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Is Libya Cracking Up?

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Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Libyan women waving the new Libyan flag (right) and the flag of the Amazigh people—often called Berbers—during an Amazigh festival in Tripoli, September 27, 2011. The indigenous Amazigh people are asking that a new Libyan constitution include official recognition of their language and culture, which had been prohibited by Muammar Qaddafi.

Eight months after Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow, journalists seeking wars in Libya have to journey deep into the Sahara and beyond the horizons of most Libyans to find them. A senior official of Libya’s temporary ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), flippantly waved away an invitation to leave his residence at the Rixos, Qaddafi’s palatial Tripoli hotel, to join a fact-finding delegation to Kufra, a trading post 1,300 kilometers to the southeast, near Sudan and Chad. “Isn’t it Africa?” he asks.

Yet for Libya’s new governors, the turbulent south—home to Libya’s wells of water and oil—is unnerving. Since Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, declared an end to the civil war last October, the violence in the south is worse than it was during the struggle to oust Qaddafi. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, according to UN figures, tens of thousands displaced in ethnic feuding. Without its dictator to keep the lid on, the country, it seems, is boiling over the sides.

Kufra, some six hundred kilometers from the nearest Libyan town, epitomizes the postwar neglect. Several on the NTC’s nine-man mission I accompanied in late April were making their first visit there. The air of exuberance we felt flying aboard Qaddafi’s private jet and breakfasting on salmon-filled omelets cooked by his dashing stewardess, clad in a scarlet uniform, vanished as we began our descent. How much protection could we expect from the two members of the mission who had been included to protect the group and who had been recruited for the journey from the Kufra’s two fighting tribes—the Arab Zuwayy and the black Toubou? A NTC official criticized the pilot for approaching the runway from the town, where we made an easy target, not the desert. The airfield was deserted.

“We have a tradition of welcoming our guests,” said the Zuwayy’s tribal sheikh, Mohammed Suleiman, in less than welcoming tones, once we had found his mansion. “But we’re cursing this government for abandoning us to the Africans.” A room full of sixty tribesmen echoed his rebuke; since the revolution, members of the Toubou tribe had swarmed into the town and were threatening to wrest control of the oil fields nearby, he said. For the sheikh, the only solution was to expel them.

The catalyst for the fighting had been the NTC’s appointment of a Toubou leader to guard the Chad frontier, thus putting him in control of trans-Saharan smuggling, apparently as a reward for his support in the revolution. Gasoline, which in Libya is cheaper than water, subsidized flour, and guns go out; whisky and migrants come in. Though the Zuwayy had ten times as many Mercedes trucks as the Toubou, their incomes had plummeted. As animosities rose, the two tribes divided their mixed town of Kufra into fortified zones and fired mortars at each other’s houses. In fighting that followed this spring, 150 were killed.

After a communal meal of lambs’ heads served on vast tin trays, we crossed town to the Toubou quarter. Red-tiled Swiss-style villas gave way to African cinder-block shanties, some blackened by bombing. Tarmac roads led into sandy tracks. Where the Zuwayy had served us a feast on thick blood-red carpets, the Toubou poured glasses of goat yogurt. The Zuwayy had chandeliers; the Toubou had a flickering neon strip and sporadic blackouts. “The air-conditioning is broken,” their spokesmen apologized. The NTC delegates, who sat silently during the Zuwayys’ browbeating, now seemed like feudal lords chiding troublesome peasants; as we left they said the Toubou border guards were outlaws. The next day fighting flared. At a gathering of Libya’s many militias in Benghazi, nearly a thousand kilometers to the north, startled UN officials ducked for cover as Zuwayy and Toubou gunmen faced off in the corridors.

Some nine hundred kilometers west of Kufra as the crow or plane flies—for there are no roads—Sabha, the provincial capital of the southwestern Fezzan, also suffered from ethnic strife. On March 27, in the midst of a heated session of a local military council meeting to discuss the allocation of payments to former fighters, the representative of the Awlad Suleiman, another Arab tribe, shot three Toubou councilors dead. As the fighting spread, Arab snipers took to their villa rooftops and lobbed Katyusha rockets across the tin wall separating their neighborhood from the Toubou shantytown of Tayuri. Footage on their mobile phones shows tribesmen parking their tanks at Tayuri’s entrance and shelling its shacks. When the firing subsided three days later, the Toubou counted seventy-six dead in the shantytown alone. Scores more were killed on the roads.

Like the Toubou, North Africa’s indigenous Berbers—or Imazighen as they prefer to call themselves—depict Qaddafi’s rule as four decades of unremitting Arabization. To erase their ethnicity, they say, Qaddafi labeled them mountain Arabs, replaced their historic place-names with Arab ones, and suppressed the Ibadi school of Islam that many Imazighen follow on account of its more egalitarian bent. Unlike Sunnis, the mainstream Ibadi school opens up leadership of the Muslim community to all ethnic groups, not only the Quraish, the Prophet Muhammad’s Arab tribe. Qaddafi accused mothers who spoke the Amazigh tongue, Tifinagh, at home of feeding poison to their children.

While the Toubou number several tens of thousands, Amazigh leaders estimate—somewhat optimistically—that they make up 25 percent of Libya’s six million people. From the desert in the south, where they are called Tuareg, to the Berber town of Zwara on the coast, they have been more successful than the Toubou in sloughing off Qaddafi’s lingering Arabization. In Zwara, the brightly colored Amazigh flag flies from the lampposts and shops sport freshly painted signs in Tifinagh, their hitherto illicit script. Zwara’s Berber militias have seized control of the nearby Tunisian border and rampaged through Riqdaleen, a neighboring Arab town where the shopfronts remain stubbornly green, the color of Qaddafi’s regime. After Qaddafi’s son Khamis fled Tripoli at the head of his praetorian guard, the 32nd Brigade, in mid-August last year, he briefly found a safe haven in Riqdaleen. Even today, only 30 percent of the town supported the revolution, a member of the local council told me. He works as a Total oil field manager.

Riqdaleen’s Arabs have tried to fight back, not least for their border and its contraband profits. Last month, fighters in Riqdaleen captured twenty-nine Zwaran militiamen patrolling the border and beat them up, claiming they were trespassing. Only after the two towns had engaged in the ritual of lobbing missiles at each other’s houses, killing a few dozen people, and only after marauding Zwarans had destroyed Riqdaleen’s engineering college and torched several shops, did Zwara secure their release.

Both sides speak of arming for the battle ahead. Photographs of mutilated cadavers displayed on mobile phones ensure that the scars remain open. The graffiti that raiding Zwarans left on Riqdaleen’s walls threatened to turn the town into a “second Tuwagha,” the site inhabited by pro-Qaddafi black Libyans that militiamen from Misrata, further east, ethnically cleansed in the fall. “We don’t see a new Libya,” the Riqdaleen town councilor told me. “We’re starting to regret. The Berbers want us out.”

In what Riqdaleen fears is a precedent, Zwarans have evicted some seven hundred Arab workers from the housing compound of their chemical factory, Abu Kammash, saying the workers were complicit in Qaddafi’s plot to wipe their Berber town off the map. Since its opening in the 1980s—atop what Zwarans say is an old Amazigh graveyard—the plant employing these workers had spewed mercury and acid into the sea, poisoning the Zwarans’ fishing waters and population. The compound’s few remaining Arab residents cower from the Zwaran squatters who have taken over the empty houses, and wonder when their turn for eviction will come. They say Zwarans—violating Muslim law—spend their nights drunk on contraband whisky and frolicking with Tunisian prostitutes, as well as firing their guns into the sky. “They claim they are revolutionaries and therefore untouchable,” explains a teenage boy. Nasr, a former factory technician who has found refuge in Riqdaleen, says he has nightmares about Berber militiamen sleeping in his bed and wearing his clothes. “If this is the price we have to pay for freedom, it’s not worth it,” he says.

While separately none of the communal battles alone poses an immediate threat to Libya’s unity, the border skirmishes risk stirring broader upheavals that could pick apart Libya and its neighbors. Riqdaleen sees itself as a potential bridgehead for tens of thousands of Qaddafi supporters who have sought refuge in Tunisia and may return. Kufra’s feuding parties are attracting supporters from opposite ends of the Sahara, from the Mediterranean to the northern scrub land of Chad. Arab militiamen in Benghazi see a cause and an opportunity to fly the Prophet Muhammad’s black flag of jihad; the Toubou in Chad are anxious to repel an Arab attack on their fellow tribesmen. As the contents of Qaddafi’s armories spread across the region, gun markets are sprouting across middle-class Tunisia and fueling the low-level insurgency that Sinai’s Bedouin are waging against their Egyptian overseers. Equipped with their extensive bullion, Qaddafi’s surviving children—his son Saadi in Niamey, Niger, and daughter Aisha, in Algiers—stir up their old followers. Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance.

Of all the ethnic movements that have surfaced since Qaddafi’s overthrow, that of the Imazighen has the greatest reach. In two months of travels across North Africa I repeatedly crossed paths with Fathi Khalifa, a highly articulate Berber from Zwara, wearing a silver suit and tie, who heads the World Amazigh Congress, a Paris-based organization promoting a pan–North African Berber revival. At an Amazigh gathering in Morocco I heard him advocating the revival of Tamazgha, the fabled Amazigh homeland stretching from the Canary Islands to Siwa, an Egyptian oasis. In Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, I met him leading a rally celebrating Tafsaweet, the Amazigh spring, and demanding official recognition of Tifinagh, the Amazigh language, by the new Libya. At a tribal feast in Sabha, I found him wooing the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe—estimated at one million strong—with an etymological lesson on the Amazigh roots of their name.

Despite the obvious threat to their preeminence, many Arabs appear remarkably tolerant of ethnic rivals. Arab civil servants hire private teachers to learn Tifinagh. Arabic radio stations invite Khalifa to appear on chat shows. A civil rights movement staging an anti-militia protest at the same time and place as Khalifa’s rally in Tripoli invited Amazigh activists onto the podium to show their flags and address their supporters. Even when a protester cried (in Arabic) that one day Libyans would speak no tongue but Tifinagh, the hosts cheered. At one of Khalifa’s lectures in a public hall in Sabha, garlanded in Amazigh flags and pictures of such Berber icons as the Algerian soccer player Zinedine Zidane, Arabs almost outnumbered Imazighen.

Even so, there are limits. When Khalifa described Arabism as a foreign implant, there were gasps. When he described the seventh-century advent of Islam as a ghazu, or invasion, some walked out. Several heckled after he called the Islamic crescent on Libya’s flag “a relic of Turkish colonialism” and proposed replacing it with a trident, an Amazigh symbol. His backing for the Amazigh declaration of a separate homeland—Azawad—in northern Mali sparked fears that he had similar plans for Libya. Though he denied it, his Tuareg bodyguard told me that the arms he smuggled to Mali would one day help to push the borders of his Azawad homeland from Timbuktu north via Sabha to Spain. “Can’t you put your dreams on hold while we all get Libya back on its feet?” asked one of five imposing Arabs who confronted Khalifa as we sat in a Tripoli café sipping macchiatos.

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Mike King

If the periphery is fraying, the center, at first sight, has taken serious steps to set up an authority that its architects hope will sooner or later radiate out to the provinces. As under Qaddafi, Tripoli displays the best that revolutionary Libya has to offer. Utilities work. Air-conditioners cool tempers. Civil servants clock in at ministries. Banks have lifted wartime restrictions on cash withdrawals. International airlines unload their cargoes of oil prospectors and businessmen for the latest trade fair. Government coffers are flush with oil revenues of $5 billion a month. Unlike Baghdad’s quick turn to insurgency after the US ousted Saddam Hussein, Tripoli has resumed business. Tripolitanians fail to understand their bad press.

The presence of militiamen is receding as well. The checkpoints manned by irregulars that once crisscrossed the capital are gone, and their heavy weapons have fallen silent. Tripoli’s professionals nervously speak of the last of the Misratans, the militia from the large town of Misrata that fought in Tripoli. Despite the prevalence of weapons—some 20 million guns are estimated to be circulating in Libya—crime levels in Tripoli are said to be lower than in many Western capitals. Store managers have whitewashed away the obsessive green, the color of the book Qaddafi wrote to reveal his Third Universal Theory, perhaps the world’s wackiest personality cult. Salafis troop into the former cathedral, now a mosque, for a lecture on the virtues of polygamy. Otherwise, for a moment, it might be Europe.

In the People’s Congress where delegates waited for the Great Leader to raise his hand before voting, the halls buzz with a plethora of community organizations criticizing the NTC’s management. New radio stations offer traffic updates, a novelty in a country where Qaddafi banned reports of car accidents and traffic jams lest they stain his utopia. On Ozone Radio you hear, “Sexy girl, I like the way you’re grooving”—another novelty, since Qaddafi also banned Western pop. In place of a melodramatic megalomaniac, the country has for a leader a soft-spoken professor, Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib. When I talked with him on his arrival from the United Arab Emirates in Tripoli in August 2011, he shed some tears in a handkerchief when the rebel victory became clear. Later he offered to be my guide, driving me around the capital. So long had he spent in exile that he had to stop to ask for directions to the Corinthia Hotel, the capital’s bulkiest landmark.

For all his kindness, al-Keib’s self-effacing nature makes him vulnerable. For many Libyans, he seems too small and retiring to step into the Great Leader’s shoes. That he has no accompanying goons around him only makes him seem weak. In addition, a rapid changeover of governments has confounded efforts to make plans. Ministers say their only mandate is to prepare for the ballot for an elected assembly in June. Officials use the formula “not before the elections,” insisting that only an elected authority would have the legitimacy to undertake substantial change.

The result is that the part of the bureaucracy that continues to function largely belongs to the old Qaddafi order. Visas remain as hard to come by for foreign journalists as under Qaddafi. And minorities detect signs in government ministries that the colonel’s promotion of the Arab cause is making a comeback. Only after a month of protests did the government appoint an Amazigh minister. The old ways persist. The NTC has been under heavy pressure from workers striking to uphold their right to elect their own bosses, in accordance with the Third Universal Theory. Children at birthday parties still clamor for green balloons. Revolutionaries struggle—often in vain—to coin a post-Qaddafi terminology and method for their new institutions.

“Revolutionary committees” continue to exercise sway as part of a shadow government. Katibas, or brigades of paramilitaries, remain beyond the control of the formal military chain of command. “After forty years Qaddafi lives in our minds,” I was told by the minister of industry.

Where the state does not function, there are impulses toward anarchy. Drivers head the wrong way up a one-way street shouting Libya Hurra—Libya’s Free. A mild-mannered bank clerk tells me he drives to work repeating the mantra “kill or be killed.” A taxi driver pulls out a brochure for German guns and recommends that I purchase one called a Viper Desert. Looters are still active; some cite Koranic verses justifying their rights to ghanima, the spoils of war. The words “holy property” are scrawled on mansion walls all over the capital. “From the garage or God?” Libyans ask friends driving new sports cars.

Reestablishing law and order has proved to be the hardest task, not least because many militias want to provide an alternative. The government has succeeded in cajoling the militiamen to make a formal decision to leave the capital’s airports. But whole units have simply switched uniforms and painted their cars the red and white of security vehicles. “We call them policemen,” a security official tells me; but the new Libya still has no criminal justice system, because judges are too nervous to issue verdicts, and the police too powerless to enforce them.

In their absence, the militias offer what little rough justice exists. They maintain their own makeshift detention centers with an estimated five thousand captives, all held without prospect of trial. “Tripoli is safe only as long as the rebels are here,” says Faraj Sweihli, an eccentric militia leader from Misrata who has refused to hand over his headquarters in Tripoli’s military college for women despite government requests to leave. While I am talking to him, he threatens to arrest me for not having a government press card. (He did the same to two English journalists a month earlier.) A friend in Tripoli calls the uprising Libya’s “rebelution.”

The arrival of private security companies, primarily from London, further undermines the government’s hope of regaining a monopoly on the use of force. Soldiers and veterans of Baghdad and Kabul, they are the “West’s Afghans”—a counterpoint to the movement of global jihad, chasing the world’s crises to sell their mercenary services. Though they carry arms, few are registered, and none are regulated. They open safe houses in Tripoli while they solicit contracts to guard oil installations and establish a multibillion-dollar border force. The EU delegation made a deal for its protection with G4S, a company that helps secure Ofer, an Israeli prison for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

With “security” in so many competing hands, many fear violence will only get worse. Security officials attempting to instill some method into this madness estimate that some 15,000 fighters took part in the battle to topple Qaddafi. Of these, they say, thousands have returned to their previous jobs, from car mechanics to psychiatrists. But the authorities’ attempt to forge a new security apparatus out of the remnant has hit an impasse in part of their own making. Enticed by government handouts of 4,000 dinars for married men who took up arms against Qaddafi’s regime and 2,400 for bachelors, as well as the chance to cover up their history of involvement with Qaddafi, hundreds of thousands more have registered as “revolutionaries,” proclaiming their loyalty to some sixty militias. “The truth is no one knows how many there are,” I was told by Mustafa Rugbani, the labor minister and former Paris-based IBM manager responsible for vetting recruits.

The authorities claim to have established a 78,000-strong security force that is independent of the militias. A few hundred officers and men—primarily professionals from Qaddafi’s old army—have been dispatched to the south to set up buffer zones between the feuding forces. Although cease-fires have largely held, there are a good many exceptions and the army is too stretched to do more than curb the most egregious bloodletting. The army set up a zone of twenty kilometers at the western borders from which militias were to be excluded. It remains unenforced. An April 2 deadline for the dissolution of militias has come and gone. So have predictions by spokesmen for the transitional council that militias would largely disappear from Libya by mid-May. With sporadic attacks on the prime minister’s office, even in Tripoli the government can seem more ephemeral than the militias.

Elections for a two-hundred-seat assembly scheduled for mid-June remain the best chance to replace the militias with the legitimacy of the ballot box. Behind the scenes, Ian Martin, the UN’s special representative in Libya, drawing on his experience overseeing elections in East Timor and Nepal, has been trying to get the NTC to keep to its timetable. Voter registration has proceeded remarkably smoothly, even in the south. According to the UN more than two million of Libya’s estimated three million voters registered within the first two weeks.

But it is unclear whether the forces working against the elections will allow them to proceed on time. Reluctant to relinquish their golden goose, members of the NTC say there mustn’t be hasty elections. Communal and tribal politicians favor holding local elections first in order to buy time to build up regional power bases. Above all the militias are afraid that an elected government will strip them of their authority and revolutionary credibility. Daw Ahmed al-Mansouri, a teacher on a reconciliation committee in the town of Sabha, told me he is still deciding whether to run for office. “Any militia unhappy with the results can use its stockpile of heavy weapons to shell a polling station or kill a candidate,” he says.

Nowhere are the militias stronger than in Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya’s “rebelution” began. After a year of paralysis, the goodwill that still keeps the wheels of central authority turning in Tripoli has evaporated here. The courthouse, beneath which tens of thousands gathered to hail the new rulers in the first days of the uprising, is boarded up. Its leaders have long since left for the plusher world of Tripoli, lured by free accommodation in the marble decadence of the city’s Rixos Hotel. Left behind, Benghazi languishes, as before the revolution, in a perpetual ghayla—the siesta that Libyans take between the midday and late afternoon prayers. The dirt and dust of abandonment coat the city along with smoke from a thousand burning refuse piles. “At least there was a system before,” I was told by a middle-aged soccer fan, whose al-Ahli team shut down after its chairman fled to Egypt with the company’s proceeds. “Now there is nothing.”

Strikes are the exception in Tripoli but they have become the norm in Benghazi. The war wounded have set up a roadblock along the coastal road to force the government to pay for their medical treatment abroad. Gasoline haulers demanding pay hikes park their trucks outside garages. The headquarters of Agoco, the national oil company’s eastern subsidiary, which functioned for the first months of the revolution and through which much of the country’s oil flows, was closed for four weeks in April and May. On the day that I visited, picketers had barricaded its gates. “We protected the company from Qaddafi with our lives and it gave us nothing back,” says a protester. He said he was a cleaner fired earlier this year to make way for newly arrived and cheaper Bangladeshis.

With the collapse of central authority, militias rule in and around Benghazi. The day I arrived there hundreds of militia members had converged on the city for a congress aimed at unifying their ranks and reclaiming what they see as their rightful inheritance from the NTC and whatever elected authority might follow. “Benghazi paid the price, and Tripoli takes the profits,” declared the organizer, as he spoke from the podium after the militiamen had feasted beneath a golden canopy, regaling each other with past exploits.

Paraplegics paraded their untreated injuries, shouting war cries and accusing the health minister of pilfering the funds for their treatment. A skinhead in jeans and a camouflage jacket pranced across the stage, claiming he had killed Qaddafi, only to be denied his prize money. “I was a taxi driver before, and I’m a taxi driver now,” I was told by Ahmed Sweib of the Lions of Libya Brigade. (He drives a blue-metallic two-door Daewoo with the word PUNISHER stenciled on the back window in Gothic capitals, and black flames painted on the side. The car has a German license plate.)

Many of the former militiamen appear as mentally battered as the buildings they fought for in the eight months of bloodshed. “They returned from the front line, from war, to find no one wanted them,” I was told by a psychiatrist who ran a soup kitchen on the front. “They thought they were heroes, and were treated as troublemakers. That’s why they act so boisterously and aggressively. That’s why they say Libya needs another revolution.”

Their capacity for being spoilers is substantial, whether of the electoral process or the system of government. “Revolutionaries have to lead the country of the revolution,” says Hussein bin Ahmed, an oil engineer turned general coordinator for preventative security, who acted as host for the militias’ congress in his headquarters. In their concluding session, delegates resolved not to hand over weapons “to those who killed us”—that is, the NTC’s formal army, which they see as recruited from old regime forces—and some delegates drew up plans for a united militia to protect the revolution.

Some at least seemed prepared to use force to defend their powers. When the UN’s Ian Martin arrived outside an Interior Ministry office in Benghazi to discuss plans for security sector reform, someone hurled a gelignite stick under his armored car. Two NTC members have been kidnapped for supporting—in view of widespread fraud—the cancellation by the council of handouts for militiamen. On May 8, two hundred militiamen opened fire on the prime minister’s Tripoli office with anti-tank guns, forcing the unfortunate al-Keib to briefly take flight.

Against such pressures, there are signs that the NTC is buckling. It has agreed to establish a Patriotism and Integrity Commission, a star chamber for de-Qaddafization, which will vet all appointments from officials to electoral candidates. Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, a Benghazi lawyer who announced the NTC’s formation in the early days of the uprising, lost his NTC post amid accusations of being an associate of Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam. Some want Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Qaddafi’s justice minister who replaced him, and his first prime minister, Mahmoud Jibreel, another of Seif’s appointees, to suffer a similar fate.

More sober voices caution that the root-and-branch elimination of all remnants of the old civil service and security forces will precipitate the country’s collapse, as happened for some years in Iraq. A poet I met at the Amazigh rally in Tripoli told me, “Everyone blames the vestiges of the old order for their woes, as if they had no association with it. But the truth is we were all complicit. We had to survive.” A Salafi car dealer, who spent years in Qaddafi’s torture chamber of Bu Salim and has a job in the Interior Ministry, warns of repeating the mistakes of France’s postrevolutionary reign of terror. Quoting an eighteenth-century revolutionary who was subsequently guillotined, he warns, “Like Saturn, the revolution is devouring its children.” And then he adds, “A small country cannot afford such a loss of qualified staff.”

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