BANI WALID, Libya — As Western powers weigh up options for a possible military intervention in Libya to fight ISIS, the complexity of the challenge is laid bare by the lack of a reliable partner on the ground. Libya currently has three competing governments — one in the east, one in the west, and the other cloistered in five-star hotels in neighboring Tunisia. And none of them exerts any real authority across the country beyond their limited power bases.
The fractured nature of the country, and the contempt in which many Libyans hold its political classes, is nowhere better illustrated than in Bani Walid. An important hilltop city southeast of the capital, in the heartland of the country’s most important tribe, the Wurfulla, its people reject all three of the nominal governments. The city manages its own affairs and polices its own streets. It even flies its own flag, a simple black standard reminiscent of the flag that symbolized the fight against Italian colonizers a century ago. The white Koranic inscriptions have been removed lest anyone confuse it with the now-famous flag flown by ISIS militants.
Just as it was 100 years ago, the flag is a protest, but this time against the political classes who took over Libya after the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi more than four years ago, who they, the people of Bani Walid, believe have only made a dire situation even worse.
This vast, oil-rich North African country is in some ways in worse shape than Somalia was during the 1990s. Three rival governments, and several armed factions, claim authority, while human rights monitors describe torture, abductions, and wanton killings rivaling any crimes perpetrated by the former regime. Amid the maelstrom, vast stretches of the country are in the hands of ISIS, which has taken over Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, and controls several other districts in the east and west of Libya.
“We believe these bodies are fighting over power and not serving the people,” said Saleh Mayouf, head of the Wurfulla Tribal Council, which oversees matters pertaining to the tribe and some security matters in and around Bani Walid, a city of perhaps 120,000 inhabitants, and tens of thousands more who have been displaced from across the country. “Some 80% of the people are not represented by any of the government. We are opposed to this failed project: the killings, the kidnappings, the chaos.”
Libya has been mired in a 21-month civil war that split the political elite and armed forces into two rival camps. In an attempt to unify both into a government to rebuild the country, tackle ISIS, and stop the flow of migrants heading to Europe, the U.N. last month declared yet another government. It has been rejected by both the others, a blow to U.S.-led efforts to find a credible local partner for any potential intervention against ISIS.
The U.S., Italy, France, and the U.K. have been hinting for weeks at possible airstrikes or deployments of special operations forces in Libya to beat back the ISIS menace. But they've been stymied by the country's fragmented leadership and internecine rivalries.
The competing governments in Libya break down into three blocs:
The first sits in the east, its institutions dispersed between the cities of Tobruk and Baida and supported by a parliament elected in 2014 and loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, a mustachioed former Qaddafi ally who spent decades in exile near Washington, D.C.
The second is based in the capital, Tripoli, and draws the support of powerful militias in western Libya, including the city of Misrata, and is steadfastly opposed to any future role for Haftar. These militias have formed the coalition known as Libya Dawn.
The third government, led by Faiz al-Siraj, an architect who hails from a famous Libyan political family, is backed by the U.N. and endorsed by the U.S., but has zero forces on the ground.
“It’s easier to break Humpty Dumpty than to put it back together,” said Alan Kuperman, a political scientist specializing in Libya at the University of Texas, in Austin, referring to the disastrous lack of planning and ensuing chaos that followed the NATO-backed ouster of Qaddafi in 2011.
Libya is becoming ever more fragmented by the day. Misrata, the country’s third-largest city, and host of the most powerful militias, is drawing away from the Tripoli government, and increasingly seeking its own path. Warshefana, a town to the west of the Libyan capital, has also fallen out of the control of both governments, though it is nominally allied to General Haftar.
In the face of the reality on the ground, officials in Tripoli continue to insist they exercise control over places like Bani Walid, because they hold the purse strings, with the Central Bank governor still based in the capital. “There are logistics that guarantee we will have the final say in all matters,” said Mahmoud Abdelaziz, a member of the General National Congress in the capital. Remnants of the now-expired parliament, elected in 2012, have refused to step down, arguing they remain the country’s legitimate elected authority.
“The government still controls the budget,” he said. “If we want to change the heads of government agencies, we can. Here is the government. Here is the state.”
But Libya’s Central Bank governor is in theory independent and disperses the country’s oil-financed resources to state employees and militiamen even in the areas that are avowed enemies of Tripoli, including Haftar strongholds in the east. Bani Walid’s state employees still receive their salaries, as do those in ISIS-controlled territories, in an illustration of the absurdity of the claim that holding the purse strings is the same as holding power. Bank vaults are replenished monthly by a helicopter because roads between the capital and the city are considered too dangerous.
Otherwise, Bani Walid seems unmoored from any central authority. Police answer to the tribal council. In a blunt symbolic swipe at the authorities in Tripoli, the distinctive black, white, and red flag of the Libyan revolution, which flies proudly in the capital, appears only as an emblem on the administrative building of the university in Bani Walid.
“That flag doesn’t fly in Bani Walid,” said Abdel-Moneim Greemda, an engineer and businessman in the city. “It’s forbidden.”
Bani Walid, like other parts of Libya, brims with the country’s failure, making daily life near-impossible for many. The chopper bringing salaries often arrives late, and banks frequently run out of cash. The city’s economy has stalled. Frequent power outages that stretch up to eight hours a day make simple tasks like retreading a tire a day-long task. Damage to infrastructure has led to a drop in the number of active water wells from 450 to 50. There are no new public works or construction projects.
Anger is bubbling among the youth, worrying elders that Bani Walid, built upon a massive and fortress-like rock, could become ripe territory for ISIS or other extremist groups gaining ground in Libya.
Last month, elections for a municipal council with the authority to draw funds for projects in the city were supposed to be held, but the government in Tripoli abruptly canceled them. “It’s a clear sign that we’ve returned to 2011–2012, and the mindset of neglect and marginalization,” said Saleh Mayouf.
After a court last July sentenced to death a number of Qaddafi regime figures, including his son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam, Bani Walid residents took to the streets and raised the green flag of the former regime. Mayouf described the gesture not as support for Qaddafi, but as a total rejection of the current order and anger over a trial deemed far below international standards by rights monitors. “We found the death sentences in a sensitive transitory period not appropriate or fair,” he said.
Kuperman said it would likely take years for Libya to unify politically, and even longer for the various armed forces to come under one authority. “It’s not uncommon in civil war settings for governance to become atomized,” he said.
“After the civil war ends, political authority asserts itself. Once Libya’s central government gets control of oil again it’s going to have major carrots to offer these various areas to come back under central authority. It’s a little harder with the militias, who as a result of having security control over an area may have their own revenue streams.”
A museum inside Bani Walid is plastered with the sometimes gory photos of the scores of city residents killed or disappeared, most allegedly at the hands of fighters from Tripoli and Misrata. Persuading the residents of cities like Bani Walid, who have suffered horribly as a result of the February 2011 uprising, to come under the umbrella of any centralized government that flies a revolutionary flag will be a great challenge.
“There were children that were killed,” said Greemda, giving a tour of the museum. “It’s the various governments that initiated, encouraged, or are responsible for this type of terrorism.”