David Blackburn

Does Libya need a lesson in devolved government?

Recent news from Libya has not inspired confidence. Terrorism, riots, murder, a temporarily kidnapped prime minster, oil stuck at export terminals – it’s a dispiriting litany of apparently unconnected events. Yet careful study of the region’s history and the aftermath of the uprisings against Colonel Gaddafi suggest that peripheral forces in Libya are, as they often do, resisting impositions from the centre. That is the central thesis of a collection of essays The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadafi Future, edited by Jason Pack of Cambridge University.

Pack & Co argue that the Libyan uprising was not homogenous. There were ‘multiple simultaneous uprisings’ far away from Colonel Gaddafi’s powerbases in Tripoli, Sabha and Sirte, in areas of the country where his writ ran courtesy of local strongmen and tribes. Gaddafi was never strong enough to assert his dictatorship in these regions. His authority evaporated in Tobruk because local militia would not fire upon their brothers. A similar pattern emerged across Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and the rebellion gathered pace.

On 27 February 2011, a group of rebels formed the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi to act as the political front for the various rebel groups; a move designed to attract international support for the cause and to provide an administrative centre. While the NTC convinced NATO and others to institute a no-fly zone, it failed to provide adequate civilian administration. Bickering opened between revolutionary youths, tribal militiamen and Islamist elements as the rebellion struggle to maintain order. Matters came to a head on 28 July 2011, when NTC defence minister General Abdul-Fattah Yunis, a former Gaddafi official, was assassinated.

The country is still living with the consequences of that murder, because it pitted radical elements, especially the Islamists and liberal youths, against other interests in the NTC.

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