Winner-takes-all politics in Libya

Death sentence for Saif Al Islam Gheddafi shows Libya's winner-takes-all politics of exclusion 

The verdict against Saif Al Islam Gheddafi and other members of the former regime symbolises two aspects of today’s Libya: a fractured and collapsing government structure, and the politics of exclusion and winner-takes-all. It is in this context that, in the past year, Bernardino Leon has struggled to achieve a peace deal, a goal that looks closer after he managed to get almost all the factions to sign an agreement on 12 July.

Yesterday’s verdict was issued by the Court of Assize (first degree) in Tripoli. Yet, the main defendant Saif al Islam Gheddafi is detained in the city of Zintan and has followed the trial via videoconference, though he was allowed to attend only four out of the 24 sessions. The trial itself was a sign of the flaws of Libya’s transition: no personal criminal responsibilities were ascertained; defendants in most cases had little access to their lawyers; the prosecution did not present any witnesses or evidence in court, wasting the opportunity to start an evidence-based public conversation on the former regime.

The political distance between the court in Tripoli and Saif’s detention in Zintan could not be greater: this city in the Nafousa mountains doesn’t recognise the authority of those who control the capital. In fact, at the moment not a single foreign country recognises those in charge in Tripoli. The internationally recognised government of Libya sits in the small cities of Beyda and Tobruk in the far east of the country and has little or no control over what is left of the government infrastructure. Suffice to say that not a single penal court is open in the east of the country which is under its rule. Two loose coalitions of armed groups (Dignity and Dawn) back respectively the Beyda-based government and the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC), the only actor of Libya’s conflict that has not signed the deal brokered by Leon on 12 July.

The verdict, besides being built on very shaky legal proceedings, is just one more blow against the hopes of a peaceful transition in Libya. Few inside and outside of the country have doubts about the human rights violations committed by the former regime, both in 2011 and before. Yet, these have been the excuse to completely exclude from the “new” Libya anyone who was even weakly associated with the regime in a “winner takes all” approach which has ultimately undermined the transition. Incidentally, the most recent area of expansion for the Islamic State in Libya is Sirte, Gheddafi’s home town. Here, as in Iraq, those who were accused of being “loyalists” to the old regime have found no legitimate place in the new order (if one can use the word “order” to describe the post-Gheddafi Libya or the post-Saddam Iraq) and some of them may sympathise with extremist groups as the only way to gain legitimacy. Conversely, those who have won against Gheddafi have granted themselves, by law, an immunity, not just for past crimes, but also for those they may commit in the future.

In this bleak picture, there are only two glimmers of hope. On the one hand, Leon will likely be back in Tripoli soon and will hopefully manage to get those who control the capital on board with his agreement. This could lead to a “government of national accord” with which the international community could actually work, including on counter-terrorism and migration control. On the other hand, local ceasefires are spreading throughout Western Libya (including the city of Zintan) providing a blueprint for how to guarantee a modicum of security to the country and its neighbours, starting with Tunisia.

This article was originally published, in Spanish, in El Mundo

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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