Libya’s near statelessness

There was something almost surreal about the sight of Libyan Prime Minister, a matter of hours after he was abducted then released by militiamen, conceding in a television interview that occurrences like his seizure from a hotel in Tripoli last Thursday were to be expected given the chronic weakness of the state and the inability of the government to protect itself and its high officials.

What the Prime Minister was in effect conceding was that the state was being allowed to exist in a nominal sort of way but that there were groups of armed men who were not part of the state apparatus but who, nonetheless, possessed a monopoly of force.

It requires no more than a fundamental understanding of international relations to recognize that contemporary Libya finds itself in a grotesquely deformed condition and that given the nature of the country, remedying the condition will be a monumental task.

The new police force is weak and unarmed, while there has been little success in disarming the militias and integrating them into the military. The circumstances were altogether different during the toppling of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. In both countries the military remained intact and in control. In Libya the end of Gaddafi meant the collapse of the institutions responsible for law and order.  Libya, in effect, was left in a condition in which different fiefdoms, different groups of armed militias, occupied the same geographic space. That, it seems, will be the country’s fate for the foreseeable future.

It is a sobering lesson – perhaps moreso for the West than anyone else – for those of us who, in effect, understand a good deal less than we think we do about the complexities of countries and cultures like Libya’s.

Gaddafi himself, as he watched his regime crumble, had predicted that his ousting would precipitate a disintegration of the state which he had held together by force, into warring factions, separated by tribal loyalties; and even if one were to argue that the dictator was simply making a case for his own odious regime, it transpires, it appears, that his prediction about what was likely to follow his downfall was right.

Libya comprises more than 100 known tribal divisions which are further sub-divided into numerous clans. Gaddafi knew only too well that without a force with which to hold the country together whoever or whatever inherited the state would in effect have inherited nothing.

Having assumed the position of Prime Minister following the ousting of Gaddafi, Prime Minister  Zeidan knew only too well that there was no state left to speak of. The power of the state, he knew, reposes in agreement by individuals and groups to empower and submit to the authority of a central government, or else, in the capacity of the central government to compel them to do so. The state, as it happened, did not survive Gaddafi.

It is, at this juncture, not so much a question of whether the current state of Libya is a function of Nato’s decision to support and arm the rebels, as it is a matter of determining just how Libya extricates itself from a condition of lacking a bona fide state. In its current condition of intervention fatigue and with the war in Syria having seemingly reached a position of stalemate, Western  governments, having already been burnt by the pockets of power which the rebels that they supported have created will doubtless be reluctant to engage in Libya again without thinking twice ‒ or perhaps many more times. That would leave the militias to consolidate their hold on their respective fiefdoms, strengthen their positions of military force and render the Prime Minister and his government even more irrelevant.

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