Libya on the brink

July 28, 2014 - 2:44:19 am

As foreign diplomats leave the country due to spiralling violence, a diplomatic solution looks unlikely.

The warning by Western countries for their citizens to leave Libya shows the extent of chaos plaguing this North African nation. Washington evacuated its embassy staff on Saturday, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying the mission had faced a ‘real risk’ from fierce fighting between armed groups for control of Tripoli’s international airport. Diplomats of other countries are being pulled out, and thousands of workers from foreign countries working in Libya, including from Asia, are stuck, making calls to their governments to evacuate them before the crisis worsens.

The fighting is taking a huge toll. At least 36 people were killed in eastern city of Benghazi where Libyan Special Forces and Islamist militants clashed on Saturday night and Sunday morning. The government said more than 150 people have died, many of them civilian, in the capital Tripoli and Benghazi in two weeks of fighting.

In the last two weeks, Libya has descended into its deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, with the central government unable to impose order. If every Arab Spring country has its problem, the rise of militias has been Libya’s bane. The federal government in Tripoli had never been able to exert its control all over the state and while the government’s power weakened, the militias strengthened themselves by amassing more weapons and filling the vacuum left by the government. The militias are heavily armed and now have the gumption to challenge the authority of the federal government. They are fighting both among themselves and against the government for control.

The exit of diplomats shows that the international community has more or less given up on a diplomatic solution. The country is plunging into a civil war with no immediate end in sight, and mediation efforts are difficult because the militias are disparate and are fighting for freedom. The battles are also part of a wider struggle between Islamists and their opponents, triggered by elections in June for a new parliament, the house of representatives, that resulted in huge losses for Islamist parties. Those parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party, will almost certainly lose control of the legislature, and their militias fear they will be dissolved.

The current chaos could have been averted if the government that was installed after Gaddafi had focused on disarming the militias and wrested control from them. Now the government itself has collapsed. A few days ago, the prime minister, Abdullah al Thinni, was refused permission to board his own plane and leave the city for the east, by the militia that controls Mitiga, Tripoli’s second airport•