The Deepening Crisis in Libya

As dusk was falling on Sunday, the city of Benghazi was rocked by two huge explosions. Bombings have become depressingly frequent in Libya's second-largest city over the past year. But they're not the only form of violence plaguing Benghazi, either. There have been 57 assassinations since the end of the war that toppled Qaddafi's regime. 


The explosions come two days after the assassination of prominent lawyer and activist Abdulsalam al-Mesmari, who was shot as he left one of Benghazi's mosques after Friday prayers. Mesmari, who was credited with playing a prominent role in Libya's revolution, was also an outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists. 

More recently, Mesmari was involved in the organization of a planned demonstration over the investigation into the 2011 killing of General Abdul Fatah Younis, a leading commander in the war against Qaddafi. Islamist extremists are suspected to have been behind his killing. 

As if all this weren't enough, more than 1,000 prisoners staged a jailbreak from one of Benghazi's main prisons on Saturday. Many of those who got away were Qaddafi loyalists and extremists; predictably there has been much talk of a conspiracy, but the circumstances remain unclear. Officials are exploring the possibility of a link between the jailbreak and the two explosions in Benghazi. Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's interim legislature, made a short speech to the nation on Sunday night in which he accused Qaddafi loyalists of trying to destabilize the country. 

Many Libyans suspect, however, that it is the Islamists who are behind the killing of Mesmari and others like him. Extremists are exploiting the security vacuum in the country, and are doing their best to deepen it by targeting the security infrastructure. (Professional army officers are among the most frequent targets.) 

Political polarization is reaching alarming levels. The authorities in Tripoli are incapable of bringing the security situation under control. No one has been brought to justice for the Benghazi assassinations, and no arrests have been made in connection with the bombings in Benghazi and Tripoli. The authorities have registered the cases against "unknown assailants," a category of people that seem to be able to attack at any time and place with complete impunity. 

As a result, Libyans are becoming increasingly suspicious of political parties, whom they suspect of maintaining their own armed wings to influence the political situation. These suspicions were affirmed by various exchanges on Libyan channels between GNC members from the National Forces Alliance and Islamist members. Hours after Mesmari was shot, angry mobs attacked the headquarters of political parties in different Libyan cities and towns, in some cases setting them on fire. The Islamist parties were particularly hard hit. The Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters in Benghazi was ransacked and looted; popular sentiment against the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya seems to be rising exponentially these days. (The backlash against the Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt may have something to do with it.) Some are calling for the movement to be dissolved completely. 

The situation is becoming unsustainable for the government and the GNC. Public anger is mounting by the day, and there are growing calls to sack the government and dissolve the GNC. This would be a dangerous path for Libya to take, because there is no clear alternative to filling the vacuum that would ensue. However, there are calls to amend the Constitutional Declaration, the country's transitional roadmap, and to agree upon a new framework for the country's transition. Judging from the rapid deterioration of the situation in Libya, the GNC will need to take some drastic measures and make changes in order to defuse the mounting public anger and tension on the streets. The government has been unable to reign in militias, while militias have shown unwillingness to lay down their weapons and join the army and police forces. 

GNC president, Abusahmain authorized the "revolutionaries" militias that have besieged government ministries and blackmailed GNC into passing the controversial isolation law to "protect" Tripoli in light of the deteriorating situation in Benghazi. These very same militias threatened to overthrow government and GNC if the law was not passed. In his address to the nation, Abusahmain warned against an armed coup against the legitimate democratic institutions. However, it is not clear who is leading the coup against whom, because pro-February 17 revolution groups own most of the weapons in Libya. 

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced in a press conference on Sunday an imminent reshuffle of his government. He hinted that he is contemplating the formation of a crisis government in order to stabilize the situation in the country. But some Libyans are discussing an alternative scenario in which Zeidan would resign, paving the way for a new prime minister to head the new government. The formation of a crisis government has been a key demand of the Zintan tribal conference that took earlier this month. 

The gap of mistrust among the various power brokers is widening. The Islamists, and their sympathizers in the important city of Misrata, view any calls for dissolution of the GNC as an attempt to repeat the Egyptian scenario, in which the Islamists are removed from the political scene with support from a majority of the Libyan people. Meanwhile, the powerful tribes in the east and south of the country, as well as the somewhat more secular leadership of the city of Zintan, view any attempts to prolong the life of the GNC in its current form as part of a gradual Islamization of the state. The Zintanis and the tribal groups worry that the Islamists are consolidating their grip on the state's institutions, especially after the passing of the controversial political isolation law that excludes many of the Islamists' opponents from positions of power. 

The only realistic way out of the current crisis is to launch a genuine process of national dialogue, one that is inclusive and transparent. There were calls for such an effort immediately after the revolution two years ago, but it never happened. The lack of national dialogue in Libya is feeding into the intensifying dynamic of mutual mistrust. Eventually Libyans will have to realize that it is only through compassion, justice, and inclusion that we can build the country we aspire to live in, a Libya that is built by all and for all. I pray that Libyans come to this realization sooner rather than later. 

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here


Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, July 29, 2013

As Zimbabwe prepares for a fateful election, opposition activist Roy Bennett explains why it's time for his compatriots to put Robert Mugabe behind them. Marian Tupy looks at what the country needs to do to revive its dismal economy. 

Alex Cobham makes the case for doing away with Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Suchita Mandavilli breaks down the data from TI's Global Corruption Barometer.

Ihsan Dagi argues that Turkey's history of military intervention shouldn't be regarded as a positive precedent for Egypt.

Juan Nagel reports on the unexpectedly icy reception given to the Venezuelan opposition leader during his recent visit to Chile.

Min Zin examines the legacy of decades of top-down social engineering in Burma.

Christian Caryl ruminates on the mysterious dynamics of mass political protests.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor, and Tom Perry, reporting for Reuters, present a special report on how the Muslim Brotherhood fell out of power in Egypt. Blogging for the Huffington Post, Dalia Mogahed argues that the Egyptian military is creating an environment that is conducive to extremism.

At Devex, Michael Igoe contends that U.S. aid could help Myanmar become a an environmentally savvy regional leader.

Syria Deeply's Annabell Van den Berghe tells the unlikely story of a Syrian farmer turned makeshift oil producer. Writing for the Atlantic Council, Ross Wilson examines the factors behind growing tension among Syrians, Turks, and Kurds.

On his blog Dart-Throwing Chimp, Jay Ulfelder offers some intriguing visualizations of data on state-sponsored mass killings.

The Economist examines the reasons for slowing growth in emerging economies.

Colin O'Connor, writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reports on Macedonia's failure to properly respond to the violence during the country's first-ever Gay Pride Week.

The Guardian reports on the political crisis in Tunisia triggered by the killing of leading left-wing politician Mohamed Brahmi (see photo above). Joshua Hammer offers an in-depth look at Tunisia's troubled revolution for The New York Review of Books.

And finally, The Economist serves up an unforgettable obituary of a Burmese drug lord.