Libya's slow motion coup ends the uprising

World View: The country edges closer to break-up and civil war as foreign powers await their opportunity

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The image of the Libyan revolution in 2011 was something of a fabrication in which the decisive role of Nato air power was understated. The same may be true of the counter-revolution in Libya that is being ushered in by ex-general Kalifa Hifter's slow-motion coup which gathered support last week but without making a decisive breakthrough.

General Hifter's surprise attacks in Banghazi and Tripoli show that he has been able to gather more support than anybody had given him credit for from the Libyan armed forces and the militias; he was even able to deploy aircraft and helicopters against his opponents' positions. Just how much foreign support he enjoys remains uncertain, but his denunciations of "terrorism" and the Muslim Brotherhood are evidently geared to win the support of the US, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Will Libya go the same way as Egypt, where a vengeful old regime has been restored with the backing of the army and the all-embracing state machine? Or will different sides move from confrontation to all-out civil war, as in Syria? The present situation in Libya has elements of both scenarios but also has crucial differences because power has been so fragmented since the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011. The opposition was never able to fill the vacuum left by his fall.

Power is held primarily by rival militias, the most effective of which are based in Zintain and Misrata, which number an estimated 250,000 of whom a maximum of 30,000 fought against Gaddafi. Though paid out of the central budget, they are loyal to their own commanders and areas. There are many centres of power: the Islamist parliament, its mandate looking shaky after postponing a new election, to give itself a long lifespan; a dysfunctional government that has appeased militias it is too weak to confront; Islamist groups and extreme Islamist groups; federalists and anti-federalists; surviving groups and interests from the Gaddafi era.

The incoherence of the numerous players in Libyan politics has spread disorder, but their very diversity means that so far nobody has been strong enough to risk a fight to the finish. This could now be changing, as Hifter's quasi-coup acts as a catalyst with disparate elements choosing sides and denouncing their opponents with increasing vehemence. But Hifter and his enemies are both uncertain of their own strength and, while they talk big, are more cautious about what they dare to do.

Thus the Qaaqaa and Sawaiq brigades from Zintan took over the parliament (the General National Congress) on behalf of Hifter a week ago but then withdrew. The speaker of parliament called in the Libya Central Shield from Misrata to defend the GNC and its forces arrived in Tripoli on Thursday but there was no fighting. The government is now calling for all these militias to leave the capital. In Benghazi, the complex struggle between the different factions is still being fought at the level of individual killings: last week the assistant commander of military intelligence, Hamza al-Mahmoudi, was found shot dead.

Polarisation is happening throughout the country, but it has some way to go. Hifter's support is stronger than expected but ramshackle, even if it is in keeping with the mood of much of the country. Thousands joined demonstrations across Libya on Friday in the biggest mass rallies since 2011 in support of Hifter, against the Islamic militias and in favour of the suspension of the Islamist-led parliament. The problem here is that Hifter may be able to tap mass resentment against the militias and in favour of a reconstituted police and national army, but his own Libyan National Army is itself a militia.

A crisis is clearly coming, but the Hifter coup still feels like the first act of a drama which will have more episodes, many of them violent, but without any final winner necessarily emerging. The present situation feels more like Lebanon, with its many power centres and no strong central state, than Egypt or Syria with their tradition of an all-powerful central authority. And in Libya, as in Lebanon during the civil war, it is foreign intervention that is likely to break the stalemate and determine the speed and direction of events as it did in 2011.

Foreign intervention is as likely to precipitate a civil war as prevent one. In Syria it led the opposition to imagine that they could win a military conflict. It is worth keeping in mind that, bad though the situation is in Libya, so far there is nothing like the violence of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or Lebanon during the civil war. Arbitrary and authoritarian though Gaddafi's rule was, it was never as violent as that of the Baathist dictatorships in Baghdad and Damascus. With no tradition of extreme violence, up to now Libya's road to ruin has been relatively low on casualties, but this could change very swiftly if present stand-offs switch to military confrontations.

In Libya, as in the other so-called Arab Spring states, hopes of a better tomorrow have melted away over the past three years. In the outside world, those who fully believed foreign media reports of the Libyan people's uprising of 2011 as being primarily secular and democratic will have been dismayed and mystified. In reality, the Libyan revolution was rather different from the way it presented itself. From the beginning, the so-called Arab Spring revolts were a peculiar mix of revolution, counter-revolution and foreign intervention. It is worth recalling the shock felt by those who had lauded the Libyan revolt as progressive to discover that one of the first acts of Libya's National Transitional Council in October 2011 was to lift the law banning polygamy, on the grounds that it was in conflict with sharia.

This should not have been quite so surprising, given that among the main backers of the rebels in Libya were Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who saw the revolts of 2011 as a battle for their own survival. It was always absurd and hypocritical for the West to pretend that these absolute monarchies with extreme Islamic ideologies were interested in spreading secular democracy.

The uprisings in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East had deep and unavoidable weaknesses from day one but some of these were self-inflicted. They believed too much of their own propaganda and saw the ills of their countries as being solely the result of the corruption and incompetence of the old regimes. They had a black-and-white vision which demonised their opponents and allowed no compromise after victory. Last year, Libyans who had worked for Gaddafi – even those who had turned against him years ago – were told they were going to be sacked.

The military regimes that came to power in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s all emphasised the national self-determination of states they had taken over. These regimes turned into vicious self-serving dictatorships, but this does not mean that their original aspirations do not remain valid.

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