The Murky Situation in Libya

Whenever I tell someone I have spent a lot of time in Libya in the last year or so, they confess that they have only a vague idea as to what is happening there. I tell them I know exactly what they mean. I explain that part of the reason is that the English-language media—especially in the US—are not covering the situation very closely. Part of the reason is distance, part of the reason is that Libya is not vital to American national security, and part is that with cutbacks in the media, few papers or magazines can afford to station a correspondent, much less more than one, in Libya permanently. So, when I went back to the west coast town of Sabratha this spring, I was told that no other foreign journalist had stayed overnight since I’d left in November. (It’s fairly easy to tell, since there is only one open hotel in town.)

But that is not the end of the explanation for the perception of murkiness. Some of the lack of clarity comes from the Libyans themselves.

For example, Libyan expat friends recently alerted me that the conflict between the Berber capital of Zwara and its neighboring cities had started up again and that the Tunisian border post at Ras aj Jir had been closed. Usually the Zwara thuwar, or revolutionaries, control the border, much to the chagrin of neighboring Arab towns. Controlling the border is a plum not just for political influence but for the smuggling opportunities it presents. (Black market Libyan gasoline goes to Tunisia, liquor and consumer goods move the other direction.) E-mailing and calling Zwara friends, I was told that the national army had moved in to control the border and that everything was alright.

Then another Zwara friend explained that a commander from Sabratha, Omar Mukhtar, had taken control of the border. I had met Omar—a nom de guerre after Omar Al Mukhtar, the great hero of the Libyan resistance to the Italians in the 1920s—briefly last summer. A middle-aged man who had fought in Afghanistan, he had supposedly foresworn his jihadi past by the time the Libyan revolution broke out. Reports on his tactical abilities varied but he was said to be honest, brave, and devoted. When I met him, he was crouched in the dirt on a sweltering day, helping to defend Zwara from Qaddafi loyalists holed up in neighboring Arab towns. Most of the men around him were half his age.

My Zwara informant says that the Zwara men are trying to evict Omar and his men with the help of their allies from Zawiya, the town between Sabratha and Tripoli. This is par for the course: Libya today functions like a group of Italian Renaissance city-states, with loose and shifting alliances keeping a balance of power, and something that resembles peace.

Following this relatively simple situation, I’ve come to realize that part of the reason for the murkiness about such incidents is Libya’s 42 years of dictatorship. No one is accustomed to getting clear and logical explanations, much less demanding them. No one is truly unafraid to say what he sees in front of him. After all, without a strong government you never know who will be a needed ally in the future. Without the clear rule of law throughout the country, people have to find their own solutions, relying on force or the threat of force. Libyans aren’t a violent people—they would be shocked at the casual attitude Americans have toward the ordinary level of violence in their own country—but it is natural to invoke the rhetoric of force when there is no clear authority.

Nearly every Libyan I know hopes the authority vacuum will end soon. The campaigning that began today will culminate in July 7th elections and the subsequent election of a legislature to supervise the writing of a new constitution for Libya. Libyans are taking the election seriously—3,700 candidates, including 539 women, are competing for the 200 spots in the body that will pick a prime minister and Cabinet and choose a group to write the constitution. It’s said that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized of the 142 registered parties and that some of the so-called independent candidates are also with the Brotherhood. But, as I have noted before, Libya is a very religious society and it is probable that the overwhelming majority of citizens are generally sympathetic to sharia law, if not to a state that embodies it.

I remain optimistic about Libya in the momentous days ahead. Not just because it is a socially cohesive country where people generally seem to like each other and want to get along, but because there is a quirky streak in the Libyan character that reminds me of Americans. In many ways the Libyans are like Italians—from their city-state politics to their inclination to splinter parties to their relaxed attitude to work and life and, unfortunately, their moodiness and changeability—but there is also a streak of devotion to personal liberty that isn’t Italian at all. It somehow coexists with the devotion to Islam that I mentioned earlier. I don’t know the country enough after four and a half months of visits to predict how things will work out, but I can’t see Libya imposing on itself anything like the tyranny it just shook off.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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