Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Libya: In Search of a Strongman

Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Libyan rapid intervention force at a checkpoint in Benghazi, Libya, May 16, 2013

It is perhaps a measure of how close Libya is to breaking apart that two years after ousting one dictator, many Libyans are craving another. Rapacious brigades of armed volunteers, who are based in Misrata and Benghazi in the east, and the creaking military inherited from the old regime, which is based in the capital city of Tripoli and the west, are hurtling toward a new civil war, and the country’s ineffectual authorities seem unable to stop them. Local militias have captured the oil fields and ports, starving the government of 90 percent of its revenues; Benghazi is rife with political assassinations; in the south, Colonel Qaddafi’s kinsmen have plugged the Great Man-Made River that funnels water from the Sahara’s vast aquifers to the coast; and tribesmen across the country sporadically cut off the roads or close the airports that tie the provinces to the capital. Libya’s current prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatens to restore order with force, but his men retreat after a few shots. Confusion about whether to rely on the armed irregulars who revolted against Qaddafi or the instruments of the old regime only compounds his powerlessness.

Libyans overwhelmingly aspire to the dream of a new democratic order that animated the ideals of the revolution. But increasingly many consider such a system too delicate to overcome the country’s deep fissures. Since antiquity Libya has been a composite of separate principalities—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south—a division that has played out not only geographically and historically, but also ideologically, with the west gravitating towards the more laissez-faire Maghreb, and the east spawning religious movements, from early Christian communities to Omar Mukhtar, the warrior Muslim mystic who led the revolt against Italy’s colonial conquest. In July 2012, great numbers of the country’s six million people braved the lawless streets—where alarming numbers of weapons have proliferated since the revolution—to register and vote in the first free national election in half a century. As multiple forces assert power in different parts of the country, however, the old regional divisions have reemerged. Only a strongman, many feel, can hold Libya together. But who could it be?

The souqs buzz hopefully with names. Khalifa Haftar, Colonel Qaddafi’s old commander-in-chief, who led Libya’s army into a brutal but woefully unsuccessful invasion of Chad in 1987, appeals to those nostalgic for the old order. After abandoning his men in the Sahara, he fled to Virginia, and, backed by the CIA, schemed with little apparent success to usurp Libya’s crown. When Libya’s revolution erupted in February 2011, he returned with pomp and a convoy of plush cars as commander of Libya’s rebel ground forces.

Raised in the ways of Qaddafi, however, Haftar has failed to shake off criticism that he acts like him. A Western spy recalls meeting him during the revolution in a Libyan oil company’s offices in Benghazi, where he proudly displayed his battle plans for the assault on Tripoli on a tourist roadmap of Libya. Might the agent have a few radios to spare, he asked, so that he could talk to the front? His convoy continues to circle Libya like a medieval travelling court.

Few others have nationwide recognition, let alone national respect. Some in Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, look to one of the Colonel’s three surviving sons to rescue their fallen dynasty. Most often mentioned is Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the third son who is now in a cage in Libya’s highlands—tamed like the tigers he used to take for a walk as a student at Vienna University. His supporters in Sirte and elsewhere hope that they might yet procure his release. (On September 19, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi appeared in court in the western town of Zintan, where local authorities have refused to hand him over to Tripoli, let alone the International Criminal Court, in defiance of a UN resolution.)

Mahmoud Jibril, a clean-shaven economist who led the revolution’s first government, is another prospect. While he emerged triumphant from last year’s election as the leader of the largest party, the National Forces Alliance, he has been barred by a political isolation law prohibiting former senior officials under Qaddafi from holding office. He has since largely withdrawn from public life and, say his friends, succumbed to depression. Armed with a political machine, support from the Gulf (where he long lived in exile), sometime militia backing, and the kinship of Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfala, he might yet make a comeback.

But the name probably most often and most favorably circulated is Colonel Salem Joha. An unorthodox soldier, Joha led the battle to lift the siege Qaddafi laid on his hometown, Misrata, a port city of a half-million people, and safeguarded the revolution in the west. In the late spring of 2011, he and a handful of SAS and French Special Force spotters tracked Qaddafi’s tanks for NATO to bomb while they shot back at the regime’s snipers. When Qaddafi’s men fled Misrata after eight cruel weeks, Colonel Joha and 12,000 fighters gave chase, first to Tripoli and then to Sirte. He conquered and cornered the Great Leader in his emerald city, allowing women and children to flee, before battering it with bombs, and chasing Africa’s King of Kings into a sewer where rebels found and slew him.

Nicolas Pelham
Colonel Salem Joha

From one colonel to another. With his native Misrata pivotally placed on the eastern edge of Tripolitania, Joha would seem unusually well-placed to unite the country. As a descendent of Ramadan Sweihli, the Misratan who rose up against Libya’s Italian colonizers after World War I and briefly carved out his own Tripolitanian Republic, he seems to come from the right stock, too. He has not only a track record of success, but, in a country full of self-aggrandizing actors, an endearing modesty. Repeatedly tipped for office, he has politely demurred. He turned down the post of defense minister following Tripoli’s fall, and in recent months has declined repeated calls to become commander-in-chief, opting instead for the bit part of military attaché to the United Arab Emirates.

“I’ve turned off my phone,” he told me, when I found him in the mess of Misrata’s army barracks, during a brief escape he had made from the Gulf of Sidra’s oppressive humidity. “It’s better to be outside.” He was wearing a denim shirt and trousers, and his shaggy moustache was tanned brown from the Rothmans he chain-smoked.

Joha is critical of the old military establishment, nodding at white-haired generals in another corner of the officers’ mess who he tells me should have long since been pensioned off. “The army is only a name,” he says. “It’s aging, like they are. It’s an upturned pyramid of colonels who sleep, eat, and take their salaries, not a fighting force.” (Less than half of the 80,000-man army show up to work, another security official told me, and that is largely to chat.)

But he also doesn’t hide his disdain for all the post-Qaddafi power-grabbing by the thuwwar, as the revolutionaries are known. “The Revolution was an intifada not a project,” he said. “You can’t have a democratic project in which people across the country have a stake, when you say you’re the Revolution and the country is yours. You can’t say anyone who opposes me supports the old order. That’s what Qaddafi did.”

These barbs have turned some of the men under arms into foes. One of Joha’s relatives on Misrata’s council denounces even the mildest criticism of Libya’s revolutionaries as treachery: “They gave their blood for democracy. They supported the elections, and guarded the ballot boxes. They prevent the country from falling prey to the soldiers who fought the revolution and want to restore the old dictatorship. They protect the borders and the revolution from the predators in the south.” It could have been scripted by Qaddafi.

In Joha’s own Misrata, at least, the militias have created something of a boomtown. Cars, air-conditioners, and cement for construction pour in. Drugs, trafficked in a long loop from Morocco or even Latin America to Europe’s underbelly, flow out. Migrants—following the trans-Saharan slave-routes of old—are a profitable commodity, particularly in the summer months, when the Mediterranean is calmer and safer to cross. Glass-fronted car showrooms and clothes shops line the highways; a mock-Starbucks with armchairs serves iced coffee. A bookseller down the road has abandoned literature for a more lucrative line selling guns.

But Joha harbors no illusions. Many thuwwar are criminals, he tells me, “working in the dark as car-thieves”—sowing insecurity in order to justify demands for more militiamen to guard the streets. Others partner with local merchants to racketeer, happily liberated from the scriptures of the old dictatorship, which from 1978 to 1987 prohibited the private sector and regulated foreign trade so tightly that apples and bananas were banned. Even during Qaddafi’s tentative, late perestroika under Mahmoud Jibril—who before leading the first post-revolutionary government, had served the Great Leader as head of the National Economic Development Board of Libya (NEDB) from 2007–2011—the capital had only one mall, which was state-run. An ominous building covered with black glass, inside it is as drab as Gum, Russia’s chain of department stores in Soviet times.

In the east, meanwhile, revolutionaries blame the Misratan thuwwar for corrupting their revolution, which they fought for a vision inspired by liberation theology. “True freedom is enslavement to God,” reads the almost Qaddafiesque slogan on the desk of the mayor of an eastern town. At a three-day course in Benghazi to help thuwwar return to civilian life, a witty Salafi preacher entertains former fighters with a PowerPoint presentation in the Islamic discipline of self-control. He ends the lesson with a short film about a young Australian Muslim whom God kills in a car-crash for letting a western lifestyle—portrayed as a devil dripping in blood—lead him astray. “Stub out your cigarette, turn off your pop-music, don’t rush your prayers,” it warns in its closing credits.

But Joha finds the east’s Islamist idealists no less self-serving than the Misratans. Sadiq al-Obeida, an ex-fighter with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), and Khalid al-Sherif, a veteran of the Afghan war, both became deputy ministers of defense. They cajoled Yusef Mangoosh, chief of staff until June and another Misratan, into diverting hundreds of millions toward their weaponry and salaries. Rather than seek their disarmament, he gave their brigades an official status, calling them “Libya Shield,” and promoting their role as a quasi-National Guard, or gendarmerie. Increasingly, Libya Shield’s 10,000 fighters seem pitted against the old regime security forces, numbering perhaps 30,000, but the Shield say they can count on 140,000 more men who also claim the title of thuwwar. “You can’t have two armies in one country,” bemoaned Abu Bakr al-Rujbani, a lecturer in political science who heads Congress’ National Security Committee.

Joha’s remedies are sensible if not original. He backs the retirement of the army’s upper ranks and the retraining of the rank-and-file, for which Jordan, Turkey, Italy, Britain, the United States, and most recently Bulgaria have offered assistance. He opposes integrating militiamen into the army, except as individuals, and even then subject to careful vetting. With Libya riven by chaos, he says, elections are not, for now, a priority. The post-Qaddafi constitutional process, which with UN guidance remarkably met its early deadlines, has drifted since the 2012 elections. The largest political party is boycotting Congress, and bereft of clout to apply its laws, Congress seems to legislate in a vacuum for a virtual state. As Joha sees it, it would be better to have a leader—albeit not a military one—with western backing, empowered for five years to make decisions.

Having already watched a military attaché take power in Egypt, some argue that Joha’s turn could be next. But skeptics wonder whether it is already too late—not just for democracy but for dictatorship. In 1963, oil helped pull Libya’s three federal parts into a state—Armand Hammer, the president of Occidental Petroleum, told King Idris he preferred to negotiate with a single leader rather than three bickering ones. Fifty years on, the struggle for control of the resulting riches is wrenching Libya apart. According to a former minister from the first post-Qaddafi government, as Tripoli radiates mismanagement and disorder, support for secession has been increasing from 8 percent when the revolution began to 20 percent last year and, he anticipated, to 50 percent by the end of this year. “We’ve seen so many much smaller countries fragment in Eastern Europe when change happens,” the last remaining Western diplomat in Benghazi told me in an office swamped with applicants seeking visas. “How can you hope to manage such a big country? Both sides seem psychologically prepared for partition.”

On paper such a break up has much to offer. With 80 percent of the oil fields concentrated in the east, Benghazi could sparkle like Abu Dhabi. Other emerging coastal city-states could transform into free trade hubs like Dubai. But divided, Libya’s little pieces might feel exposed to external predators. Egypt, with its bloated population and new military leadership might look greedily to Cyrenaica’s oil riches for an answer to its economic woes. And with less counterweight from other regions, the armed tribes, Islamist groups, and would-be strongmen dominating local politics might tighten their grip, pulling the country ever further from the democratic aspirations that first fired Libya’s revolt.


Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Please note that all comments are read by a moderator prior to approval. Comments posted using real names, rather than pseudonyms, will have a better chance of being approved. Abusive, repetitive, or incoherent comments will be deleted.