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NYRB: Is Libya Cracking Up?

Author: Nicolas Pelham
June 21, 2012


Muammar Qaddafi's was overthrown more than eight months ago, but now violence in the south of the country is even worse than it was during the struggle to oust him, writes Nicolas Pelham. Although last October Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the National Transitional Council chariman, declared an end to the civil war, Libyans are still being killed and injured every day, and tens of thousands are being displaced in ethnic feuding.

Eight months after Muammar Qaddafi's overthrow, journalists seeking wars in Libya have to journey deep into the Sahara and beyond the horizons of most Libyans to find them. A senior official of Libya's temporary ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), flippantly waved away an invitation to leave his residence at the Rixos, Qaddafi's palatial Tripoli hotel, to join a fact-finding delegation to Kufra, a trading post 1,300 kilometers to the southeast, near Sudan and Chad. "Isn't it Africa?" he asks.

Yet for Libya's new governors, the turbulent south—home to Libya's wells of water and oil—is unnerving. Since Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, declared an end to the civil war last October, the violence in the south is worse than it was during the struggle to oust Qaddafi. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, according to UN figures, tens of thousands displaced in ethnic feuding. Without its dictator to keep the lid on, the country, it seems, is boiling over the sides.

Kufra, some six hundred kilometers from the nearest Libyan town, epitomizes the postwar neglect. Several on the NTC's nine-man mission I accompanied in late April were making their first visit there. The air of exuberance we felt flying aboard Qaddafi's private jet and breakfasting on salmon-filled omelets cooked by his dashing stewardess, clad in a scarlet uniform, vanished as we began our descent. How much protection could we expect from the two members of the mission who had been included to protect the group and who had been recruited for the journey from the Kufra's two fighting tribes—the Arab Zuwayy and the black Toubou? A NTC official criticized the pilot for approaching the runway from the town, where we made an easy target, not the desert. The airfield was deserted.

"We have a tradition of welcoming our guests," said the Zuwayy's tribal sheikh, Mohammed Suleiman, in less than welcoming tones, once we had found his mansion. "But we're cursing this government for abandoning us to the Africans." A room full of sixty tribesmen echoed his rebuke; since the revolution, members of the Toubou tribe had swarmed into the town and were threatening to wrest control of the oil fields nearby, he said. For the sheikh, the only solution was to expel them.

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