Karen Dabrowska

Tripoli Post Article

Originally published: 31st October 2013

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Libya: Will Failure Lead to Partition?

Despite numerous problems the speakers at this month’s meeting of London’s Gulf Cultural Club, titled: Libya: Will failure lead to partition? were reasonably upbeat about the country’s future.

Jason Pack the author of The 2011 Libyan uprisings and the struggle for the post Gaddafi future said that as a result of the uprisings, Libya has shifted from a decentralised dictatorship back to its more traditional power structure - a weak centre having difficulty making inroads with a rebellious and disunited periphery which does not recognise its claim to be the sole legitimate sovereign.

Local notables, tribal groups, Islamists and militias are all vying to keep the centre from extending its authority to their fiefdoms and this explains why disparate social groupings can only unite temporarily to prevent the centre from gaining power over them, not permanently to constitute a new centre as would be required for a full coup or a successful separatist movement.

Pack went on to say that looked at with hindsight, the uprisings could have been an opportunity for Libya to break out of the centre-periphery trap as the new centre had several different tools at its disposal, including economic incentives, outside assistance, political patronage, calculated devolution of power, and propaganda, and yet, it has largely misplayed its hand.

This may be because the deck is stacked in favour of the periphery in Libya or because most of the Libyan people have a different narrative for their own history.

Pack also commented that two years ago there were great celebrations and optimism as despite people's frustrations with the NTC they were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and to help it in building a new country. At last years commemorations of liberation day in October people were disappointed by the NTC's performance, but eager for the then newly elected GNC to finally establish a government and begin governing.

This year lukewarm celebrations are mixed with violent clashes as Libyans are fed up and tired with the GNC and their leaders. Zidan’s most vociferous opponents have tried to force him out of office precisely because he aims to build a centralized government, while his initial supporters have abandoned him precisely because he has failed to do so.

Hence, the current Libyan reality embodies many nested paradoxes: some say the country is teetering on the brink of anarchy and total state collapse, they point out that oil exports have been halved with no recovery in sight as the central government cannot control either the oilfields or the export terminals - were this situation to continue for six months Libya's 200 billion of foreign reserves would be totally exhausted.

Furthermore, as a result of the country's open borders and lack of security, Libya has become a breeding ground for the most militant types of religious extremists and divisive ethnic and federalist militias.

On the other side of the spectrum the dyed in the wool optimists usually attached to the business community, point to the growth in consumer demand and say that the country is doing remarkably well for a state awash with guns so soon after the cessation of conflict.

They point out, that on October 10 the Prime Minister was returned unharmed after a kidnapping that lasting only a few hours. Conversely, the realists point out that, the fact that he was kidnapped without his security guards putting up any resistance points to deep, recurring systemic problems relating to the Libyan government’s inability to provide security even for its own officials.

With Prime Minister Zidan unable to run his own office or guarantee his personal safety, the idea that he could build competent security institutions and a national government that could unite Libya's regions and provide law and order to the country as a whole appears manifestly absurd.

Yet, the possibility of deposing Zidan and finding someone able to fulfil the task seems even less likely as each week without a constitution the central government further outstays its original mandate progressively losing whatever authority and legitimacy still remains.

Dr Guima El-Gamaty a senior official of Al Taghyeer (Change, Transformation) Party in Libya and a former anti-Gaddafi activist admitted that Libya has serious problems and is not going to become the Norway of North Africa overnight. The present government inherited a total vacuum, no army, no institutions, no police, no civil society, no political parties, and no parliament – nothing.

He referred to two major mistakes made by the National Transitional Council (NTC): the paying of money to militias and allowing political parties to compete for the General National Congress (GNC). Militia warlords were claiming 2,000 dinars for fighters who did not exist.

El-Gamaty emphasised that the GNC is not a parliament. It is a temporary council to lead the transition period of about two years and to oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

He compared Libya to Norway. Both countries have a small population, oil and gas and a sovereign fund but Libya never had democracy. “Hopefully we will become as close as possible to a successful, modern, vibrant democratic country like Norway. This is my hope, this is my optimism, I am very confident in sha’Allah that we will get there.”

The most optimistic presentation was given by the Rt. Hon. Lord Trefgarne PC Chairman Libyan British Business Council (LBBC). “I am not despondent by what I see and hear in Libya. I was out there just four weeks ago and since then LLBC took a mission there and they will be taking another mission at the beginning of December or thereabouts.

“Although things are not going as far or as fast as we all would have hoped they are moving forward. Much was said about the kidnapping of Ali Zidan the week before last. I never heard anyone so relaxed after a kidnapping. I spoke to him on the telephone last week and he dismissed it as of no account and of no consequence and he was in excellent spirits.”

Trefgarne pointed out that Libya has the largest oil and gas reserves in Africa, the world’s 8th largest reserves of shale oil, huge supplies of gas some of which go to Italy by pipeline, some to Spain and the UK after liquefaction. The country has a capacity of 1.7m barrels a day. Oil and gas generates Libya’s revenue of $60bn a year.

It has the highest per capital GNP in the Middle East and North Africa apart from the Gulf itself. Libya also has financial reserves of at least £160bn stashed around the world - a good deal of it in London, most of it held either by the Central Bank or the Libyan Investment Authority.

Turning to Libya’s weaknesses Trefgarne said that after 42 years of Gaddafi’s kleptocracy, centralised economy, suppression of the private sector, suppression of any kind of initiative, underinvestment, neglect, corruption and total dependence on oil exports naturally there is some leeway to be made up.

The country has the least diversified economy in the region. There is high government employment – 80 percent of the population is employed one way or another by the government which gives the government an enormous wage bill and subsidies of one kind or another absorb a great deal of the oil revenues.

Trefgarne concluded that Libya has good people, good resources, excellent funds and widespread foreign support. It offers a strong potential for economic prosperity and business opportunities for United Kingdom companies in several sectors: oil and gas, financial and professional services. But there are risks especially the failure to sort out security. But the risks are outweighed by the advantages.