Guns don’t kill people – everything does

bulletsLast Tuesday (26th May) a group of armed men stormed a session of one of Libya’s two powerless Parliaments.

Shortly afterwards, that Parliament’s Prime Minister, Abdullah Al-Thinni, was fired on while he travelled by car through the city of Tobruk.

It is unclear whether the same people were responsible for both attacks.

Two days later, the UN Special Envoy leading almost-certainly doomed ‘peace’ talks between representatives of Libya’s duo of impotent governments (‘almost certainly doomed’ not because they agree on nothing – they agree on a reasonable amount – but because neither has control over any of the four groups of combatants currently killing each other and anyone unfortunate enough to stray too near to them in Libya to deliver peace even if they agreed on everything) warned that if agreement was not found soon, Libya would collapse.

It is a grim reminder of just how far Libya is from being a functional state that neither was remotely surprising.

The same week did throw up one unusual event, however: the interview in a UK newspaper of a Libyan politician unanimously respected and accepted by both his nation’s illegitimate governments.

Ali Tarhouni was Libya’s interim Prime Minister for the last eight days of October 2011, and is today the leader of its Constitutional Assembly – the body set up to write the country’s constitution. This document was supposed to have been completed in February 2014 but appears still to be nowhere near being finished.

(the reasons for this – and all following political and conflict-related matters currently affecting Libya – are included in my forthcoming book The Toss of a Coin, voices from a modern crisis, due out in July)

In an interview with the Financial Times on 28th May, his frustrations about the process were clear: ‘Writing a constitution for a country in the middle of a real war, that cannot agree on anything, is nearly impossible,’ he said.

Tarhouni was speaking from a state in which two opposing governments sit at either end of the country. The House of Representatives (HoR) is based at Tobruq, having been prevented by ongoing warfare from convening in Benghazi. It is internationally recognised, but was declared illegitimate by the state’s High Court in November 2014.

The General National Council sits in Tripoli. It is unrecognised internationally, and its unjustifiable claims to legitimacy rely on the HoR’s own failures – it claims a right to exist despite the fact that its mandate ran out almost a year ago on the grounds that it believes its replacement is also illegitimate.

Meanwhile, four armed groups, two expressing allegiance to one or other of the ‘governments’ (though neither is controlled by them) and two with no such claims or ties, battle one another for control of its cities and oilfields. The governments are forced to watch from the sidelines, powerless to intervene, bickering with one another while Libya burns.

Though Tarhouni leads a body which is officially recognised by both ‘governments’, even his position is not easy: ‘Everybody wants you to be neutral, but to be neutral on their side,’ he explained. ‘The pressure is to write a document to solve today’s problems. It is a historic mistake. You need to write a constitution for the future, the people who have nothing to do with the mess that is happening now.’

Tarhouni has been pressured more by the GNC than the HoR to do as it wishes, including repeatedly ordering him to report directly to it, in Tripoli (he has so far refused to do so), but he revealed that both sides have tried to ‘encourage’ him to deny rights to the ‘azlam’ (‘algae’) who supported Ghaddafi in Libya’s first Civil War (those who fought against Ghaddafi are known to their opponents as ‘the rats’. Having met many members of both groups in the immediate aftermath of that war, I can report that everyone looked decidedly human).

Again, Tarhouni has steadfastly refused. But it’s a reminder that the ‘opponents’ in Libya’s non-functional political system – and in its sadly all too smoothly operational Second Civil War – were on the same side four years ago, united against Ghaddafi. The new Libya was built in war, but not built to last.

Despite his overriding frustration, Tarhouni’s commitment to creating the constitution is heart-warming in a way few other things in Libya are at present.

‘People want better schools, to enjoy their lives,’ he said. ‘They want better education and good homes. That is what we work towards.’

In contrast, Tuesday’s events in Tobruk were just another grim episode in Libya’s recent past.

A group of noisy protestors had gathered outside the HoR’s Tobruk headquarters while the parliament was in session. (It’s hard to be sure, at present, exactly who is involved in any such protest in Libya. This group may have been supporters of the GNC, or people with religious motivation. Alternatively, they may have been people calling for an end to the mayhem the HoR and GNC are overseeing. If so, they had a point)

But from within this group, a small cadre of armed men attempted to shoot their way inside the HoR HQ.

The group was repelled, and the HoR’s Speaker Aqila Saleh asked its Prime Minister Al-Thinni to leave, for his own safety. As he left by car, his vehicle was attacked by gunmen. No-one was killed, and Al-Thinni escaped unscathed, though one of his bodyguards was injured in the attack.

Sadly, this was not entirely unusual. Anyone who has kept abreast of Libyan affairs since Ghaddafi’s death will know that the state has deposed more national leaders since October 2011 than in the previous 70 years combined, and that kidnap and attempted assassinations have occurred on a  wearyingly regular basis (as detailed in The Toss of a Coin).

The same grim truth applies at all levels of society: Libya is, simply, a lawless state. Life is cheap and almost nobody is safe.

But this time, it’s hard to imagine who is behind the attempt.

The HoR claimed it was a group of ‘paid criminals’, which effectively rules out any involvement by IS.

Though the terror organization is certainly capable of murder, among other outrages, and is a leading actor in the four-way conflict raging across Libya, hiring assassins is a long way from its normal modus operandi, which include hands-on warfare and videoed mass slaughter.

Equally, Al Fajr and the GNC which it claims to support (though does not take orders from), stand to gain very little from the death of Al-Thinni. Al Fajr would still have to overcome the HoR’s military backer – Operation Dignity, led by Khalifa Haftar – as well as the Shura Council, based in Benghazi, whose main militia group is the Ansar Al-Sharia organization, to achieve anything like a ‘victory’.

Even if the death of Al-Thinni would cause the HoR to collapse (and it would not) it is very unlikely that the GNC itself would see the overthrow of the HoR by violence as a ‘victory’ in any meaningful sense (the full reasons why are made clear in The Toss of a Coin, but in short, it believes the HoR is illegitimate and can point to a High Court ruling to back that up, while neither parliament holds any actual power in any case) and is currently engaged in the ‘peace’ negotiations mentioned above with the HoR.

Which leaves the Shura Council. The Council has been fighting against Haftar’s Operation Dignity army in Benghazi for almost a year now. The two forces are at a standstill, but control of Libya’s second city has changed hands more than once, and their conflict continues.

Al-Thinni has loudly backed Haftar’s force, and Ansar Al-Sharia’s leader Mohamed Al-Zehawi has been killed in the course of the conflict, on top of which the Al-Qaeda-backed militia has been losing members in Libya to IS, which it seems is regarded as more ‘effective’ by young extremists.

So it is possible Ansar attempted to arrange this as a ‘tit-for-tat’ assassination designed to prove the militia’s strength and relevance.

In fact, it has done neither.

Because Ansar appears to have been forced to rely on mercenaries rather than members – and those mercenaries failed – then if it is responsible, it has been made to look disorganised and weak.

Which raises the question: was this a desperate last roll of the dice for the group, or so extraordinary a risk to its reputation and future that it was not, in fact Ansar’s ‘throw’ at all? After all, in order to ‘win’ against Haftar, targeting Haftar would seem the tactically stronger move.

Two days later, Bernardino Leon, the UN Special Envoy to Libya, told the world’s media that ‘the two sides in the negotiations [the GNC and HoR] agree on 80 per cent of matters’, and that the final 20 per cent was the most difficult section. He added that Libya was in imminent danger of economic collapse.

He is correct (though he did not add that Libya is also in imminent danger of collapse due to a four-way conflict which overshadows everything else in the state).

Libya’s two powerless government have no capacity to operate Libya’s oil production – the source of almost all of its income – and equally, no ability to raise taxes from a population terrorised by war and terror and governed by nobody.

But his warning, however well-intentioned, is not only unlikely to be enough to end the GNC and HoR’s squabbles, it is also virtually certain not to have any impact on Libya’s immediate future.

Because even Al-Thinni, the Prime Minister of Libya’s internationally-recognised government, is a bit-part player.

The future of Libya is not in his hands, nor in that of any HoR or GNC politician. It does not belong to Tarhouni, however much better off the state might be if it did.

Libya is a nation in which IS, Ansar Al-Sharia, and the militias which claim to represent the GNC (Al Fajr) and the HoR (Haftar’s ‘Dignity’ force), hold all the power, because they hold all the guns.

It is a state without a constitution and in which a constitution would be ignored. And it is a state in which assassination attempts on the PM are so commonplace that it’s often unclear who might be responsible for each one.

It is a Libya which was smashed by one Civil War – including by NATO’s missiles – and now being dismembered by a second while the world looks on.

Optimism is in very short supply, and may be all Libya has left.

Rory O’Keeffe’s first book, The Toss of a Coin, is out in July

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