In the Muslim-majority states of the Middle East, four types of regimes are on offer:
Theocracies such as Iran, which is governed by Shi’a clerics; rule by a strongman — the Assads in Syria are an example; kings with a modicum of legitimacy, such as Abdullah II in Jordan; and finally, fragile and — if history is any guide — short- lived democratic regimes, as in today’s Tunisia.
Should any of them collapse, the most likely outcome is a descent into anarchy and violence — witness today’s Libya and Yemen.
The downfall of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 produced not democracy, but chaos, with conflicts along regional, tribal and linguistic lines. Libya is now a failed state, with rival groups battling for control of the country and its oil riches.
In August, clashes between rival armed groups in Tripoli plunged Libya into yet deeper chaos, casting serious doubt as to whether the war-wracked country is ready to hold planned elections later this year.
On August 27, fierce fighting erupted in the capital’s southern districts after the Seventh Brigade, an armed group based in Tarhouna, southeast of Tripoli, launched a surprise offensive against rival militias.
By September 23, at least 115 people had been killed in clashes between rival factions in Tripoli, Libya’s health ministry said.
The fighting pitted the Seventh Brigade against the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigades (TRB) and the Nawasi Brigade, two of the capital’s largest armed groups.
The country now has two rival legislatures — the internationally recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) in Benghazi. Each has its own central bank and national oil company.
The head of the GNA is Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, while General Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army runs the east.
While armed groups in the western part of the country technically have pledged allegiance to the GNA, that doesn’t mean that they will heed civilian authorities’ instructions. “Everybody is under the GNA government because the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence pay out salaries but nobody takes orders from them,” said Tarek Megerisi, a political researcher specializing in Libya. They are all “vying for a piece of the pie.”
Emadeddin Muntasser, a Libyan political analyst, concurs. “The GNA is a paper government with no influence of events.”
Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has identified four groups that exercise disproportionate power in the GNA’s part of Libya: the TRB, the Nawasi Brigade, the Special Deterrence Force and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security apparatus.
This has angered rival militias such as the Seventh Brigade, which feel like they have been marginalized and dealt with unjustly, as well as being at risk of losing access to state funds.
They stated that they “reject the rule of militias inside Tripoli.” So the fighting will, unfortunately, continue. And don’t hold your breath waiting for elections.
Meanwhile, the fragmentation of Yemen has highlighted the challenges facing the internationally recognized central government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as he has tried to reunify this impoverished country.
Actually, as a functioning polity, Yemen has all but ceased to exist, a United Nations panel reported earlier this year. “Instead of a single state there are warring statelets, and no one side has either the political support or the military strength to reunite the country or achieve victory on the battlefield.”
Hadi has spent most of the four-year conflict exiled in Saudi Arabia after his government was ousted by the rebel group known as the Houthis. His forces have been unable to dislodge the rebels or even decisively assert his authority in the areas his government nominally controls.
A Sunni Arab military coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has been fighting the Iranian-backed Shia rebels on Hadi’s behalf since 2015. It has pulverized large parts of he country, causing immense damage and human casualties, but has been unable to gain a victory.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, which has killed over 10,000 people and sparked a cholera epidemic.
The old Yemen “will never come back,” says Badr Baslmah, a former Yemeni transport minister who lives in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt, Yemen’s largest province. The central state, he said, was being replaced by regional autonomy.
Mukalla was itself captured by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2015, but retaken by Yemeni forces trained and led by the UAE a year later.
But even now, Yemen’s government is still absent. The local provincial governor, Faraj al-Bahsani, relies on local revenue rather than state contributions for his budget. He courts international investors to fix the region’s crumbling infrastructure. His main security partner is a foreign government, the United Arab Emirates, that pays salaries to a portion of the most powerful local military force.
It has become a virtual protectorate of the UAE, which has built several military bases in the province.
This situation is not atypical. Most of the country, from cities to rural villages, has to fend for itself.
In a report issued on August 28, a UN-backed group of “eminent experts” investigating human rights violations in Yemen cited rights violations including “deprivation of the right to life,” arbitrary detention, rape, torture, enforced disappearances and child recruitment by Yemeni government forces and their Saudi and UAE allies.
It said the Houthis rebels were also responsible for the same abuses.
Saudi Arabia has balked at their work and has pushed instead for a national rights commission, supported by the Yemeni government, to carry out such investigations with advice from and consultation with the UN.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen did acknowledge that an August 9 air attack that killed dozens of people, including children traveling on a bus, was unjustified, and it pledged to hold accountable anyone who contributed to the error.
Meanwhile, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, warned the Security Council on September 21 that the fight against famine is being lost in Yemen, which is already facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
With 75 percent of its 29 million people in need of assistance, Lowcock called Yemen’s situation bleak and said it “has deteriorated in an alarming way in recent weeks.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.