When your next door neighbour is a failed state


Militia mafias have helped Libya join the ranks of countries whose governments are no longer in control.

What qualifies a country as a failed state can be controversial, but if it looks like a duck, walks like one and quacks like one, then it probably is one.

The bird in question is Libya which looks, acts and feels awfully like a failed state. According to definition, a failed state is one having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. A failed state has the following characteristics:loss of control of its territory;erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; inability to provide public services; and aninability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

Libya fits the bill and then some. Its central government is so weak and ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory. Over many areas traditional leaders wield more power than the state. It suffers from widespread criminality. Its population is moving involuntary, and there has been a sharp economic decline.

Libya thus possesses the criteria of a country undone. It is mired in so much chaos you can search forever without getting to the crux of the problem.Its biggest problem is that it seems no-one is in charge. The big man who was at the helm for 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi, was overthrow in 2011, as Hosni Mubarak before him. The protests turned into a bloody national showdown with security forces, however, the protesters, eventually assisted by French, American, and British bombers under the NATO banner, succeeded. Victory was delivered to the rebels. Now those same rebels are causing the carnage.

There are up to 1,700 armed groups with many different goals but money and power are the common denominators. They were united in their hatred of Gaddafi and still accuse each other of being tied to his regime. With no effective army to subdue the growing influence and rivalry of these militias, it is hard to contain there personal ambitions and regional rivalries.

The militias found themselves in possession of vast arsenals and large swaths of territory and have since used their force and their firepower to try to effect change. The government is at the mercy of these militias, paying many of them to stay on its side or hoping they will switch loyalties. Successive governments — five since the 2011 revolution – have so far failed to exercise control.

There is no possible way a government can function properly when it’s being held ransom by such mafias. Nor is it certain what can be done about them. Negotiations appear useless at this time, especially when Libya is an outdoor arms bazaar, awash with weapons which have ended up in the hands of the militias which makes them all the more power drunk and over-confident. The distribution of armed groups across the country also means the weapons are evenly spread out, so no warring side is able to get a definitive upper hand. Which means the fighting could go on indefinitely.

Nobody from the outside is helping Libya. There is no serious mediation effort either by Western powers or regional bodies like the Arab League and African Union. The NATO allies who rained missiles on Libya have fallen into collective silence on the country they helped free — the same way they are absent on the restoration of Syria and Iraq.

Without help from abroad, and lacking the ability to police its borders, not to mention its armouries, the government has said it might request international forces to protect civilians, a decision so extreme only a state of desperation could think up such a plan.

The mini-exodus of Egyptians fleeing Libya is but one example of how a neighbour like Tripoli can be perilous and at times fatal. At least 23 Egyptians were killed in Libya last week as a result of the shelling of a Tripoli home housing Egyptian workers. An additional malaise for Egypt: of the 1.6 million Egyptians residing in Libya, about 6,000, many of whom have not eaten in days, are awaiting evacuation, as are many other nationals.

And those arms flowing freely in Libya are entering Egypt via a porous, only lightly guarded border, supplying militants in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt with an inexhaustible supply of weaponry.

Like with Egypt’s own popular uprising, Libyan dreams of a new democracy following Gaddafi have given way to harsh realities. But the situation in Libya is far more anarchic. That’s because the army disintegrated after Gaddafi’s fall, unlike in Egypt. Moreover, Libya has never had well-established political groups that anchor Egypt’s political system.

Libya’s newly elected MPs, who met today, have huge challenges ahead of them as the country slowly moves from the eccentricities of Gaddafi to the democracy they would like it to become. Ironically, though, it seems Libya was irrevocably destabilised by the war which removed its dictator.

This oil-rich nation’s new democracy should have achieved peace and stability. Instead, Libya, with more than six million people, has dramatically and tragically failed.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.