Libya's Militia Menace

The Challenge After the Elections

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

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