Last Tuesday Abdullah Al-Thinni has become Libya’s new Prime Minister. He takes the place of the widely ousted Ali Zeidan, accused by the General National Congress (GNC) of mismanagement and lack of timeliness, in a country which is rapidly falling into failure. Al-Thinni, whose nomination has been labelled as “illegal” by some of the country’s main legislators (the frictions between the Executive and the legislative powers have been one of the drivers of Libya’s current state of lawlessness), will now have a week to form a new government, which – in the rosiest vision – should also grant that level of popularity and legitimacy which has so far not been achieved by the post-Qaddafi political class. In any case, it is worth remembering that this would be just another interim government: the elections aimed at appointing a permanent governative body have been repeteadly postponed and it is still unclear when they will eventually take place.
After the death of Colonel Qaddafi, Libya has fallen into chaos. The National Transition Council (NTC), formed by the heads of the rebel movement which had taken the lead of the revolts following the February 2011 uprisings, soon revealed its real nature: it was an internally divided entity, comprising intellectuals exiled under the Qaddafi regime (the so-called Jamahiriya), militaries, tribal leaders and a bunch of warlords coming from the neighboring states. Therefore, it was characterised more by a temporary anti-Qaddafi stance than by a long-term vision on how to rule the country. Furthermore, the NTC, unable to count on a democratic appointment, always lacked legimitacy, and its leaders, Jalil and Jibril, were suspected of being supporters of the former regime which had changed side just to save their lives. Of course, the “exit strategy” implemented by the main western powers involved in the civil conflict resolution, namely the UK, the US and France, certainly did not help, and left Libya in a situation very similar to anarchy.
Zeidan, needless to say, has not performed better. During his leadership period, foreign commentators have often underlined the fact that the true reins of power were indeed in the hands of militias (comprising at least 200.000 men at the end of the Arab Spring), which since then have been controlling entire regions of the country at the expense of the central State, and, obviously, of those relying on Libya to fulfill their energetic requirements, such as Italy (more on this later). The inability of the government to impose its will and retain the monopoly of violence has been exacerbated by the progressive weakening of the national army. The NTC had tried to create a new army from scratch after the death of the dictator, relying both on the forces which had participated to the revolts and on fresh elements coming to join the (at the time) supportive militias. However, this effort was more an uncohese and disorganized gathering of armed men than the establishment of a loyal apparatus which was indeed needed. The subsequent creation of two hybrid security systems – as argued by Arturo Varvelli in a recent ISPI analysis – the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) and the Libyan Shield Force, led to a harmful decoupling of roles, linked to the difficulty of attributing responsibilities, allocating resources and imposing authority.
As a result, the ex-PM Ali Zeidan was kidnapped on 10/10/2013 by a militia group, and immediately released, as to demonstrate who was really holding the reins of command. These centrifugal forces are now suspected of hosting terrorists, al-Qaeda affiliates, and jihadi fanatics, and exercise a strict control over vast regions of the country. And, paradoxically, the central government has been so far forced to finance some of them to counteract the unrivaled ruling of some groups over key strategic points, such as the Zueitina and Hariga oil ports, which were paralysing oil and natural gas supplies, in a moment when infrastructures are often in a state of abandon, garbage recollection is widely absent and electricity is intermittent.
To make the current scenario even bleaker, Libya’s main (and maybe unique) economic sector, i.e. the oil & gas sector, is drowning. Libya is now able to produce no more than 150.000 barrels per day, one tenth of what it was producing last summer and almost nothing compared to pre-war levels. Ibrahim Al-Jathran, head of the independent Petroleum Defense Guards, still controls the other main export terminals of Ras Lanuf and Sidra, and has tried to create a parallel government a few months ago. These blockades are costing Libya billions of dollars in lost exports, and some of its main European importers, such as Italy and Germany, have then shifted towards Russia to assure themselves a less volatile supply. Being a rentier state, i.e. an economy based on a single sector, Libya’s current energetic stalemate equates to a fiscal crisis. And a fiscal crisis acts as a credit crunch for the already half-empty public pockets, diminishing the government’s capabilities of providing the required services and promoting a certain level of welfare.
This vicious cycle is now posing a threat over the subsistence of a democratic regime, and is strongly pushing towards state failure. In the first three weeks of January only, more than 150 people were killed and more than 450 were wounded. Most of these assassinations, as explained by Wolfgang Pusztai, were motivated by revenges on former regime followers, inter-tribal conflicts, personal motivations and Salafi vs. federalist struggles. Libya’s social tissue, in fact, has always been fragmented, and is the artificial result of the Italian colonial rule, which gathered together separate tribes into a sort of ethnic collage, without taking into account the relevant cultural, social and religious differences existing among them. As a result, Qaddafi played for 40 years a divide et impera strategy, favoring his own tribe at the expense of the other groups and not abstaining from ethnical cleansing when deemed necessary. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood has openly declared its opposition to the current ruling elite, the southern region of Fezzan is in the hands of the so-called AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), which is implementing a vast human trafficking business and sending troops to Syria and Mali, and the Tebu, Tuareg and Amazigh minorities are promoting secessionist claims and fighting rival groups in a kind of brutal fashion.
To escape its destiny, Libya needs a nation building effort, probably with the support of western powers, especially Europe. And it needs it now. Without a rapid and firm intervention, the government risks to lose its already quasi-inexistent control over the country. This would mean a complete statelessness, a total security vacuum and a probable re-opening of a more extended civil conflict, in other words: anarchy, or, even worse, a new Arab Spring. For Europe, this would add a concrete threat to the already worrying situations characterising Mali, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria. Apart from the clear economic repercussions of such an outcome, Europe should also worry about its citizens present on the ground: last year a bomb attack targeted the French embassy in Benghazi, and on January the 17th two Italian workers got kidnapped in Derna. Unfortunately, Europe seems to remain totally disconnected for what concerns the Libyan dossier, as it was in 2011. So far, Catherine Ashton and her colleagues have performed extremely poorly when called to express their voice regarding the Syrian and Ukrainian crises. Libya, then, risks to become a new Somalia. And the entire Europe will lose together with this unlucky African state.