Libya: job done? | Editorial

The country is run by militias, torture and human rights abuses are widespread but neither Britain nor France seem bothered

David Cameron gave Nicolas Sarkozy a shell casing to mark the first anniversary of the Libyan uprising. The two men called each other brave before talking about Syria, whose death toll has dwarfed Libyan casualties before Nato began bombing, but where no military intervention is being contemplated. If they kept the subject on Libya, they would have soon run out of positive things to say. The National Transitional Council, the body the west funds and recognises, is neither trusted nor in control. The country is run by hundreds of militias which refuse to give up their arms or submit to the NTC’s authority. Misrata is a city state, with its own prisons and justice system. Militias have co-ordinated to form alternative committees to the NTC, but it’s everyone for himself. Torture carries on and, according to a recent Amnesty report, widespread human rights abuses are committed with impunity. Neither the British prime minister nor the French president seem bothered by this. For them, it’s “job done”.

Libya is not Iraq or Syria, and there appears to be a universal belief, shared by militia commanders, that elections will and should be held in June. Militias have weapons but no money. The Qatari funds have dried up and the £150bn of Gaddafi-era assets frozen globally is being returned to the NTC, although some of it is flying straight out of the country, pocketed by corrupt officials; £10bn of the £12bn frozen in Britain has been returned and the remainder is being held back because no audit chain exists. Put to one side a legacy of tyranny which left the country bereft of a civil society or political parties. These alone are not propitious conditions for an election to be held.

It is folly to expect that tensions between militias and tribes will dissipate following the election of a constituent assembly. Disarmament and demobilisation will be the consequences of a central authority with real political legitimacy, not the precursors to it. At the moment the NTC, whose members are not even known, lacks the trust within the country to exert such authority. The NTC is distrusted even on home turf in Benghazi. The elections in neighbouring Tunisia were both peaceful and successful because negotiations were held and alliances were formed well in advance of the results. And promises were kept by Islamists after they were swept to power in greater numbers than they anticipated. Libya is still at the ground zero of this process. Its Islamists are split, unable to overcome personal dislikes, let alone offer deals to others.

Libya is free of Gaddafi’s quixotic tyranny but is still miles from building a democratic alternative. Neither Britain, France, nor the UN will do it for them. The assumption that a central government or a national army can be unloaded in kit form from the nose cone of a C-5 Galaxy, and stay long after the transporter has lumbered home, is an imperial conceit. State-building has been the untold disaster of liberal interventionism. Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy have shown that they lack the attention span, the money or the political will to do it. But repeated failure has not lessened their appetites for planning for fresh conflicts, like the one about to be launched against Iran. If not them, who? The Arab League is dominated by the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia is using the civil war in Syria to divert attention from the suppression of its own internal dissent, which is inexorably rising. No help there.

If any country has a long-term interest in events beyond a long border, it is Egypt – for all sorts of reasons: historical, cultural, tribal. Before the war, 2 million Egyptian workers worked in Libya. Of course, it has more than enough on its domestic plate, but it is also time Egypt assumed its regional responsibilities. It could invite the Libyan militias to a conference in Cairo, where they could start hammering out deals that the Libyan elections will need only too soon. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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