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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Libya?

Smoke billows from an area near Tripoli's international airport as fighting between rival factions around the capital's airport continues on July 24, 2014. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Smoke billows from an area near Tripoli's international airport as fighting between rival factions around the capital's airport continues on July 24, 2014. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows from an area near Tripoli’s international airport as fighting between rival factions around the capital’s airport continues on July 24, 2014. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
In the midst of massive political turmoil and militia violence last week, the Libyan High National Elections Commission finally released the results of the parliamentary elections held at the end of June. These results mark the end of the General National Congress’ (GNC) tenure in power; they named the elected members who would soon occupy Libya’s House of Representatives, the parliamentary body expected to replace the GNC.

The announcement, however, comes at a very volatile time in Libyan history, and the results of the elections reflect the nature of this contentious political environment. In the past year, the GNC—Libya’s first elected government—has very quickly lost favor with Libyan society. Postwar, the GNC found itself incapable of reining in regional militias, many of them under the command of generals with partisan political interests. Jockeying for greater political control, these militias have been responsible for violence that has claimed hundreds of civilian lives.

Early in the year, federalist militias in the east, led by politician Ibrahim Jathran, dominated the headlines in their struggle to create an autonomous government. They were allied with the army of Khalifa Haftar, a former member of Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council. Haftar, in an attempt to drive out what he called “terrorist militants” from Benghazi and other eastern parts of the country, many of whom have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar Al-Shari’a, launched a military offensive against them. The groups targeted by Haftar’s army included brigades under the Libya Shield Force, a militia group created by the government to compensate for the lack of a police force and government army. The Libya Shield Force is under the control of the Interior Ministry, whose chief-of-staff, Salem Al-Obeidi, is thought to have sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In recent months, however, the battles have moved westward. Similar political dynamics have emerged in this part of the country, with political militias associated with the Muslim Brotherhood battling for power with other forces allied with Haftar’s coalition. The struggle for control culminated in the violent airport attack this month. The airport had been under the control of militias from Zintan who are allied with Heftar’s forces. The Zintanis had been fending off the attacks of militias from Misrata, affiliated with the Libya Shield Force and led by Salah Badi, for weeks until July 13, when the Misratan forces delivered a devastating attack that shut down airport operations. This meant that all flights leaving from western Libya would have to leave from the Misrata or Mitiga base airports, both of which are under the Misratan militias’ control.

These events call into question the ability of any governmental body—whether it’s the GNC or the new House of Representatives, which has yet to be inaugurated into power—to bring peace and stability to Libya. Many of these forces receive government salaries, and yet they seem to be completely beyond the control of the GNC. The presence of these militias not only undermines any attempt at establishing democracy, it also threatens the very fabric of Libyan society. The battles between militias are uncontained, and much of the fire exchanged between them has fallen on civilian heads. Additionally, these struggles for power have taken place off the battlefield, in the form of targeted political assassinations. In the wake of the June 26 elections, gunmen entered the home of women’s activist Salwa Boukaiqis and killed her. A few weeks later, former GNC member Fariha Barkawi was gunned down in the eastern city of Derna.

Although the elections represent a positive development in Libya’s democratic process, it’s a very small victory—and some may argue that any elected government body entering this political milieu is as good as impotent. What little power the GNC had has been lost to the militias. In the transfer of power between the GNC and the new House of Representatives, the only thing that may be exchanged between them is a nominal leadership.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Tasbeeh Herwees
Tasbeeh Herwees is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Kifah Libya, an independent online magazine. She tweets @THerwees

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