After a Decade of Chaos, Can a Splintered Libya Be Made Whole?


CAIRO — Fluttering flags and ornamental lights in red, white and green went up on buildings and lampposts around the Libyan capital, Tripoli, this month to mark the 10th anniversary of the uprising that toppled its dictator.

There seemed to be reason to celebrate: After a decade of fighting and instability, a new interim government had been formed, one promising to unify the country and hold democratic elections by year’s end.

Outside the banks, where some customers were waiting in six-hour lines to claim their salaries, at gas stations, where fuel was only intermittently available, and in the Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara, where Ahmed al-Gammoudi lived without electricity for two months last year, the festive lights seemed little more than a mockery.

“I’ve heard all this talk about elections for eight years, and nothing has changed except we’re getting older,” said Mr. al-Gammoudi, 31, who works 14-hour shifts at a Tripoli cafe to finance repairs to his house, which was damaged during Libya’s civil war. “Every year the situation gets worse, and every government that comes says that it won’t be more than two years before we hold elections, but what happens is the exact opposite. The only thing that happens is war.”

His cynicism is rooted in experience.

Since the ouster of its dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, during the Arab Spring revolts that swept the Middle East a decade ago, Libya has seen its hopes for change and greater freedoms descend into a rinse-and-repeat cycle of diplomatic progress followed by stalemate followed by war — and, through it all, profound misery for Libyans themselves.

But diplomats and analysts say the government created by United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva this month, while no guarantee of peace or stability, represents a breakthrough.

Negotiated by 74 politicians, power brokers and representatives from Libya’s many regional factions and tribes, the transitional government is intended to be the next step toward uniting the oil-and-gas-rich country after an October cease-fire in its civil war.

Until a few months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine this group convening to vote for new leadership, said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya specialist at the International Crisis Group. The provisional government has also managed to claim endorsements, whether lukewarm or robust, from most of the major players in Libya’s tangle of political cliques, business interests, geographical rivals and foreign powers.

“I wouldn’t have bet a cent on this U.N. dialogue forum,” she said, recalling how previous attempts had blown up as a result of foreign spoilers or squabbles between Libyan factions. “But we haven’t seen these aggressive reactions, and that’s why I say all these factors together bode well. It might not all work out, but as long as we’re not going to have an immediate military response, it’s all good news.”

In part, the cautious acceptance has to do with Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, the man chosen, after a surprise vote, to serve as interim prime minister.

A wealthy businessman from the coastal city of Misurata, Mr. Dbeiba, to many, represents the el-Qaddafi-era “culture of corruption,” as one analyst put it. Among the Libyan elite, however, he is viewed as a nonideological deal maker with whom all sides can negotiate, analysts said.

“Dbeiba, just the family name, leaves a bad taste in Libyans’ mouths,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Still, he said, the new leaders “technically have the keys to the safe, and because everybody wants to have access to the state coffers and so on, they’re going to try to work with him.”

Mr. Dbeiba did not respond to a request for an interview.

Other analysts were less sanguine, noting that the United Nations-sponsored political forum had failed to produce a set of interim leaders with ties to Libya’s most important political constituencies as well as to its three major regions, as it had aimed to do. Instead, the forum led to a group viewed as being aligned with Turkey, one of the major foreign powers with sway in Libya.

During the recent 15-month civil war, Khalifa Hifter, the eastern military commander seeking to oust the internationally backed government in Tripoli, had help from Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. It was Turkey’s intervention on behalf of the Tripoli government that forced Mr. Hifter’s retreat and led to the end of the war.

But Mr. Hifter, whose forces still control most of eastern and central Libya, has publicly welcomed the new government, a surprise endorsement that may mean Mr. Hifter sees an opportunity: Though he was in danger of marginalization after his defeat last year, the new government will need his support to succeed.

The interim government — Mr. Dbeiba and a three-man presidential council — is weak on its own.

The group of 74 Libyans that chose it is “hardly representative,” wrote Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, and Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program.

Rather than transcend Libya’s divisions, they wrote in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the result may allow competing factions to “seize the opportunity to share the spoils of Libya’s oil wealth and strengthen their respective clienteles and armed groups — much as they did in previous Libyan governments.”

The designated government must first produce a cabinet accepted by the various factions, by no means a forgone outcome, then win approval from the House of Representatives, which is split into eastern and western factions and so far cannot agree even to meet in the same city.

Even if the provisional government navigates those challenges, it then faces the task of reunifying Libya’s central bank and other institutions, whose divisions have paralyzed the country and starved its economy and public payroll of its own enormous oil revenues. A new electoral law, new constitutional framework and countrywide elections are supposed to follow by December.

To many Tripolitans, these are distant concerns. What matters to them are the rogue militias who all but control the capital, intermittent electrical blackouts, hospitals strained by coronavirus and lack of medicines and the rising price of basics including rice, milk and tomato paste. In some places, gasoline can only be found on the black market; in nearly all, owing to a liquidity crisis, hourslong lines stretch out at the banks every day.

Outside a Tripoli bank on Friday, where the line was dozens of customers long and some had been waiting for six hours to withdraw cash, there was little hope that this year would prove any different.

“Many governments have come and gone, and all of them at first pledge to improve the situation,” said Amina Drahami, 42, who was waiting to withdraw her father’s salary for him. “But you can see the situation in front of you for yourself. And these crises have been going on for years.”

Ms. Drahami’s father suffers from cancer, but none of the public hospitals she had tried had the medication he needed. While her family scrapes by, foreign forces and mercenaries remain scattered throughout Libya, in violation of a United Nations arms embargo and a January deadline to withdraw from Libya.

“It’s like we’re paying the price for all of this,” Ms. Drahami said, “from our pocketbooks, our health and our lives.”

Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Mohammed Abdusamee from Tripoli, Libya.


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