Christian Caryl

In Libya, They Really Are Out to Get You

Why paranoia is the key to Libyan politics.


TRIPOLI — This is an interesting time to be in Libya. I arrived just a few days ago, but my brief stay has already been checkered by assassinations, bombings, angry political protests, and at least one mass jailbreak. None of these things happened in my immediate vicinity, though, so it’s all felt rather far away. 

Until yesterday, that is. That’s when I learned that the police had defused a car bomb parked in front of my hotel (presumably a message from one of the sundry groups in Libya who regard foreigners as an evil influence). It’s always an odd experience to discover that your own life has become part of the news, however indirectly. And yet, perhaps irrationally, I still feel secure. Our hotel is guarded by one of those heavily armed groups of men that are an inescapable fact of life in today’s Libya, and they seem to be taking their job pretty seriously. My room is also pretty high up, and far back from the street, so I should be fairly safe in an emergency. 

But the incident serves as a useful reminder. If you’re in Libya, there’s probably a reason for that nagging sense of paranoia: Somebody may very well be out to get you. Grasp this essential dynamic, and you’re already well on your way to making sense of the country’s politics. 

The great English political theorist Thomas Hobbes once theorized about the "state of nature" that characterized human societies before the evolution of modern government. He imagined this condition as a bellum omnium contra omnes, a "war of all against all," and he saw government, based on a "social contract" between itself and the governed, as the natural antidote. 

Post-revolution Libya feels like a proving ground for Hobbes’s ideas. When Muammar al-Qaddafi still reigned, he made sure that everything revolved around him, and Libya’s state institutions atrophied accordingly. The demise of the dictator confronted his compatriots with the task of building up a modern state where none had really existed before. Meanwhile, the turmoil and trauma of an extraordinarily violent revolution filled the vacuum with the militias and armed political clans that dominate Libyan politics today. It’s not literally a Hobbesian "war of all against all," since there’s little actual shooting involved, but there are times when it sure feels that way. One of my friends here told me about a next-door neighbor who still keeps a tank, "liberated" from government forces during the revolution, in his garage. When asked why he still hangs on to it, the neighbor replies: "For emergencies." You never know when a tank might come in handy. 

In this sense, Libya is a great case study in what the German sociologist Max Weber would have described as the loss of the "state’s legitimate monopoly on violence." In this country, that monopoly has become a polyopoly — everyone’s got their own little piece of it. Commentator Hisham Matar put it extremely well in a recent article: "Libyans used to be afraid of a brutal state; now they are afraid of the absence of the state." 

Now, I don’t doubt that many Libyans still cling to the idea of a national polity to which they all belong. (I’ve heard many of them say as much.) The problem is that the state still isn’t in a position to offer the most basic thing that most people expect: security. So Libyans are seeking refuge in the institutions that can provide it, which are often shaped by membership in a faction, tribe, or community.

People here are sharply aware of the invisible lines that now divide them from each other. Someone from the city of Misrata would never think of setting foot in the town of Bani Walid (or vice versa). That’s because Bani Walid people accuse the Misratans of committing a massacre in their town after the war, while Misratans see the Bani Walid folk as unrepentant Qaddafi loyalists of precisely the kind who reduced their own city to rubble during the fighting. Such vendettas permeate Libyan society — yet there is so far not even the outline of a mechanism to deal with them in any systematic way. There is much talk of a "national dialogue" that would enable a wide range of interest groups to air their problems, and there’s no question that that’s urgently needed. But can it be done?

The sense of vulnerability is compounded by an intense feeling of victimization. Virtually everyone you meet has some tale of suffering under the Qaddafi regime or the war that put an end to it. Most of these stories are undoubtedly true. (The number of those injured or traumatized during the revolution adds yet another burden to Libyan society — contributing, among other things, to a rising drug problem that the country is singularly ill-equipped to deal with.) 

But so far there’s been no serious effort to arrive at an objective account of who committed those crimes. The interim government has made a few halting steps towards establishing a law on transitional justice that would address these problems, but the draft has little chance of passing in its present form — precisely because it isn’t robust enough for many legislators. The lack of any public discussion is fostering a corrosive sense of complacency. "Some of the countries around Libya don’t want to see Libya be strong again," one young Misratan told me. "Most of Libya’s problems are of outside origin."  

Needless to say, that happens to be a great excuse for not confronting the problems that can only be solved by Libyans themselves. To be sure, all revolutions have a tendency to spawn conspiracy theories and xenophobia; that’s a function of the uncertainty, confusion, and fear that emerge during periods of dramatic transformation. But in Libya’s case there’s an even more nefarious problem: the current militia-based system is just stable enough to make dislodging or reforming it a major challenge.

That’s because the militias who emerged from the revolution are, in most cases, genuine grassroots organizations that still have strong and organic ties to the communities that gave birth to them. For the young men who belong to them, they serve as something like surrogate extended families (some, indeed, even have recreation centers where their members hang out together after hours — a major plus in a country where there aren’t many options for late-night entertainment). And in some communities, the militias are now closely intertwined with local governments. (In cities like Misrata or Zintan, it’s a bit hard to determine where the militias end and local administrations begin.) Disentangling the two is likely to prove a formidable task — and perhaps ultimately counter-productive, if it means confronting groups that embody someone’s hometown pride. 

Tripoli, in this respect, is something of an exception. The city is filled with militias from other parts of the country, who are loath to give up their positions here for fear that will rob them of any chance to make themselves heard. Having an armed presence in the capital is a great way of ensuring that you still have leverage over the government (as Islamist militias demonstrated a few months ago, when they successfully pressured the government into passing a controversial law by invading the ministries). 

Yet actual armed clashes among the myriad groups here are strikingly rare — perhaps because the militias have achieved something like a "balance of terror" among themselves, as one Libyan put it to me. "People are rational with their weapons," Fadel Lamen, a Libyan-American legal consultant in Tripoli, told me. "They use them to negotiate, not to kill." He argues that trying to persuade the militias to give up their gun s is a non-starter, and that a far more practical approach would involve a consistent policy on prosecuting acts of violence rather than the mere possession of weapons. 

One thing is for sure: Libya is unique. And anyone who wants to help it solve its problems has to take that into account. As for me, I’m looking forward to exploring this place some more. Just no bombs, please.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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