The Middle East Channel

Libyan stability at risk

Last week's attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions' capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.

For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan -- and by extension North African -- instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria -- and most recently Tunisia -- offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture. 

The French response has thus far been encouraging. Within hours of the attack they dispatched their foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to Tripoli. Unlike the Americans, who backed off following the brutal killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the French signaled they would double down in Libya and not make the same mistake.

Understanding the actors behind the bombing is key to conceptualizing the appropriate international response. Of note, the recent attack is perhaps more likely to have been motivated by domestic Libyan politics rather than the default explanation seized upon by the media -- blowback over French intervention in Mali. Indeed, an underreported and ill-understood struggle is afoot in Libya between forces that want to build a coherent government and utilize the country's vast resources to facilitate the transition to democracy, and local and jihadists actors who benefit from the chaos of the status quo, and wish to cling to their local fiefdoms based on intimidation, militias, smuggling, tribal networks, and porous borders. In other words, many newly entrenched power brokers in Libya simply do not want to see a democratic success story and are willing to utilize violence to prevent it.

It is against this inauspicious backdrop of a full-fledged "struggle for post-Qaddafi Libya" -- and not simply that of Mali backlash -- that last week's bombing, this week's militia occupations, and heated debates concerning the political isolation law must be understood. The key Western powers in Libya (Italy, France, Britain, and the United States) have all been nominally supporting the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan in his efforts to build functional, centralized institutions. To date, however, the West has adopted a hands-off approach. The United States in particular, partly because of its Benghazi wounds and the partisan climate on the Hill surrounding this issue, has shown little more than verbal support for Libyan reconstruction. Present conditions, however, demonstrate that the time for hesitation is over.

The Libyan political scene at present strongly signals the need for more proactive engagement. At the moment, the Libyan government is besieged by its opponents. It must assert itself and organize elections for a constituent assembly tentatively scheduled for the late fall. This body will draft the long-awaited constitution, successful completion of which will be crucial in regaining the support of the populace and quelling growing dissatisfaction among youth. Libya's General National Congress (GNC) has become highly unpopular. This has made it even more crucial that it conduct the constitutional process in an inclusive, transparent manner that attains buy-in of the population writ-large, so as to lobby the populace against the militias.

Maintaining security throughout this delicate constitution-writing process is crucial. An unstable Libya, unable to write its constitution, will destroy the state's great potential to be a prosperous, democratic model for the Arab world. Unfortunately, the Libyan government has been unable to protect even its own institutions. Since Monday, the ministries of justice, interior, and foreign affairs have all been besieged by armed militias and the wheels of bureaucracy have ground to a halt. Only adding to overall instability, criminal mafias are also on the rise.

Worse yet, the country's fledgling national armed forces -- historically weak under Qaddafi and being largely built from the ground up -- have been subject to internal crises, only slowing their lackluster reconstruction. Most recently, officers from Eastern Libya demanded the removal of Chief of Staff Youssef Mangoush, citing his inability to restructure the armed forces and reinforce security. Moreover, the Southern Military Governor appointed to bring order to the country's lawless south, recently denounced the lack of resources at his disposal, publicly admitting the impossibility of his task. The Libyan military is, to put it mildly, ill prepared for its mission to defend the state and maintain order.

In the wake of the bombing and without viable interlocutors within the Libyan military, it is tempting for foreign diplomats in Libya to toss up their hands and minimize their involvement. The Libyan state, however, remains a crucial lynchpin of North African stability, and close engagement is thus more necessary than ever.

Libya's international partners should intensify their support for the Libyan armed forces and police by offering intensive training and better equipment. As a complement to re-establishing security by force, the international community should lend advice and political support to a process of national dialogue between all Libyan groups in order to establish a common program and common vision for the new state. The international community also has a vital role in advising Libyan political groups on how to conduct the constitution writing process, particularly on how to engage the population at large and garner popular support for the government's efforts.

Perhaps no less important, Western countries should also facilitate the entry of private businesses in the fields of health care, vocational training, English language instruction, information technology (IT), and construction. So long as Libya remains a daunting business climate for Western firms, it will be difficult to provide Libyans with the services they so badly need. There are, it should be pointed out, very simple and tangible steps the international community can take to reach this end. For example, the British, French, and U.S. governments should join hands with their Libyan counterparts to make the FDI Libya Conference in London in late May a success. This will help restart the cooperation between the private and public sectors, which is so essential for Libya's transition to democracy.

Post-Arab Spring Libya -- and North Africa by extension -- has reached a turning point. Greater engagement, as outlined above, may prove decisive in allowing Libya to navigate its constitution writing process successfully, address its security issues, and settle on a stable path of reconstruction and democratization. Conversely, the consequences of continued Western disengagement could be highly disruptive. It is no exaggeration to say that the internal political forces inside the country are balanced on a razor's edge. An unexpected gust of political violence could lead to anarchy; a helping hand providing a gentle push in the right direction could ease the transition toward democracy and stability.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a professor at SAIS-Johns Hopkins. Jason Pack is a researcher of North African History at Cambridge University, president of Libya-Analysis.com and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and The Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Five people die from SARS-like virus in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's health ministry reported five more people have died from a new SARS-like virus and two others are undergoing treatment in an intensive care unit. The virus, know as novel coronavirus, or hCOV-EMC, is in the same family of viruses that include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which saw an outbreak in east Asia about 10 years ago, as well as those that cause common colds. But unlike SARS, it causes rapid kidney failure. The World Health Organization is not sure how the new virus is transmitted or how widespread it is. All of the deaths reportedly occurred in the oil-rich eastern Ahsa province. The health ministry said it was taking "all precautionary measures for persons who have been in contact with the infected people." Overall, 17 people have died from the virus of the 23 cases that have been detected in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Germany, and Britain.

Syria

Syrian forces have advanced in Homs a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, pro-government forces took control large parts of the strategic Wadi Sayeh district of central Homs Thursday. Opposition forces have controlled parts of Homs for over a year, and fighting in Syria's third largest city has been severe. If regime forces were to regain control of Homs, it would be a major blow to the opposition. Additionally, clashes were reported in the port of Baniyas, on the Mediterranean cost, for the first time since government forces entered the southern areas of the city in May 2011. Meanwhile, Assad visited the Umayyad Electrical Station marking May Day, the international Labor Day. In efforts to project confidence, Assad said, "They want us to be afraid," adding, "Well, we won't be afraid." At the same time, a new set of blasts hit near a shopping area as well a police headquarters in Damascus's central neighborhood of Bab Mesalla. According to Syria's state news agency, SANA, two people were killed and 28 others wounded in the attacks.

Headlines

  • Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi appeared for the second time in court on Thursday in Zintan facing charges of harming state security, but his trial was postponed until September 19.
  • Militants killed at least 14 members of the anti-al Qaeda Sunni militia, the Awakening Council, in two attacks near Fallujah while the United Nations reported April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008.
  • Flash floods in Saudi Arabia have killed 13 people and left four others missing in the heaviest rain experienced by the kingdom in over 25 years.
  • The F.B.I. released photos on Wednesday seeking to find three men present at the scene of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012.

Arguments and Analysis

A warning from Erdogan's Turkey (Alp Altinörs, Ahram Online)

"In the Arab world, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, the so-called "Turkish model" has become one of the main propaganda slogans of reactionary forces.

The Nahda government in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seem to believe that the success of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey can give them the hope of success and the popularity that they themselves are losing.

The economic realities hidden behind this glossy image of Turkey give a different image, however. It is true that the Turkish economy experienced a certain economic growth under the government of Erdogan-GDP grew between 2002 to 2012 by annual average of 4.9 percent (with the exception of 2009, in which GDP fell by 4.8 percent). In 2012, however, the growth rate dropped to 2.2 percent.

An Open Debate on Palestinian Representation (Al Shabaka: The Palestine Policy Network)

"Many Palestinians seek more effective and democratic representation, and to this end advocate reform of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, Osamah Khalil warned last month, in "Who are You?": The PLO and the Limits of Representation, that attempts at reform would end up saving a leadership that had lost its legitimacy and argued that a new representative body is needed to achieve Palestinian rights.

In this Al-Shabaka roundtable, policy advisors and members debate this perspective. Rana Barakat suggests that Palestinians are asking the wrong questions: The discussion should not be over whether to salvage or abandon the PLO, but how to imagine and execute liberation in political, social, cultural, and economic terms, a framing that puts the value of the PLO in context. Mouin Rabbani notes that the PLO was at its most representative when it was least democratic in conventional terms; he questions whether elections make sense in the Palestinian context, and calls for consensus on the national project as the first priority.

Dina Omar evokes Ghassan Kanafi's writing on "blind language" and its obstruction of strategic analysis and, after reviewing recent attempts to revive the PLO, concludes that it may be better to start from scratch. Fajr Harb argues strongly for reforming the PLO beginning with an overhaul of the Charter to represent Palestinians everywhere; otherwise, he warns, Palestinians risk acquiring yet another semi-functional body and becoming more divided than ever. Hani Al-Masri contends that calling for an end to the PLO without a clear alternative in sight could result in a much worse situation of fragmentation into disparate local, tribal, or sectarian groups and the complete dissolution of the Palestinian cause.

As'ad Ghanem points to the common causes at the heart of the Palestinian and Arab conditions and calls for rebuilding the Palestinian national entity after the PLO has "expired" based on seven fundamental principles. Yassmine Hamayel believes Palestinians need to dig into the early part of PLO history and the First Intifada to rediscover ways of working together to build a national identity and resistance, a time when being Palestinian was more than belonging to a political party. Aziza Khalidi calls for accelerating the transformation of an existing Palestinian global cultural space into a more cohesive "global cultural community" that would provide opportunities to create a more effective governance structure."

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/PHILIPPE LOPEZ