Libya – A Game of Two Halves

A guest post form Chris.B

Last September I wrote a post about Libya and what challenges the country might face going forward, post-Gaddafi. Specifically, I was interested to know whether the country could avoid turning into another Afghanistan or Iraq, and whether the coalition forces involved in toppling Gaddafi could apply previous lessons learned about what causes insurgencies, in order to prevent one happening in Libya.

Almost a year later and the Libyan people have now gone to the polls for the first time since 1969. While the general press rightly hailed this as a landmark in the future of Libya, at the same time the cracks in the fabled “Arab Spring” are already starting to show.

At least one person was killed in Ajdabiya (just over 90 miles south of Benghazi) and other polling stations in the town were disrupted. There were also disruptions in Brega and Ras Lanuf, both to the West of Ajdabiya down the coastal road, with reports of armed men intimidating voters away from polling stations. Further to this, oil terminals around Brega, Ras Lanuf and Al Sidr (just a few miles west of Ras Lanuf) have been shut down by men claiming to be members of the former rebel army, obviously disrupting a significant chunk of Libya’s oil export industry.

The causes of their grievances are, as you might expect, not easily pinned down in one sentence. But one major sticking point does reportedly link most, if not all of them; a lack of representation in the future congress. For years the East of Libya, home to a sizable chunk of the country’s oil industry, was marginalized by Colonel Gaddafi. Now, of the 200 seats in the new assembly only around 60 have been apportioned to the Eastern Region.

In my article last year I made the point that; The important juggling act that the Transitional Council needs to perform is to ensure everyone is represented fairly in government and that no major group (with lots of supporters) believes itself to be politically isolated”. By apportioning such a relatively low number of seats (just 30%) to an area that is not only economically very important to Libya, but that also played a major role in the uprising that lead to the over throw of Gaddafi, the Transitional Council has already created the breeding ground for unrest.

At the minute most of the violence appears to be contained in something of the middle ground between East and West Libya, but as we’ve seen elsewhere these things have a tendency to spread. What starts as low level disturbances of the peace and occasional tribal or politically motivated rioting and localised violence, can quickly get out of hand. As armed men seek to impose their will on those around them, the natural response is for everyone else to arm themselves as well.

Under these turbulent conditions it’s vital that the new assembly does two things as quickly as it possibly can. The first is to impose its authority on the areas that have been affected by the recent violence. If people believe that the government is incapable of protecting them from harm and intimidation then they will take matters into their own hands, the consequences of which could spark a series of bloody reprisals and counter reprisals.

The second thing that the new assembly needs to do is to ensure that the people of the Eastern regions feel that their politicians are having an impact on government. Appointing individuals from the Eastern constituencies to some of the high level positions in the new government will go a long way to assuaging the fears of those in the East who feel that their efforts during the 2011 uprising have gone unrewarded.

As things stand, Libya is on something of a precipice. If the new assembly can restore law and order quickly and prove to the people that things really will be different now that Gaddafi is gone, then much of current tension can be dissolved. On the other hand if it finds itself hopelessly divided and simply limps along while achieving little tangible benefit for the people, then things could get rather more out of hand than they already have.

And if that happens, British troops may find themselves (under the guise of UN peacekeepers) on Libyan soil after all…

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Swimming Trunks
Swimming Trunks
July 16, 2012 1:47 pm

The EU could have done a lot to stabalise the country, help framing the constitution, money and trade argreements to stimulate the economy, even deploy the International Gendamarie force to assist with law and order.

Unfortunately the Euro crisis is consuming everyones attention and efforts.

July 16, 2012 1:58 pm

A Chris B – Great article

@ Swimming trunks – I agree to a certain extent however should we not let nation’s make there own mistakes and find there own path. Chris points to one person being killed in the elections. I bet there was a darn cite more people killed in the British elections of 1832 than that.

I think we need to return to a frame of mind that troops on the ground even peace keepers should be an absolute last resort.

As soon as we put NATO forces on the ground in an Arab country we give would be foreign insurgents a target.

July 16, 2012 5:16 pm

What is “Libya”?

Four Linguisticaly and geneticaly different ethnic groups, divided into dozens of disparate tribal groups.

A powerful (IE tax raising) central government will be resented (and eventualy violently resisted) by the prosperous east and the opposite applies to the West who will want generous subsidy from the oil revenues.

None of them consider themselves Libyan, so why are we trying to force them to remain so?

Lets put it this way, if Libya didnt exist, who would try to create it and why?

Brian Black
Brian Black
July 16, 2012 7:40 pm

Just looked up their voting system. Of the 200 seats, 80 members are elected through Proportional Representation using Closed List PR, 80 through Semi-Proportional Representation in Multi-Member Districts with from two to nine seats using a Single Non-Transferable Vote, and 40 are Majoritarian votes in Single Member Districts using First Past The Post. Of the 73 constituencies, four use PR, 19 use either FPTP or SNTV, and 50 use PR and FPTP and/or SNTV.
Being their first elections, they’ve obviously chosen a simple system that the electorate can easily get to grips with.

July 16, 2012 7:51 pm

It’s almost like it was designed by a committee of Europeans who each wanted to exert elements of their own national system onto the process…

Brian Black
Brian Black
July 16, 2012 9:18 pm

It looks like a messy compromise, designed to placate all the various ethnic and tribal groups that Dom mentioned, Chris. A problem with that though, is that the electorate in those same groups need to clearly see a direct correlation between the votes they cast and their elected representatives in order to have some degree of faith in the democratic process.
It seems to me that in trying to design a system to please everyone, what they’ve got is an obscure system that will confuse and disillusion the people. In a country with no democratic legacy, and with many armed self-interest groups, that’s hardly a good thing.

July 16, 2012 9:59 pm

That’s precisely what the article is thrusting at. What they needed was clarity and unity. What they’ve got is a messy way of dividing the country. The trouble is someone, somewhere, possibly a lib dem, thought that a composite mix of the regional voting and regional party lists would make for a nice diverse government that included a little bit of everyone. What was needed was to make sure the right people were represented in the right quantities, and that people from the right places made it to certain levels.

@ DomJ,
“Lets put it this way, if Libya didnt exist, who would try to create it and why?”
— If “Libya” didn’t exist then the tribes in the west would try and create “Libya” in order to reap the profits from the East. That’s if they could get there before an external power created “Libya” in order to avoid the West doing precisely that in a bloody manner.

Nations exist for all kinds of reasons and continue for a number of reasons.

July 16, 2012 10:50 pm

I think we overstate tribalism to a degree. They’re really just political parties at the end of the day in this sort of context with a manifesto that just reads: us. Some have a propensity to pick up an AK quicker than others but they are simply organisations of people and should be considered and treated as such. We have plenty of tribalistic organisations over this way, and indeed some have been quick to fight.

My point is, tribalism is often used as a check mate argument against progress being able to be made. I don’t think it necessarily is. Like any group once they profit more from unity and trade and stand to lose more from fighting they’ll quieten down a notch.

Not that it is an easy path mind.