Last week, the New York Times carried a front-page story on Libya entitled “Libya Struggles to Curb Militias as Chaos Grows.” If the headline were not enough to clarify the main point, the subheads in the print edition were: “Government Paralyzed” and “Officials Confronted by Rivalries, Grievances and Old Habits.”
To my knowledge, this is the first front page New York Times story on Libya in many, many weeks. The occasion for the story seems to be crack New York Times Arab-world reporter Anthony Shadid’s visit to Tripoli. If that is so, then the story is a prime example of nomad journalism. That interpretation of the occasion for the story is strengthened by the fact that the story itself appears to contain no brand new hard news. It is rather a short feature, as opposed to a straight news article, that reviews events of the past several weeks and months, speckled strategically with pithy quotations Shadid managed to elicit (and presumably translate into English) from several locals.
Be that as it may, Shadid does his usual good job of selecting representative data to paint a larger canvas. And his conclusions, foreshadowed in the subtitles quoted above, are unmistakable: Things are bad in Libya, and they are liable to get a whole lot worse.
To Americans who have not been paying attention to Libya since the death of Muammar Qaddafi, Shadid’s exposé might very well come as an unpleasant surprise. When the loon–in–chief met his ignominious end back on October 20, there was general celebration, especially here in Washington. David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote a fawning column declaring the triumphal vindication of the Obama Administration’s policy (“A Moment to Savor”, October 21, 2011), and that seemed to capture the general mood nicely for the roughly 15 Warholian minutes it lasted. Then, as usual with the American press and political class, with their attention-deficit-disorder approach to the world, the reporters and cameras moved elsewhere, the matter promptly forgotten. Rather the same thing had happened, of course, after the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. In the latter case, it took only a month or two before the wake-up calls started pouring in, all bearing more or less the same message: that the tweeted revolution of Midan al-Tahrir was a great deal less than met the eye. With Shadid’s help, a similar message now registers on Libya.
To be fair, not everyone’s attention to matters Libyan lapsed after this past October. I would like to think that some of the readers who attended to my three commentaries on the Libyan war in this space were among them, because I warned from the very start of the war, about 11 months ago, that good outcomes were unlikely, and that a clean break from war to peace would be even less likely. Shadid’s analysis confirms those warnings.
Let me now walk you through Shadid’s article, making quoted reference back to my own analysis. Yes, this is a kind of “I told you so” display, but in my defense, let me note that this exercise is my staff’s idea, not mine.
Shadid begins his article with a bloody anecdote, a surefire way to start a nomadic journalism masterpiece. He describes the attack of one Libyan militia against another at a seaside base (he gives no date) in which the object of dispute apparently was an abducted woman. Shadid manages to squeeze a general observation inside his telling of the anecdote, as follows: “. . . the scene that unfolded felt as chaotic as Libya’s revolution these days—a government whose authority extends no further than its offices, militias whose swagger comes from guns far too plentiful and residents whose patience fades with every volley of gunfire that cracks at night.”
The woman was rescued. Meanwhile, Shadid relates a command from one militiaman pleading for order: “Nothing gets taken out!” He was ignored, of course. The haul was a box of grenades, ammunition belts, rusted heavy machine guns, crates of bottled water and, most colorful of all, “an aquarium propped improbably on a moped.” (You have to love the scene that conjures.) That’s not all. Shadid relates a fight among militiamen over stolen cars. Those who did not get their way shot up the vehicles, leading Shadid to his next precious quote, from a 51-year-old militia commander named Nouri Ftais: “This is destruction! . . . We are destroying Libya with our bare hands.” (He never says whether he witnessed this event himself, or reconstructed it from secondhand accounts.)
Anyone who is surprised at this state of affairs has only himself to blame. Here is the first shadow quote, from my October 27 piece:
The best way to characterize the state of play in Libya is not, as the popular consensus has it, that the war is over and the Western stake in North Africa is saved from peril, but that what we have witnessed is, at best, the end of the beginning. A Western–aided campaign to bring down the Qaddafi regime has succeeded, but it has succeeded only in making Libya safe for civil strife, political incoherence and possibly internal warfare.
And as for the abundance of weapons to use, steal and sell, here is what I wrote in that same post:
The old regime’s enormous stock of weapons—of all shapes and sizes—has now been let loose both inside the country and, thanks to arms entrepreneurs from various places, throughout the region at large. This is what happens when you bring a regime down without sufficient forces on the ground to protect ammunition dumps and other critical sites. All factions in Libya are both armed and ill disciplined.
Today that goes for what passes as the Libyan national army as well as the multitude of militias.
Shadid then moves on to describe the fact that no one would consider a city normal or ordinary (he is speaking of Tripoli) where militiamen tortured to death an urbane former diplomat in mid-January, where hundreds of refugees deemed loyal to or even associated with the old regime “waited hopelessly in a camp, or where a government official acknowledged that “freedom is a problem.” What this says between the lines, among other things, is that vigilante justice is the only kind on offer in Libya’s capital city (to spare mention of the rest of the country), and that those now on the wrong side of the gun barrels are likely stuck in captivity for as long as they live—which might not be very long. No one knows the number of regime loyalists and tribal affiliates of the old order who were summarily executed in the weeks and months after October 20. The number is certainly in the thousands, and the count is still rising.
My second shadow quote comes from my August 16 post:
Qaddafi and his tribal loyalists and allies will not surrender peaceably. There is going to be, quite possibly, a crimsoned slaughter of the civilian population. . . . The main rule when one tribe or one tribal confederacy conquers another is that the defeated party is politically, socially, economically and, often to some extent, literally decapitated. The defeat must be total, unmistakable and irreparable. That is the best way, indeed, in many cases the only way, to make sure that the rank-and-file of the defeated group will not find some way to rise up again in revenge.
In my October 27 post I added: “Civil wars in places like Libya do not resemble country club tennis matches. After someone appears to have one and someone else appears to have lost the two do not amble cheerfully toward the net to shake hands.”
Now, it is true that I suspected a bloody fight for the capital, for Tripoli itself. That did not happen, because the regime abandoned the capital to make a last stand in more familiar and presumably more advantageous tribal areas. It is still not clear to me why Qaddafi made this choice. Perhaps he did not really trust his tribal allies in the capital. Perhaps he feared army and other forms of desertion. In retrospect, it looks like a rather foolish decision, although probably nothing could have saved him in the end. Rather than the blood flowing in Tripoli, it flowed in Qaddafi’s tribal homeland, in a more protracted but less dramatic manner, over several weeks.
The old animosities are not yet extinguished. Shadid describes sharp and bloody clashes in January in Bani Walid, the same Qaddafi tribal stronghold that held off Cyrenaica-based opposition troops for many weeks this past autumn. Time for another shadow quote, this one from October 27: “. . . while Qaddafi is dead, some members of his extended finally and his tribe are not.” Apparently, the defeat of the old regime was not thorough enough, in the traditional terms of tribal warfare.
But more relevant perhaps, although more general, is this quote from my March 22 post:
There is no mystery as to why the opposition arose in Benghazi, in Cyrenaica, while the capital and Qaddafi’s loyalists are mainly in the old province of Tripolitania. I frankly doubt whether the advisers egging the President on in Libya have ever heard these proper nouns before, or have heard of Sannusiya (the Sufi order movement that helped ignite Libyan opposition to Italian colonialism). . . . We are, let us be frank, intervening in someone else’s civil war. There are no humanitarians, and very few mere civilians, in Libya right now, because the struggle has at its base a tribal conflict, which the U.S. media has managed to ignore almost in its entirety.
Shadid describes some clever manipulation of old graffiti, and then moves on to some key points, made using carefully extracted quotations. The first point has to do with democratic legitimacy: The current government has none, and hopes that elections some months away can produce some. But holding those elections will not be easy, and, according to Shadid, the effort to conduct them is as likely to lead to civil war as it is to more legitimacy for the present government—to say nothing of democracy. He quotes Libyan author Hisham Mater: “Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded.” Shadid then writes: “Authority here peels like an onion, imposed by militias bearing the stamp of towns elsewhere in the West, neighborhoods in the capital, even its streets.”
This brings us to my next shadow quote, from October 27:
[Libyans] are divided by region, by tribe, by views about religion and politics, and by strong personalities. . . . None of the factions in Libya possess what Westerners understand by the meaning of the word ideology. Despite targeted public relations efforts by the leaders of the national transitional Council, they certainly cannot be described as democratic in any known sense of the term. I hope this does not come as a surprise to anyone because, after all, the Libyans have never experienced democracy in any form since the Libyan state congealed in 1951.
The second of Shadid’s general points has to do with general and basic governmental dysfunction. He quotes one official who admits that the government has no idea how to channel enough money into the economy so that it can be felt in the streets, no idea how to create transparency in government decisions, and really no idea how to make decisions in a manner different from the old, acutely top-down regime. As he puts it, “Ministries still seem paralyzed by the tendency, instilled during the dictatorship, to defer every decision to the top.” As a 20-year old pharmacy student named Israa Ahwass says, “They’re sitting on their chairs, they’re drinking coffee and they’re drafting projects that stay in the realm of their imagination. . . . They’re not doing a single thing.”
Shadid should know better than to ascribe bureaucratic paralysis in an Arab country merely to one dictatorship, even one that lasted 42 years. The tendency toward top-down command protocols in government goes back a long, long way in this part of the world (as in others), or else Ibn Khaldun would not have made such a big deal in the Muqaddimah about the natural tendency, as he saw it, for political power to accumulate in one man. (This was already an old proposition when he formalized it in the 14th century.) That widespread cultural presumption probably helps to explain how a nutcase like Qaddafi was able to rule Libya with relative ease for such a long period.
That said, no one should be surprised by the ineptitude of the new government. Another shadow quote from the October 27 post: “The Qaddafi regime . . . long ago sucked all the political oxygen out of the Libyan atmosphere in terms of governance experience. No one among the real rebels knows how to govern anything.”
The rest of Shadid’s article consists of descriptions of various militias’ sundry activities. These include assuming the prerogatives of the police, as well as torture and summary executions, graphically illustrated in the NYT account. Shadid quotes Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at Human Rights Watch: “If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry.” One wonders where Mr. Bouckaert has been for the past several decades: This sort of thing happens regularly in Arab dictatorships, and the outcry is soft to inaudible most of the time, even from Human Rights Watch.
But the best quote Shadid saves for the end. Some otherwise unidentified Libyan named Mahmoud Mgairish says: “I don’t know where this country is heading . . . I swear to God, this will never get untangled.”
It is quite possible that Mgairish will be proved correct. A last shadow quote, if you will permit me, from my first post, on March 22, at the very beginning of the war:
There is a regional and tribal element to the fight in Libya. It is unlikely that the Benghazi-based rebels could by themselves establish stable control over the whole country. It is almost as unlikely that the Tripolitanian tribes could reestablish firm control over Cyrenaica. Qaddafi managed the feet through a combination of patronage, terror and cooptation. That will be a very hard act to follow in the wake of so much bloodletting. We are therefore looking into the maw of a Libya that may well be divided, in the throes of some kind of protracted, at least low level civil war. . . . And in due course, if the fractious mess lasts long enough, there is a reasonable prospect that al-Qaeda will find a way to establish a foothold amid the mayhem.
I am not claiming by bringing the last part of this quotation that al-Qaeda or one of its semi-independent salafi franchises has made inroads in Libya, setting up the early infrastructure of a movement with terrorist potential. I do not know that this is the case. I also do not know that this is not the case, however. As I have said, as far as most American observers are concerned, the Libya war is over, there will be no sequel and hence there is now no reason to pay the place any particular attention. As many American observers have been profoundly and predictably wrong before in matters pertaining to Libya, one therefore wonders if they are not likely to be wrong again. It could well be that we have not yet heard the last chorus from the shores of Tripoli.
February 17, 2012: I just learned that Anthony Shadid died from an asthma attack yesterday while on assignment in Syria. This is a great loss. He was one of the few fluent Arabic speakers prominent in the American press corps. An intrepid man, he would go anywhere and do practically anything to get the first draft of history. May he rest in peace.