Libya's future looks bleak as media focus turns elsewhere

World View: Two years after Nato's intervention, the militias are still terrorising the country

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The second anniversary of Nato's intervention on the side of the Libyan rebels and against Muammar Gaddafi passed with scarcely a mention by foreign governments and media who were so concerned about the security and human rights of the Libyan people in 2011. This should be no surprise, since Libya today is visibly falling apart as a country and Libyans are at the mercy of militiamen who prey on those whom they formerly claimed to protect.

A sample of the news from Libya over the past few weeks gives a sense of what is happening and is worth repeating because it goes largely unreported by the foreign press who once filled the hotels of Benghazi and Tripoli. For instance, last Sunday, the chief of staff of the Prime Minister Ali Zeidan disappeared in the capital and appears to have been abducted. This may have been in retaliation for government ministers saying militias acted with impunity. On the same day, a militia group stormed the justice ministry demanding the minister's resignation after he accused it of running an illegal prison.

The situation shows every sign of getting worse rather than better. On 5 March, the Libyan parliament met to discuss whether Libyans who had worked as officials during Gaddafi's 42 years in power should be purged and banned from office. This would include even long-term dissidents, who played a leading role in the anti-Gaddafi uprising, but decades ago had been ministers under the old regime. Protesters demanding a purge forced MPs to move for their own safety to the state meteorological office on the outskirts of Tripoli where they were mobbed by gunmen who broke into the building as its police guards disappeared. MPs were held hostage for 12 hours and others braved gunfire to escape.

Outside Tripoli, the rule of the gunmen is even more absolute. This comes to the attention of the rest of the world only when there is a spectacular act of violence, such as the killing in Benghazi last September of the US ambassador Chris Stevens by jihadi militiamen. This was the sole act of extreme violence in Libya to get extensive coverage by the foreign media, but only because the Republican Party made it a political issue in the US. But the ambassador and his guards are not the only foreigners to die violently in Benghazi since the overthrow of Gaddafi. An Egyptian human rights group reported last month that an Egyptian Copt named Ezzat Hakim Attalah was tortured to death in the city after being detained with 48 other traders in Benghazi municipal market.

Human rights organisations generally haven a better record for even-handed and in-depth reporting of Libya than, with a few honourable exceptions, the international media. In keeping with this tradition, the New York-based Human Rights Watch last month produced a detailed report on the ethnic cleansing of the town of Tawergha where 40,000 people were forced out of their homes and subjected to "arbitrary detentions, torture, and killings". The largely black population has been targeted as supporters of Gaddafi by militias from Misrata. HRW used satellite imagery to record the destruction of Tawergha, most of which has occurred since the end of the 2011 war when some 1,370 sites were damaged or destroyed. Fred Abrahams, a special adviser to HRW, said that the satellite images confirm that "the looting, burning and demolitions were organised and systematic destruction was intended to prevent residents from returning".

This lack of interest is in sharp contrast to the wall-to-wall coverage of Libya during the war. In the spring of 2011, I was reporting on the fighting around the town of Ajdabiya south of Benghazi. There was something of a phoney war atmosphere which did not come across in the exciting reportage. At the southern entrance of Ajdabiya I remember watching with some amusement as television crews positioned themselves to avoid revealing that there were more journalists than insurgents.

I never saw any rebel fall-back positions or even checkpoints between Ajdabiya and Benghazi, two places which remained dependent on Nato airpower for their defence. Of course, there were brave and dedicated rebel units, as there were journalists writing about them, but the insurgents would have been rapidly defeated without support from Nato.

The fact that the overthrow of Gaddafi was achieved primarily by foreign intervention has profound consequences for Libyans today. It means that the insurgents, while claiming and believing that their victory was all their own work, have proved too weak to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Gaddafi's version of Arab nationalism. Without it there is little to counterbalance Islamic fundamentalism or tribalism.

Does this matter? Libyan nationalism was discredited in the eyes of many Libyans by its manipulation and abuse by Gaddafi and his family. Many of the disasters which befell Iraq after 2003 are now beginning to happen in different guises in other Arab states. They are finding, as did Iraqis, that outward forms of democracy count for little unless there is agreement between the main political forces on the rules of the game determining who holds power.

National self-determination should be at the heart of any new order. But a problem for the Arab Spring revolts is that they have all been highly dependent on outside support. But, as what has happened in Iraq and Libya shows, foreign intervention is always self-interested. Revolutionaries in all eras look to opportunistic outside powers to help them, but for long-term success they must end this dependency just as soon as they can. And they must build a strong law-abiding state, because, if they do not, a fresh crop of dictators is waiting in the wings.

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