Libya’s outgoing Prime Minister, Adurrahim al-Keib, stated recently that “we are seeing the birth of a new Libya that is as beautiful as the waves of the sea.” Yet, given the enormous task of building a new democracy from scratch — and the equally immense economic, ethnic and political problems plaguing the new state — those waves belie turbulent currents. The recent death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and other State Department personnel only underscores the difficulties the Libyan government has had in asserting authority over a country that has yet to recover from the wounds of revolution, and perhaps more worryingly, still has little control over the weapons of revolution. To their credit, Libyan security forces swiftly arrived at the Benghazi consulate to guard the building against the unidentified attackers. In the aftermath of this senseless attack, providing the new Libyan government with security assistance is more important than ever.
Newly elected Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and President Mahmoud Magarief face significant structural challenges — not the least of which is exercising full control over a fractious country with a long history of decentralization, where true power resides in the peripheries. The election of the 200 seat National Assembly is a promising first step, especially considering the relative lack of violence that characterized the elections. Yet it is just that: a first step in what is sure to be a long and difficult process. Democracy promotion advocates have long bemoaned the singular fixation on elections as a metric for progress, before Western leaders and policymakers inevitably move onto the next crisis.
But elections are not a panacea. Libya’s new assembly needs to address some rather serious structural problems if the fledgling democracy is to endure. Above all, the United States and its NATO allies need to devote continual attention to Libya, and push for the development of a robust and reliable security force. For a strong state to emerge from the chaos of revolution it needs to disarm and demobilize its revolutionary fighters. To do so, it needs assistance. As others have pointed out, Libya’s marginalization in the minds of policymakers may prove to be just as dangerous to Libya’s future as militias and tribal violence. The world’s attention may once again be directed at Libya, following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but how long before another crisis pushes it into the background, once again?
If, as Walter Bagehot once put it, a democracy is really “government by discussion”, then the new Libyan democracy certainly has a great deal to discuss. The only problem is that many groups are neither willing to talk nor to listen to the others. In the south, for example, the town of Kufra has seen ongoing spasms of violence between the ethnically Arab Zuwayy and the ethnically Africa Toubou tribes since the revolution. Last spring, after Kufra was divided along tribal lines, nearly 150 died in violent clashes, carried out with the discarded weapons from the Qaddafi regime. They are perhaps his most prominent legacy. As one young Toubou man said before joining the fighting: “there is no strong government to protect us, our families. I had to come to help my people defend themselves.” To compound matters, after decades of repression under Qaddafi, Libya’s Imazighen (Berber) minority is enjoying a revival, though many Arabs are alarmed at the Amazigh’s newfound restiveness.
Such sentiments are increasingly common throughout Libya’s hinterlands, far removed from the new government in Tripoli. Local militias — often organized along tribal or ethnic lines — helped topple Qaddafi forces last year; but they are still active, continuing to act as local law enforcement in lieu of an assertive central government. A recent estimate by the UN indicates that former rebel militia groups still hold approximately 7,000 prisoners without charges, and often in execrable conditions. Part of the problem, of course, is that many of the militias are hailed by local populations as thuwwar, or freedom fighters, and are often trusted far more than the bureaucracy, still blemished by its use as a repressive tool under Qaddafi.
Libya, of course has a long history of decentralized government, a holdover from its colonial past. Going back to the Sanussi kingdom, Libya has been governed more locally than centrally, due to historical and political circumstances. The pre-Qaddafi United Kingdom of Libya divided the country into three federal provinces, devolving authority to them. Even Qaddafi’s rather bizarre jamahiriya, and its mélange of mass politics and central control, was a response to the difficulty inherent in governing directly — Libya’s previous regimes for the last half-century have preconditioned the country for a decentralized power structure. A healthy degree of local control is necessary, but the process of rebuilding Libya and its shattered infrastructure requires a strong central government.
Getting the militias to disarm and disband
Already, several regional groups have begun to grow restless, each claiming for themselves a pivotal role in defeating Qaddafi. This ‘regionalist triumphalism’, if left unchecked, could potentially exert a centrifugal force that splits the nation apart. The new National Assembly needs to make comprehensive security reform a priority to counteract this. Efforts have been made. The now disbanded NTC attempted a programme — the Warriors Affairs Committee — to entice erstwhile militia members to turn in their weapons in exchange for civilian careers, but it has been plagued by insufficient institutional capacity. As the transitional Labour Minister ominously stated, “no one knows how many there are”. Several civil society groups have formed to try to fill this gap, despite severe budgetary issues.
Support and funding from the United States and other Western nations could prove to be useful in this regard. This would be a prime opportunity for U.S. government bureaus devoted to security reform to step forward and take a leading role. AFRICOM has a fledgling office for security cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, and the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs maintains a fund for Conventional Weapons Reduction (CWD); though no funds have been allocated for Libya for this fiscal year, or the next. Bolstering these initiatives would take minimal effort, and the results would be enormously helpful in the short-term. The amount of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) promised to Libya for this fiscal year and next year amounts to a paltry $150,000, with an additional $50,000 for officer training. Regional and NATO allies are helping, but more needs to be done to guarantee such a basic foundation for Libya’s future.
The Libyan government can do more too. It must work to disband the rebel remnants on last year’s revolution. It must also make sure that its own security apparatus behaves in a legitimate manner. There have been worrying signs that Libya’s military and police forces may not be up to the task at hand. For example, last month, a group of Libyan police cadets studying in Amman, Jordan, set fire to the training facility due to a flight delay. Such unruly behaviour from those supposedly dedicated to upholding the rule of law does not augur well for Libya. Neither, for that matter, does the assassination of General Hadia al-Feitouri, a high ranking Defense Ministry official, by unidentified gunmen only a day after the new National Assembly assumed power.
Certainly, there are less altruistic reasons to be interested in Libya’s future, especially because Libya will have an outsized impact on the region’s future. Already, the lawless void in southern Libya is spreading chaos to other parts of North Africa: weapons such as RPGs, Semtex explosives, assault rifles, antiaircraft machine guns, and grenades have moved from the chaotic remnants of Libya’s revolution to the incipient one in Mali, which is currently riven by an Islamist insurgency. Tuareg fighters, disaffected by being ostracized in Libya, have also participated in the insurgency. Perhaps most worryingly of all, many of the 20,000-man portable missile launchers controlled by Qaddafi’s military may now be missing. Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro recently acknowledged that “militias have control of the MANPADS…and other loose weapons”. Given that there is evidence that the attack on Ambassador Stevens and the Benghazi consulate was a deliberate attack carried out by an organized, unknown group, keeping these weapons out of the hands of such groups is vital to ensuring the safety of US interests in Libya and in the broader region.
Reasons for hope
It seems that Qaddafi’s most lasting legacy was the further hollowing out of a state that was never quite so solid to begin with — filling it with the vital organs of a healthy state and strong ligaments to bind the Libyan people together will be an enormous challenge, but a not insurmountable one. Libya has the capability and capacity for an economic recovery, and its substantial oil fields remained unscathed by the revolution. Those in Cyrenaica clamoring for a return to the decentralized federal system are a minority in their own region, and the sheer outpouring of voters during the recent election shows that the majority of the Libyan people are willing to give the new National Assembly a chance. Once electoral euphoria wears off, as it surely will, support for the government will rest upon their ability to govern; upon the provision of adequate security; and upon their exercise of control over the country. That, in turn, will rest upon the willingness of the United States and its NATO allies to provide aid, assistance, and above all else, attention.
Faris Alikhan is an MPhil student in International Relations at Oxford University.