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Old animosities are thriving in Libya

Tribesmen's goal of trying Kadafi's son themselves is emblematic of the divide

April 09, 2013|Jeffrey Fleishman
  • Seif Islam Kadafi, son of the late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, addresses supporters in Tripoli in 2011. The rebels who captured him after the civil war that year have refused to turn him over to the Libyan government or the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Seif Islam Kadafi, son of the late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, addresses… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

ZINTAN, LIBYA — The prized scion of Moammar Kadafi is a prisoner of tribesmen in these mountains of scrub and ocher rock.

The rebels who captured him after the 2011 civil war that toppled his father have refused to turn him over to the central government in Tripoli or the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The militiamen patrolling hillsides of winding roads and scattered bunkers want Seif Islam Kadafi tried in a rural courtroom and hanged.

"Seif is a murderer and a liar. We have our own high court so we'll try him in Zintan," said Alramah Mohammed Elmerhani, a former rebel commander who was wounded in a tank battle. "It will bring pride to our city, which was forgotten by his father's regime."

The militia's sway over Seif Kadafi's legal fate is emblematic of the danger this fractured nation faces as it attempts to unify amid tribal animosities, territorial disputes and economic turmoil. The political disarray and weakness of the government were evident when the General National Congress abandoned its chamber in February after it was seized by former revolutionaries demanding compensation for wartime injuries.

Signs of progress in Libya have been few but noteworthy. The country has not, as some predicted, broken into autonomous pieces. Oil production has rebounded and Prime Minister Ali Zidan has established a degree of normality. However, drafting a constitution has been delayed and the government has yet to stem unemployment, rising drug and alcohol abuse and deepening social problems.

Moammar Kadafi's 42-year rule was an inscrutable game of playing tribes and regions against one another. That legacy of suspicion now threatens the country's crucial oil industry and the security of a region where Islamist militants are on the rise and neighboring Tunisia and Egypt are also precariously emerging from decades of autocratic rule.

It seems as if every other man in Libya can show off a bullet scar or a bump of shrapnel beneath the skin, the price of overthrowing a dictator. But the post-revolution has brought allegations of billions of dollars in financial mismanagement and a disturbing security vacuum that has overwhelmed a fledgling national army, which has been forced to integrate with tribal militias -- which often have conflicting agendas -- to keep order across lawless coasts and deserts.

These crisscrossing interests have ignited clashes between tribes and revenge against Kadafi supporters. A Human Rights Watch report released in February said that "several thousand" detainees were being held illegally by private militias. Those armed groups include Ansar al Sharia, blamed for the attack in September that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans but now policing the city where he died, Benghazi.

The government is paying millions of dollars a month to militias in attempts to appease them. A deadly battle between militias from Zintan and Zuwara last month at an energy complex temporarily suspended oil production and natural gas exports to Italy. The fight was predictable in its irony: It erupted when Zuwara tribesmen challenged Zintan fighters for the contract to protect the plant.

"We need better security. The militias are still stronger than the army," said Mohammed Alagile, a soldier who moonlights selling fabric and sequins for wedding dresses in the capital, Tripoli. "We in the army are new volunteers, but the militias have better weapons and more experience from fighting in the revolution."

Adjusting to a new era has also tested a political culture not accustomed to transparency. Libyans have followed allegations of financial waste by a top official who claimed that the preceding transitional government spent about $3 billion last year on furniture, stationery and other supplies. The charges were denied, but the larger question for many was how to build a credible government after decades of a despot's rule.

"We are not used to politics, and now the people want more than the national congress can offer," said Khalifia Shebani, an oil worker and former rebel from Zintan. "It's difficult to start a new democracy. Tunisia and Egypt went through revolutions too, but they had existing parliaments and militaries. We're starting from scratch."

He shook his head and wondered -- amid all the national uncertainty -- if his own dream would ever be complete: "I've been building a house for 15 years and it's still not finished."

The road to Zintan snakes from the valley to a blustery mountaintop. Men huddle around shops and women hurry through bullet-pocked alleys in black abayas. Electricity is sporadic and water is delivered by trucks that growl past the photographs of young and old faces peering out from a "martyrs" memorial.

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