The New Libya

10/10/2013 14:24 BST | Updated 10/12/2013 10:12 GMT

News of the abduction of Libya's Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, recently made the headlines around the world. The former human rights lawyer, who for decades fought against Qaddafi's regime from his exile in Geneva, was being held captive by a militia that supposedly is allied to his own government. How did such an absurd situation come about?

During the popular uprising against Qaddafi in 2011, Western media keenly portrayed the opposition as unified and democratic. A National Transitional Council (al-Majlis al-Watani al-Intiqali) was formed which lent certain democratic credibility to the rebels - many of whom were Western-educated and well-spoken members of an elite that had grown disillusioned with Qaddafi's long rule. As such, they became the perfect poster boys of the 'democratic revolution'.

Qaddafi's warnings that without him the country would descend into chaos and be overrun by al-Qa'idah were ridiculed in equal measure by the rebels and Western media. However, following Qaddafi's lynching by a mob of rebels in his home town of Sirte on 20 October 2011, Libya has increasingly headed in such a direction. While the NTC successfully handed over power to the General National Congress (GNC) on 8 August 2012, following elections in July, only a few weeks later, on 11 September, Islamist militants attacked the American consulate in Benghazi and killed the US Ambassador, Chris Stevens.

The democratic process was also fraught with trouble as the warring factions that had constituted the unified opposition during the civil war now became openly hostile to each other. The GNC appointed Mustafa Abushagur as Prime Minister. Abushagur, who had earlier been interim PM during the transitional period, was now unable to find support for his proposed cabinet and resigned on 7 October. The task of trying to lead the new Libya instead fell on Ali Zeidan. A year later he himself became a pawn in the high stakes political games played by the New Libya's politicians and their allied militias.

The fact that the incumbent Prime Minister was abducted undoubtedly damages the New Libya's international reputation. It appears that the recent operation by US commandos to snatch Abu Anas al-Libi from his home was the immediate cause of Ali Zeidan's abduction. The Libyan government professed to having had no knowledge of the operation, but several opposition groups claimed that consent was given by the cabinet and vowed revenge. By kidnapping the Prime Minister they thus hoped to put pressure on the government and their American allies to bring al-Libi back. The Prime Minister was, however, released after a few hours in captivity.

The abduction is symptomatic of the New Libya, where militias and armed groups linked to various towns, regions, political groups, politicians and/or Islamists have continued to cripple progress since Qaddafi was ousted. A recent report by the International Crisis Group warned that: "Qadhafi-era victims, distrusting an apparatus they view as a relic, take matters in their hands; some armed groups, sceptical of the state's ability to carry out justice, arbitrarily detain, torture or assassinate presumed Qadhafi loyalists; others, taking advantage of disorder, do violence for political or criminal aims. All this triggers more grievances, further undermining confidence in the state."

The chaotic consequences of removing Qaddafi and the political system he had built around himself and his family can come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in Libyan politics and history. The legacy of colonialism is still felt. Ottoman institutions were dissolved and replaced by a self-serving colonial administration when Italy wrested control of Libya in 1912. The Italians sought to build a Libya in their own image with little regard for local needs or customs. British and French administrations after World War II were little better, and King Idris' United Kingdom of Libya inherited a dysfunctional system that was completely dependent on the West.

Qaddafi's 1969 Revolution promised much but delivered little. He dismantled existing institutions with the aim of creating a Jamahiriyyah - a form of direct democracy he argued was the perfect solution for the Libyan people. It proved, however, to be the foundation of an arbitrary system based on personal rule and authoritarianism where Qaddafi was the linchpin who held everything together through a clever use of patronage and distribution of ever-increasing oil wealth.

In the end, Qaddafi's omnipotence and omnipresence meant that no civil society was allowed to form. The business elite and the upper middle classes were themselves linked to the Qaddafi family and were incapable of shaping alternative institutions. The driving force behind the TNC was thus exiled Libyans who with their Western allies propagated an easy transition to democracy once Qaddafi had been removed. Their assertions were more hopeful than based on reality. It now appears that the old 'Brother-Leader' was right after all: the New Libya is characterised by turmoil, political chaos and increasingly assertive Islamists. Who would have thought that NATO-led 'liberation' could end so miserably?