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What next for Libya?

The kidnap of Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, is a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

New Statesman
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and head of the General National Congress Nouri Bousahmein give a press conference shortly after Zeidan's release. Photo:Getty.

The kidnap of Libya’s prime minister Ali Zeidan by armed militia, and his release a few hours later by another rival militia, has illustrated the depth of Libya’s security challenges. Libya’s weak central government is unable to assert control over the country’s many armed groups, and political kidnappings and assassinations are becoming increasingly commonplace. It should also come as a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

Zeidan’s brief detention followed closely after the US’s capture of the al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. Al-Libi is believed to be behind the 1998 US embassy attacks that killed more than 220 people, so he is a high-profile target for the US. But Many militia groups felt angered that the US had infringed on Libya’s sovereignty in this way.

The US’s anti-terrorist operations are hugely damaging to the fragile national governments of countries targeted by drone attacks and strikes on militants. If the US wants a moderate like Zeidan to stay in power, it cannot afford to undermine his authority in this way. The capture of al-Libi will only strengthen support for the anti-American sentiments expressed by the same radical Islamists that the US wants to crush. Most Libyan’s don’t hate the West, but years of colonial rule means they are fiercely protective of their country’s independence and whatever the reality, the US’s actions have made Zeidan appear in thrall to Obama.

Meanwhile, Zeidan has repeatedly requested more assistance in disarming the country’s militias and training up a national police force and army. The UK, France, Italy and Turkey are all due to help train militia groups, and numerous technical advisers have been sent into the country by Western powers, but much, much more needs to be done.

Nato powers have a responsibility towards Libya. They, after all, intervened to help remove the country’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country’s current state of chaos is by no means surprising – after four decades of Gaddafi rule, post-revolutionary Libya had no civil society, independent media or experience of democracy. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, it did not have a powerful and unified national army, and almost every man old enough to carry a gun owned at least one. Libya needed much more support with its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts than it ever received, but even those who welcomed Gaddafi’s removal took no time to dismiss the country as ‘another Iraq’ and a failed cause.

Admittedly, there are huge challenges when intervening to bolster Libya’s central government. In 2011 Libya turned down offers of UN peacekeeping troops, who could have helped strengthen central government’s authority in the aftermath of the war. Foreign boots on the ground would have been deeply unpopular, but in hindsight, rejecting UN assistance was probably a mistake. Today the security situation in Libya is so dire that it’s quite hard for foreign advisers to operate safely, particularly in the virtually lawless east of the country.

The problem is, the price of the West’s inaction will be high, and not only for the millions of ordinary Libyans who want to see peace and security restored to their country. Libya is currently home to the world’s largest unsecured stockpile of weapons, and the country’s lawlessness means radical Islamist groups are able to operate and organise freely. The US may have succeeded in the capture of al-Libi, but its short-sighted strategy in Libya will only strengthen al-Qaeda.