Too many cooks, they say, spoil the broth. This proverbial saying fits perfectly well into what is currently playing out in the North African country of Libya. Since the brutal end of the autocratic dictatorship of the late Libyan strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, in October, 2011, the fate of the country has been hanging precariously on the brink. The revolution, as the Libyan uprising that saw the end of the Gaddafi’s era was dubbed, appears to have produced more problems for the country than it has solved.
In the absence of an active military or police force, the state has had to rely on militias who now act as security forces. The militias are paid by the Defence or Interior ministries although the ministries are largely unable to control their activities. As a result of this, there are tens of thousands of fake revolutionaries who now use the rebel name for personal gains whereas they are just gangsters prowling the streets of Libya and wreaking havoc at will.
In the last two years, the country has witnessed a lot of upheavals precipitated by these marauding militias in various parts of the country. The climax of these internecine crises in the country was the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, the home of the Libyan uprising, in which Christopher Stevens, the United States Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans were killed. Since then, it has been one form of threat or another from the roving militants who now bestrode the street of Libya with impunity.
If it is apparent that the average Libyan resident may have got used to the tension in the country, but not with the latest dimension the whole thing seems to have assumed. Last Thursday, Corinthia Hotel, an imposing tower near the coast in downtown Tripoli, played host to some unusual visitors in the wee hours of that fateful day.
The unusual visitors were scores of gunmen who invaded the hotel where Ali Zidan, the country’s Prime Minister, and other top government officials reside. After a brief scuffle with hotel security guards, the prime minister quickly instructed his personal bodyguards to stand down against the ‘invaders’ and surrendered himself. He was promptly taken away.
Hours after the incident, a group called the Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries claimed responsibility. The militias later released a photo of Zidan looking morose and ensconced between two militants. Initially, the militias claimed to have an arrest warrant against the prime minister on accusations of harming state security and corruption.
This claim was immediately debunked by the public prosecutor’s office which said that such a warrant never existed.
As the day progressed and public outrage mounted, the militants changed their storyline. The group said their action was in response to the comments made by John Kerry, the U.S Secretary of State that the Libyan government was aware of the U.S Delta Force’ raid that captured Nazil Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, a wanted terrorist suspect, in Tripoli on Saturday, October 5, 2013 and spirited out of the country.
The U.S raid had sparked protests and complaints from Libyan officials and politicians who claimed that the Americans had violated Libya’s national sovereignty.
Shortly after the militias’ reference to Kerry’s comment on the arrest of the wanted terror suspect, Marie Harf, spokeswoman for Kerry, said the American Secretary of State never said that the Libyans were informed in advance of the planned operation, as the group suggested.
According to him, what Kerry said at a press conference in Indonesia was: “We consult regularly with the Libyan government on a range of security and counter-terrorism issues but we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government or in any kind of operation of this kind”. Speaking further on the incident, American officials argued against concluding that the prime minister’s kidnapping was a backlash against the U.S raid.
A senior U.S. official said: “Any time you take action like that, you want to understand the impacts to the host government, especially one that we want to continue to work with”.
However, the prime minister’s ordeal ended barely six hours after his abduction, when “he was set free” ostensibly out of frenetic pressure from other senior government officials and militia commanders. A day after his release, Zidan said his brief abduction by gunmen was an “attempted coup” by his Islamist political rivals, using militias which he warned are trying to “terrorize” the government and turn the North African nation into another Afghanistan or Somalia.
With this nationally televised address, the embattled prime minister appeared to be trying to leverage public shock over his abduction into a momentum against his political opponents and the multiple armed groups stirring chaos in the country since 2011. The militias, including Islamic extremists, carry out daily violence nationwide and have defied attempts by the weak central authorities to rein them in. Doing so has been an uphill task for the government who is daily confronted with the tremor associated with the militias’ activities all over the country.
Since Gaddafi’s ouster and death, the groups have grown and multiplied. Many tout themselves as defending the “revolution’s goals”, but often act to protect fiefdoms they have carved out for themselves, while blackmailing or intimidating citizens. Others have Islamic extremist ideologies and are suspected of links to al-Qaida and other extremist groups across North Africa and in Egypt.
Just last month, militiamen abducted the son of the defence minister in a move seen as an attempt to prevent any action against the groups. Several weeks ago, the militia of al-Tajouri, which rescued Zidan, seized the daughter of the Gaddafi-era intelligence chief and held her briefly. Earlier this year, militiamen besieged government buildings for days to exert pressure on lawmakers to adopt a law banning Gaddafi-era politicians from holding any posts.
Similarly, last July, 33-year-old Ibrahim al-Jathran, a former rebel with a 17,000-strong militia in eastern Libya, ordered his fighters to shut down two of the country’s main oil export terminals. Jathran is seeking more autonomy for the eastern part of Libya.
These unrests have dented hopes for a rebound of the energy sector in Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves. In actual fact, International oil companies, as well as, international diplomatic missions, started retrenching their Western staffing levels after the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi that killed the U.S. Ambassador and three others.
The apparent backlash against the government over the al-Libi raid could make Tripoli even more wary of allowing Washington to go after other wanted terrorists on Libyan soil. In particular, the U.S. has sought the arrest of terrorists behind the September. 11, 2012 attack on its consulate in Benghazi. Though, some of the suspects live openly in the eastern city, but the state is powerless to pursue them.
Zidan has been struggling with political opponents and militias since he was named by parliament to lead the country about a year ago. The prime minister is one of the few senior people on the Libyan political scene today who never had his own militia or front line experience in the revolution.
He was working in Geneva as a human rights lawyer when the uprising against Gaddafi erupted. His diplomacy with European nations, especially France, was key to gaining international support for the rebel movement. As prime minister, Zidan has struggled to cobble Libya’s fractured militia groups into a national security force loyal to the central government instead of provincial commanders or strongmen.
Therefore, the recent kidnapping of one of Libyan citizens by special US forces, which has raised serious concerns about double standards concerning international laws, followed by the kidnapping of Zidan himself, is really a cause for concern for all on what has been a disgraceful handling of the Libyan affairs. The problem is that Gaddafi was taken out, like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with no thought given to what would come next. The truth is that Libya is a country of tribal rivalries held together by Gaddafi while his dictatorship lasted. You can’t just remove him and be surprised when the tribes start jostling amongst one another for supremacy. This whole idea that you give countries an election and they become western liberal democracies overnight is somehow a liberal nonsense!