Libya: Anarchy looms

Damage to Tripoli airport caused by fighting

Foreign involvement and reckless militias make a flammable cocktail, writes The Economist

In the three years since joyous rebels seized the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the country has lurched from crisis to crisis, yet somehow stayed afloat. It is now sinking, weighed down by too many guns and too many factions, with too few institutions to repair the leaks wrought under the erratic dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi.

To make things worse Libya now threatens to have two self-proclaimed governments and two parliaments: one was elected in June, but the other has refused to disband. A motley array of militias backs each, and varied regional powers back them: on August 18th and 23rd, unidentified aircraft, which later turned out to have been based in Egypt but flown by pilots from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), bombed targets in Tripoli. In short, Libya now combines all the ingredients, including meddling foreigners, for a protracted civil war.

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For those Libyans who complain about Western powers fiddling as their country slides into anarchy, the revelation that an Arab air force secretly mounted strikes against one side in a Tripoli militia battle prompted a certain satisfaction. So too did news that American officials were fuming over the intervention. “Why such a big fuss?” asked one wealthy backer of the opposing side. “The Americans don’t seem to care about the state Libya is in.”

The air strikes did not, however, affect the outcome of the battle that had paralysed the Libyan capital for more than five weeks. It ended on August 23rd, when the prize fought over, the city’s international airport (or what remains of it), changed hands. The victors were those whose positions had been targeted by the mystery warplanes: an alliance of militias, chief among them units from the prosperous port city of Misrata, which joined Islamists, Amazigh (or Berber) and other fighters drawn from several smaller towns on Libya’s western flank. They defeated militiamen from the conservative western mountain town of Zintan who had held the airport since Qaddafi fell in 2011.

For Zintan the loss of its most important strategic asset is a huge blow: a prominent militia leader once boasted that the airport was “worth a thousand ministries”. It upends what had been a delicate balance of power in Tripoli and raises the prospect of more violence to come. “The battle is lost but the war has just begun,” wrote a Zintani militiaman on Facebook.

That war is linked to a broader Libyan power struggle too often reduced to a misleading narrative of Islamist versus non-Islamist. In fact, it is less an ideological battle than a scramble between competing interest groups rooted in regional, economic and social dynamics. Each side spins its own yarns: the Misratis, who have the country’s strongest militias, and their allies claim they are routing an attempted counter-revolution orchestrated by former regime figures; the Zintanis, aligned with more liberal-leaning groups, profess to be battling against an Islamist takeover.

Elements on each side are backed by regional patrons and opponents of political Islam, notably Qatar and the UAE. The two Gulf rivals were the most prominent of the Arab countries that helped oust Qaddafi, sending a handful of fighter jets as part of the NATO-led campaign but also backing different factions on the ground. Qatar was accused of favouring Islamist forces and the UAE more tribal-oriented and regional militias, particularly those from Zintan.

Libya’s new parliament, elected in the June ballot in which Islamists fared badly, denounced those who had captured Tripoli airport. From the eastern city of Tobruk, where the parliament has been sitting because Tripoli and Libya’s second city, Benghazi, are too dangerous, it declared the triumphant militia alliance, operating under the name Libyan Dawn, a “terrorist organisation”. Dawn, meanwhile, condemned the parliament for taking sides and for calling for foreign intervention. It also spurred the parliament’s predecessor, the discredited national congress, to reconvene and to name its own “national salvation” government instead.

The resolution of the airport battle comes as Khalifa Haftar, a former general loosely allied to the Zintanis, is stalling in his self-declared war against Islamists in eastern Libya, despite support from Egypt and the UAE. The hapless government is increasingly shaky. Most of its members are scattered outside Tripoli; seven of them said this week they were resigning. Many Libyans fear a scenario where the elected legislature, recognised internationally and supported by Mr Haftar’s forces and tribal militias in the east, vies with a self-declared parliament in the capital buttressed by Misrata’s militias and their allies.

Britain, France, Germany and Italy have joined the United States in expressing concern about the air strikes. “Foreign intervention won’t help Libya get out of chaos,” said the UN’s incoming envoy, Bernardino Leon. On August 27th the UN Security Council endorsed a resolution which bolsters the existing arms embargo on Libya and may lead to sanctions against Dawn’s (and other) leaders.

Egyptian officials deny involvement in the raids and the Emiratis have not commented. But the two, along with such Arab allies as Saudi Arabia and Algeria, make no secret of their concern that Libya is on the brink of failed statehood and could become a haven for regional jihadists. Libyans who have clamoured for foreign intervention say they are glad someone acted and hope they will again. Judging by the outcome of the Tripoli raids, however, it will take far more than a few bombs to tip the balance.

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May I suggest that Libya is now in danger of falling to ISIS-minded groups and that this is the worst possible outcome, much worse than involvement by neighbours trying to forestall that very fate?

Too radical an idea for The Economist I guess.

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