In light of the killing of the U.S. ambassador, it’s tempting to be pessimistic about Libya. But just a year after the fall of a long-standing tyrant, the country is moving on and has peacefully elected a new government. As it turns out, building a functioning state from scratch can be a good thing.
Libyan special forces training, July 2012. (Anis Mili / Courtesy Reuters)
By any standard, Libya's July 7 elections were a remarkable achievement. They defied expectations of widespread violence and an Islamist landslide. The victorious Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, has already made signs of reaching out to rival political factions across the country, most notably the federalists in the east. Headlines around the world proclaimed the country's first free vote in six decades a success.
Even so, observers should have no illusions about the momentous challenges ahead -- especially that of rebuilding and formalizing the country's security services. In the absence of an effective police force and army, the country's transitional government has pursued a contradictory policy. On the one hand, recognizing that armed militias could destabilize the state, it has enacted some programs to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the country's countless revolutionary "brigades."
At the same time, however, the transitional government has been forced to harness the militias' power to project its own authority, because the existing police and army are weak and are associated with the old regime. In the transition period, governing officials co-opted and deputized militia commanders to quell tribal fighting in the western Nafusa Mountains and the Saharan towns of Kufra and Sabha. During the elections, they employed other armed groups to provide security; in Benghazi, for example, the ballots were stored and counted at the headquarters of the city's strongest militia. To a degree, the Libyan Ministry of Defense even subcontracted border control and the defense of the country's oil installations and fields to small brigades.
The strategy of trying to dismantle the regional militias while simultaneously making use of them as hired guns might be sowing the seeds for the country's descent into warlordism. It has also given local brigades and their political patrons leverage over the central government. Emboldened by the writ of state authority, brigade commanders have been free to carry out vendettas against rival towns and tribes, particularly those favored by former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Just after the election, for example, a major standoff erupted between Misrata -- a city-state that hosts the country's most organized brigades -- and Bani Walid -- a loyalist enclave whose major tribe, the al-Warfalla, has long incurred the ire of Misrata's merchant families. On July 8, two Misratan journalists were detained in Bani Walid. Misratan militias reportedly converged on the town's outskirts, threatening to attack. The militia commanders claimed that they were acting in the name of the transitional government, which the Chief of Staff quickly repudiated. The conflict quickly escalated when Imazighen (Berber) forces from the Nafusa Mountains and militias from Souq al-Jumaa -- each nursing their own grievances against Bani Walid -- arrived to join the Misratans. Meanwhile, tribal elders from across the country worked frantically to secure the journalists. The standoff finally ended late Sunday when the Misratans agreed to release detainees from Bani Walid whom they had incarcerated in militia-run prisons in exchange for release of the journalists.
All of this points to a government that has ceded an unhealthy degree of authority to local militias and tribal intermediaries. So the Jibril administration's first order of business will be to right the security sector and bolster the judiciary quickly. Much of its work will should focus on dismantling or institutionalizing two ad-hoc security bodies that the transitional government created or tolerated: the Supreme Security Committees (SSC), which fall under the Ministry of Interior, and the Libyan Shield Forces, which are nominally attached to the Ministry of Defense. These bodies were intended to provide security in the transitional period by harnessing the zeal and expertise of the revolutionary fighters, but they have rapidly become a force unto themselves. They have become more formalized and have preserved the structures of local militias. They also overshadow the regular police and the national army, who remain weak, ill-equipped, and tainted by their affiliation with the Qaddafi regime.
Between these two bodies, the more problematic is the SSC. The force is estimated to consist of 90,000 to 100,000 fighters. These men, ostensibly revolutionaries, have acted act as a sort of national gendarmerie, providing transitional security at the local level, particularly during the election period. But ominously, the SCC has not managed to break down the fighters' old allegiances: entire brigades have joined en masse and their commanders have simply switched hats. This is particularly the case in Derna, a longtime hub of Salafi militancy. Here, a local Salafi brigade, the Abu Salim Martyrs' Brigade, which is known for its vendettas against Qaddafi-era security officials and its ties to more radical Salafi groups like the Ansar al-Sharia, is now enforcing security as the town's branch of the SSC. Among some Libyans, the incorporation of the Abu Salim Martyrs' Brigade into the SSC represented a victory: the integration of a troublesome band of fighters into the orbit of the state. But such views are naive: the relationship between the government and local SSC-incorporated brigades will hold only as long as interests overlap.
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