Armed Militias Endanger Libyan State

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Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has been sacked by the country’s parliament after the government failed to prevent an oil tanker controlled by militias from leaving port. The political instability in the country comes three years after the ousting of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and underscores the difficulty of state-building evident across the Arab world. There are even fears that the country could split under the pressure of armed militias, each of whom is determined to control Libya’s oil assets.

According to Libya Herald, the departure of the Mr. Zeidan came after the Libyan Congress “passed a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, voting at the same time in favor of the February Committee’s roadmap to hold elections to a new parliament in July. Congress has appointed Defence Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni as caretaker Prime Minister for a period of two weeks while a replacement is found….Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies are said to be opposed to direct elections, supposedly because they feared they could not win….Some Congress members dispute the legality of the vote sacking Zeidan. Speaking on the television channel Libya Al-Ahrar, National Forces Alliance Congresswoman for Sabratha and Zuara Asmaa Sarbia said it should have taken place in public. She insisted that the decision of no confidence in Zeidan and the roadmap should not have been considered in the same vote and that it was not the job of Congress to amend the roadmap.”

The former prime minister is no longer in the country, raising the question of whether he has fled. Libya Herald’s Sami Zaptia reports that “Asked by the media at today’s inaugural press conference for caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah Thinni why was it that his predecessor had run away to Europe in view of a travel ban issued against him, Thinni said that in his view he had not run away….His departure was interpreted by some as hasty and seen as having flouted a travel ban imposed by the Attorney General Abdel Qadar Radwan. The travel ban, directed to the head of the Passports Agency, was issued last night.”

The country’s recent political instability has blown open the subject of Libya’s long-term sustainability as a country with a unified political system and free of the threat of armed militias: “A western-based militia fighting in the name of parliament has launched an offensive against an autonomy-minded militia in the east that has for months occupied most of Libya’s crucial oil facilities — seizing virtual control of the country’s most vital resource and almost sole source of cash. This past week, it succeeded in exporting a tanker of oil from a port it holds in defiance of the central government. In response to the offensive other militias in the east are rallying to fight back. Eastern leaders have warned that unless Tripoli backs down they will seek outright independence for their region rather than greater autonomy.”

A Gulf News editorial goes as far as to suggest that the presence of armed militias in the country “pose an existential threat to Libya…. The Libyans can take some small consolation that the dismissal of the prime minister was done constitutionally, rather than by some militia walking into his office and holding him [for] ransom. It is hard to see what Zeidan might have done given the parlous state of the Libyan armed forces, but clearly parliament expected him to have done more. This dramatic incident shows how Libya may start to break apart as the government fails to control the several armed militias and tribal forces that helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but are still armed and in the field, and are working to dominate different areas of the country while grabbing power and oil revenues.”

The Libyan political forces which are interested in a more stable and sustainable future need to figure out what to do about the threat of armed militias, many of whom were crucial in the ousting of Mr. Gaddafi. That is the argument that a recent Khaleej Times editorial makes as it reflects on the recent developments in the country: “Libya is struggling with armed groups and tribesmen who helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and have kept their weapons. A number of political concessions enjoyed by them has further compounded the problem of lawful governance. The fact that now they are capable of independently running an oil extraction and filling facility and have international outreach will weaken the state and push it into lawlessness. Tripoli has to seriously address this non-state activity that is not only bringing a bad name to the country but is also impacting its national security. Any hiccup can also push the war-weary tribal country into unending litigation, which will further embolden the elements that wish to create a parallel state of their own.”

Drawing a parallel between what is happening in Libya with that in Yemen, the Daily Star’s (Lebanon) Rami Khouri identifies common state-building challenges: “In Libya and Yemen, two Arab countries that are experiencing complicated, slow-motion transitions to more representative and accountable rule, we can clearly see a structural issue of troubled statehood that may also bedevil other Arab countries….At the heart of this problem in Libya and Yemen is the frailty of some Arab states that were never created or validated by their own citizens, but rather by the decisions of foreign colonial powers or victorious local tribal warlords — and after independence were ruled by autocrats. The constitutional processes through which Libya and Yemen are still trying to navigate are the best antidote to this troubling legacy of frail states held together by dictatorial central authorities.”

The problem is that, as the Peninsula staff puts it, time is running out and the Libyan government needs to sort out the current impasse sooner rather than later: “Libya is running out of time to put its house in order. The problem with violence and internal strife is that the more time it takes to root them out, the more difficult it becomes to do so. This Arab Spring country has been hurtling down the path of instability for a long time and each day it’s getting worse than better….The oil incident shows that it’s time for the Libyan government to disarm the militias. This is not the first time rebels have tried to sell oil….The militias are too strong to be disarmed immediately. But there is no alternative for Libya. Any hesitation will cause the country to splinter, and in such a scenario, it’s better to suffer the consequence of a military action against the rebels.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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