Libya is being torn apart, but tyranny is not the answer
Two years after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's capture and death, Libya appears to be all but ungovernable.
The new leadership under Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is caught between threats from armed groups and the legitimate frustrations of the exhausted population. Strikes in the eastern province of Cyrenaica have cut Libyan oil production to 10 per cent of capacity. But the anarchy does not affect Libya alone.
Two regional Islamist organizations - one led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, widely held as responsible for the attack on the Algerian gas complex in January, and a Mali-based jihadist group - have united to form al-Mourabitoun, which is allegedly based in southern Libya; meanwhile, the dispersal of radical groups in the aftermath of the French-led intervention in Mali threatens to destabilize Libya's neighbours Algeria, Chad, Niger and Tunisia.
The authoritarian rulers in the Arab world point to the spectre of radical Islam to justify their continuing grip on power. With civil war in Syria, the experiment of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt crushed by the army, and the centre of gravity of terrorism in the Sahel moving to southern Libya, these rulers are sending the message that only a strong man - or strong family - can bring stability. Is there any reason to listen to them?
If Gaddafi could talk from his unmarked grave, he would be proclaiming: 'I told you so.' But don't let him have the last word. Some of the problems besetting the Libyan government are endemic to the country, and Gaddafi, during his 42 years of erratic rule, did not resolve them.
The Libyan state's battle to centralize power is not a temporary symptom of the 'transitional' phase. Rather, the power struggle is the result of decades-old structural problems.
Discontent is motivated largely by lack of access to power and finance, rather than ideology. The accusation by people in Cyrenaica that they are being starved of oil revenues is not new. It is part of a picture of uneven development across the Sahara and Sahel, a sparsely populated area, prone to poverty and estrangement from government.
The sense of being marginalized leads to groups looking elsewhere than their weak central governments for financial resources and, in some cases, ideological leadership. Radical Islamism mobilizes a range of groups, many with little in common beyond their sense of disenfranchisement.
To address the issue of unbalanced spending, the post-Gaddafi government has stressed the need for an inclusive policy of development, based on decentralization and community participation. In reality these programmes have only encouraged corruption.
Revenues from trans-Saharan smuggling - of cigarettes, drugs and migrants - fund a range of destabilizing forces which makes it hard to curb the power of local militias.
Libya has more than 2,000 kilometres of land borders with its neighbours and illicit trading has been a fact of life since the imposition of the borders in the colonial era. Disputes over control of smuggling routes regularly erupt into violence, sometimes between the groups supposed to be catching the culprits.
Ultimately the anarchy in the south of Libya is a legacy of Gaddafi's approach to foreign policy. To consolidate his personal power, he manipulated a host of regional actors - terrorists, traffickers, smugglers and groups seeking to assert their independence in neighbouring states - and played them off against each other.
Gaddafi regularly promoted instability, backing scores of rebel movements across the continent, including in northern Chad. With him gone, it is necessary to approach these issues on a regional level.
Some work has begun, with Tunisia announcing a restricted zone along its border with Libya; Algeria increasing its military presence on the Libyan border; coordinated Algerian-Tunisian military action against pro-Al-Qaeda militants in the Chaambi Mountains; and the activation of the Algerian-Libyan Joint Commission.
Dealing with structural issues such as these can seem impossible, but progress is being made. It is imperative that no one gets side-tracked by the argument that dictators are the solution.
Helen Twist is manager of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House