Tue, Oct 23, 2012 - Page 9 News List

A year after Qaddafi’s death, Libya struggles to unite

Rebel forces are battling for Bani Walid, the last bastion of Qaddafi’s former henchmen, while Libya’s inexperienced leaders struggle to assert authority

By Chris Stephen  /  The Guardian, near BANI WALID, Libya

The government, to no one’s surprise, is divided over Bani Walid: Government-appointed militias are conducting the offensive on their own initiative, with ministers sitting on their hands, in part for fear of civilian casualties.

Bani Walid is only one of a dozen security headaches. The Islamist militia blamed for the killing of Stevens in Benghazi is now holed up in the forested Green Mountains, but army commanders surrounding them say they cannot get orders to move in. Smuggling gangs continue to battle one another along the southern border with Sudan and Niger and the western border with Tunisia.

The mountain town of Zintan, home to one of Libya’s most powerful militia armies, continues to hold Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, refusing to hand him over either to the government or to the International Criminal Court. The government’s own police force, the Supreme Security Committee, is accused of standing aside in August and allowing Salafist extremists to bulldoze a Sufi shrine in downtown Tripoli. Meanwhile, Libya continues to disintegrate. There is no central refuse collection in Tripoli, so mountains of garbage have built up amid the ruins of Qaddafi’s former home at Ban Aziza.

On the highway east of the capital, plantations of trees created to halt the encroachment of the Sahara have been systematically cut down by criminal gangs selling the timber. Pensions go unpaid, schools struggle for books and at the Libyan Stock Exchange chains of zeros on the glowing screens show the almost total absence of investor activity. Libya’s Facebook generation, the young people who used the Web to spread news of last year’s revolution, is struggling with Internet provision recently revealed to be one of the slowest in Africa.


At the root of the problem is the inexperience of last year’s revolutionaries with the levers of power. Qaddafi’s dictatorship was so absolute and all-pervasive that the only organization not controlled by the state was, famously, the Boy Scouts. The result is that a year after liberation, Libyans are still blinking in the sunlight, unsure of how to operate after four decades of having decisions made for them.

Qaddafi did not even leave the people he ruled with a parliament building. The national congress is instead forced to sit in a cramped conference center converted to the task. So little faith do ordinary Libyans have in the system that each day small knots of protesters barge through the main gates to make their voices heard, literally at parliament’s door.

Hassan el-Amin, an independent MP who returned to Libya after 28 years of political exile in Britain, sat in an anteroom in the conference center, listening to the shouts of a dozen amputees who say this is their last hope to get war pensions the government had promised them. The guards and staff argued back, the protesters persisted for an hour, then went home in dismay.

“The big issue in Libya is security,” Amin said. “The political scene, at least you have an elected body, that’s not the issue. The issue is security, security, security.”

Libya today is not a single state, but a collection of fiefdoms. Some work better than others: Misrata, Libya’s third city, is booming, and Tripoli, the capital, has seen regular police take the place of militias. However, Stevens’ killing shattered what remained of foreign business, with trade delegations staying away and embassies shedding staff. Palm City, a luxurious seafront complex for diplomats and foreign executives, is half empty.

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