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In Libya, the New Bosses Are Just Like the Old Boss

As armed militias and corrupt politicians operate unchecked in Libya, opportunism is eliminating any hope of opportunity.

by Alaa al-Ameri
Apr 23 2014, 9:00pm

For almost 50 years, Libya has been dominated by opportunists. Muammar Qaddafi saw his moment in 1969 when he led a coup against King Idris while the latter was in Turkey for medical treatment. At the time, Libya maintained social and cultural institutions capable of binding it together — until the Colonel consolidated his power, destroyed them, and replaced them with his mafia-style system of patronage.

Three years after the 2011 revolution that put Qaddafi in an unmarked desert grave, the country he decimated continues to be overrun with opportunists. There are the ones in Derna recently seen patrolling the streets with al Qaeda–style flags. Further along the coast, there are the opportunists of the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, taking advantage of the country's current weakness to effectively steal millions of dollars of oil while arguing for federalism.

And then there are the heavily armed militia groups across the country who don’t even bother to put political labels on their brand of opportunism. Instead they openly extort cash from the government for having “freed Libya” from Qaddafi. By the end of 2011, about 100,000 Libyans were armed, and those actively engaged in fighting against Qaddafi's forces numbered perhaps 50,000. But today, 250,000 armed men claim to have been “revolutionaries." If everyone who says he fought against Qaddafi had actually done so, Qaddafi would have had no one fighting on his side.

These militias rely on a shameless circular logic to justify their existence. The militia group that kidnapped former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan claimed that they were motivated by the instability and corruption crippling Libya. But it's difficult to understand how the militia could have objected to the lack of a functioning government when it relies on the absence of one. In fact, the most destabilizing force in Libya are the militias themselves. Without their menacing presence, the country might already have a functioning army and police force — and perhaps even a half-decent government.

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Their efforts to maintain instability have progressed from attacking foreigners and diplomats to attacking Libyan citizens. Last November, an unarmed protest gathered in Tripoli outside a barracks housing a militia from Misrata. The militia responded to the protestors' calls for them to leave the capital by opening fire, killing at least 43 and wounding hundreds. Militias from Misrata have long been associated with indiscriminate revenge attacks on refugees from the now abandoned town of Tawergha, which had been used as a forward base by Qaddafi forces for their relentless attacks on Misrata during the revolution.

Recent attacks appear to target attempts to build a legitimate security infrastructure. Last month, a car bomb outside a military academy in Benghazi killed at least eight soldiers and wounded 12. Attacks against journalists and media outlets have also increased. Last summer a bomb was left outside the offices of Libya al-Hurra, the TV station founded by Mohammed Nabbous, one of the icons of the Libyan revolution. Two months later, one of the station's presenters, Ezzedine Qusad, was shot dead in his car after leaving Friday prayers. Others attacks have targeted Libya al-Ahrar, a Qatar-based TV station run by former Libyan information minister Mahmud Shammam, and a Cairo-based station, Libya al-Oula.

The GNC has been productive in only two areas — passing laws that undermine the basic rights so many fought and died for, and expanding their own authority and impunity.

During the early, unarmed protests in February 2011, people like Nabbous were demanding an end to a system that served only the most devious opportunists, and in which speaking out meant imprisonment, torture, or death. They wanted a country where opportunity — not opportunism — and the rule of law would allow them the freedom to live their lives as they saw fit. Only when the bullets started ripping into the crowds did they storm Qaddafi's barracks and snipers nests.

Three years on, their sacrifices have now been almost completely betrayed.

The militias were never entrusted with the hopes of the Libyan people, and the vast majority of their members are far too young to know anything other than life under Qaddafi. Those with a far greater moral responsibility for betraying the dream of the revolution are members of the General National Congress (GNC) who’ve spent the past two years holding Libya hostage in the service of personal and political aims.

Certainly many people in the GNC have struggled admirably to fulfill the duties of their office. But a significant number have attempted to obstruct progress at every turn in order to make sure that they — rather than the Prime Minister and his cabinet — decide every detail of government policy and spending. Despite the public scapegoating of Zeidan, it is this bloc of obstructionists who did everything in their power to make certain he failed. Zeidan believes they may have even helped arrange his kidnapping.

These forces are the least concerned with the interests of ordinary Libyans, and fall into two main camps. First, there are the politicians-for-hire who spend their time in parliament siphoning cash from government contracts and earning kickbacks for the help they give to businessmen. What they can’t get through persuasion and bribery they take by force using their militia partners. The other camp consists of the myriad Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist members of parliament who are working for a pan-regional Islamist agenda. Modern Libya is a uniformly Sunni Muslim society. But there are those who feel it’s their job to tell everyone exactly how Muslim they should be. For them, the people of Libya aren't much more than pawns in a grander plan.

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With these two groups pushing much of the parliamentary agenda, the GNC has been productive in only two areas — passing laws that undermine the basic rights so many fought and died for, and expanding their own authority and impunity.

Recently, the Muslim Brotherhood contingent of the GNC — known as the al-Wafa Bloc — led a move to deny Libyans the right to directly elect their own president, a right that was recommended by a constitutional committee appointed by the GNC itself. Fearing that a directly elected president would be more difficult to manipulate and threaten, they watered down the committee's findings to ensure that only the GNC would have the power to appoint a head of state.

Sidelining women and rolling back their rights is apparently at the top of the al-Wafa Bloc's to-do list. Even before the 2012 elections, Islamists campaigned against a proposed 10 percent quota for women in the new parliament. Along with allies elsewhere in the GNC, the Bloc is also busy limiting freedom of speech — one of the core demands of the revolutionaries — using laws that they've essentially borrowed from the Qaddafi era that criminalize "insults to the state."

In a country of only 6 million people, the GNC has managed to spend billions over the past two years without any apparent improvements in infrastructure, basic services, or security. They were, however, able to hand over a $2 billion gift and $1.2 billion worth of subsidized Libyan oil to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government last year to help it shore up Egypt's failing economy in the face of increasing domestic unrest.

The al-Wafa Bloc, along with its allies in the GNC and among the militias, was also largely responsible for passing the “Political Isolation Law”, Libya’s version of De-Ba’athification ostensibly meant to bar those guilty of Qaddafi-era crimes from holding office. In practice, however, it has been used to target political opponents such as Mohammed Magariaf, the former president of the GNC. Despite spending more than 30 years in exile, surviving multiple assassination attempts, and leading the National Front for the Salvation of Libya — a group that spent much of its time trying to kill or topple Qaddafi — Magariaf was forced to resign because he had been Libya’s ambassador to India in the 1970s.

In presiding over a post revolutionary Libya defined by corruption, neglect, violence, and the increasing repression of free speech, the militias and corrupt politicians have done more than just betray the spirit of the revolution. They have actively managed to revive and maintain some of the worst aspects of Qaddafi's criminal legacy.

Follow Alaa al-Ameri on Twitter: @AlaaAmeris