Is Libya Cracking Up?

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…

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