oil. This makes oil installations a popular target for all sorts of attacks but in the long run it also means the attackers are attacking themselves. 

One way of stopping that would be to give all Libyans a tangible and visible stake in the success of their oil industry. Make the government rely on taxes for its income, rather than oil revenue, and distribute profits from oil equally among the citizens.

That would also make the government (and the oil industry itself) more accountable, and the resulting need for transparency would help to reduce corruption.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 2 August 2014