By Dominique Soguel / AFP
TRIPOLI: Violence in Libya risks escalating and could even derail elections if the interim government fails to impose its authority by disarming militias and strengthening the judiciary, analysts say.
In the southern desert cities of Sabha and Kufra, clashes pitting Arabs against non-Arab tribesmen have cost more than 250 lives since February, according to an AFP tally based on official estimates.
Inter-communal fighting in Libya’s west last week left at least 20 people dead and hundreds wounded before the government secured a ceasefire with the help of the nascent army and revolutionary brigades.
The unrest coupled with calls for autonomy in the east has raised concerns over the ruling National Transitional Council’s grip on power in the country where decades of dictatorship left an institutional void.
It has also put into question the NTC’s ability to conduct elections for a constituent assembly which are scheduled for June.
“Clashes will escalate and may well become more frequent simply because there is no effective central authority,” predicts George Joffe, co-editor of The Journal of North African Studies.
There are many possible triggers: ambitions for autonomy in the east, resentment against individuals or groups which allegedly collaborated with the former regime, racial tensions, and the desire to hang on to power, Joffe said.
Tribal clashes, he told AFP, “could easily derail Libya’s transition to democracy simply by preventing the organization of an effective poll.”
Peter Cole of the International Crisis Group stresses that while the root cause of the violence is not always tribal in nature, communal and tribal loyalties come into play when grievances do arise.
“These communal conflicts risk growing in scale and frequency if the government does not put a justice system in place,” he said, because people tend to take matters into their own hands to defend or punish a community.
“The country is not at a tipping point, but it is vulnerable,” he said.
Returning from Sabha, Cole said reconciliation councils and tribal leaders in the city were at a “breaking point” trying to prevent individual squabbles from becoming all-out conflicts.
“Without a justice system to refer cases to, they can only do so much.”
Fred Abrahams, special adviser to Human Rights Watch in Libya, says the interim government needs “to take reconstruction of the judicial system much more seriously” and demobilize militias, who hold “roughly 8,000 detainees.”
It is no surprise, Abrahams added, that tribes and militias are stepping up to fill the power vacuum and no coincidence that the latest rounds of fighting were concentrated in border areas.
“The struggles are mostly about business and the control of smuggling routes,” where a lot of money is up for grabs and where disputes are fraught with danger due to the proliferation of weapons after Qaddafi’s fall, he said.
The response time of the government had improved since the first serious outbreak of violence in Kufra late February, Abrahams noted.
Analysts agree the disarming of militias, who control several strategic sites and provide services as diverse as traffic control to border patrols, is key to a smooth transition.
But the NTC has proved powerless on this point.
Joffe said the ruling Council, handicapped by internal power struggles and lacking resources and authority beyond the east where it was conceived, has proved to be a “paper tiger” politically.
“If local militia leaders decided that they wish to intervene to determine the outcome of any poll, there is no power or authority that can prevent them from doing so,” Joffe said, adding the army lacks clout and manpower.
“(Some militias) are transmuting into political parties and see their armed strength as an extension of political power,” he said.
A handful of commanders of rebel units in the 2011 conflict, including Abdelhakim Belhaj who now heads the Tripoli military council and recently formed a political party, have made no secret of their aspirations.
“Militias and local citizen groups constitute the primary barrier to stability, reconstruction and a democratic transition,” said Jason Pack, a researcher at Cambridge University and president of Libya-Analysis.com.
Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil warned last week that he would resign if the June vote was pushed back.
But Pack said the polls are likely be postponed — not because Libya is not ready or able to hold them on time, but because the NTC is failing to make the “difficult decisions needed to carry them out” on schedule.
He warned that postponing the elections could send a “very bad signal” to Libyans, the international community and the investors who can make or break the country’s economic recovery.
David Mack, a former US envoy to Libya and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, acknowledged there could be delays but credited the NTC with paving the way for an elected government against incredible odds.
“Fortunately, I think there is wide, popular backing for the (electoral) process. Libyans will get there, eventually,” he said.