The Bitter Fruit of Libya’s “Arab Spring”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib yesterday and expressed optimism about Libya’s future. But Libya faces major problems in making the difficult transition to a stable democracy.

Libya’s “Arab Spring,” which appeared to have a bright future after the fall of Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorship last year, has lost considerable luster amid intensifying power struggles, persistent anarchy, and violent revenge attacks. On Tuesday, a coalition of tribal leaders and militia commanders declared the formation of a semi-autonomous region in oil-rich eastern Libya. This presents a major challenge to the authority of the National Transitional Council, which has been unable to extend its authority over many fiercely independent tribes, militias, and Islamist groups.

Libyans are currently dealing with a plethora of problems that many fledgling states have in the Middle East: establishing a balance between the central government and local authority, merging independent militias into a national army, defusing increasing social tensions, and forging a national consensus that includes nationalists, traditional tribal leaders, Islamists, and members of ethnic or sectarian minority groups.

The debate over central authority came to the front when eastern Libya declared itself to be a semi-autonomous region run by a man jailed for 31 years under the Qadhafi regime. Growing Islamist influence, Arab–Berber tensions, and racial problems have increased after the fall of Qadhafi, which is a theme one often sees when dictators fall. Abdul Hakim Belhaj, an Islamist extremist who fought alongside the Taliban but claims to have disavowed terrorism, has gained power in Tripoli.Qatar has funded the expansion of Islamist movements that were always an important component of the opposition in Libya.

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There has also been a violent backlash against many African immigrant workers whom many Libyans wrongly suspect were part of Qadhafi’s mercenary auxiliary force. An especially barbarous example of this score-settling campaign is a video that recently surfaced showing native Libyan thugs force-feeding black Africans the former Libyan flag while keeping them in a cage.

Dictatorships mask the problems of a country by suppressing them through force, and now Libya has to deal with them as a weak and embryonic democracy. Although there is rampant anti-American fervor in the Middle East, the Libyans could learn from the American experiment on how to deal with social ills and create stability.

The east Libyans made it clear that they were not seceding from the central authority and wanted to keep the country intact. There is little reason to think Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, the east Libyan leader, is dissembling when he says he wants east Libya to remain a part of Libya proper. “We are not looking for division at all,” he said. “Our target is to keep Libya united. We are hoping to run our region.… We have the federal government, and we have the local government.” But it remains to be seen whether other Libyan leaders will accept his position, particularly given the disproportionately large oil resources that lie within his territory.

Establishing semi-autonomous regions in some ways could be an easier solution to Libya’s severe problems than trying to create a strong central government. It would lighten the burden of the central government because it would have to focus only on policy concerns like defense, foreign policy, internal security, and monetary policy. The regional governments could handle issues like education and welfare. Further, it would further stability, as these regions could separate the contentious factions. Rival tribes do not have to live in the same semi-autonomous region if they cannot get along.

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The United States does not need to entangle its military any further in Libya, but America can help Libya become more stable on its own by providing advice and assistance in developing a decentralized federalist system there.

Treston Wheat is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit:

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