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. 

The SSC system and the transitional government's demobilization programs work at cross-purposes. Pay for fighters who join an SSC-incorporated brigade is higher than what most Libyans could hope to make on the outside, so fighters have little incentive to leave and recruits have reportedly flocked to join. Many Libyans have feared the SSC as unruly thugs, who are distinguished only by hastily made logos on their T-shirts. Increasingly, though, there are signs that the SSC is becoming a more formalized unit -- the uniforms have gotten better and the SSC now has a Web site. In other words, it looks like the SSCs are not going away anytime soon.

The Libyan Shield Force, meanwhile, is a coalition of militias from the east, Misrata, and Zintan that acts in parallel with Libya's national army. In many respects, the Shield Force is a bottom-up initiative by brigade commanders themselves, designed to resist the incorporation of their fighters into the official army or police departments and to preserve the structure of the brigades -- albeit under a different, more official-sounding name. The Shield supposedly acts under orders of the Ministry of Defense to quell tribal and ethnic fighting in Kufra, Sabha, and Zintan. In many instances, however, it has ended up inflaming tensions in these areas, either through heavy-handedness, such as its indiscriminate shelling of Kufra and its forced evictions of ethnic Tabu that city in April. In other cases, locals see the Shield's commanders being party to the conflict because of their tribal affiliation.

One Misrata brigade commander, arguably the most powerful militia leader in the city, plans to transform the Shield into Libya's reserve military force, which would operate alongside the country's army, navy, and air force, and would be directly run by the administration's chief of staff. Under the plan, Shield members would train one month a year and receive a stipend and medical benefits for themselves and their families. In exchange, they would hand over their heavy weaponry -- artillery, tanks, rockets, recoilless rifles -- to the Ministry of Defense. The government would buy back the fighters' medium-sized weaponry -- the 14.5- and 23-millimeter anti-aircraft guns that were staples of the revolution. All these weapons would be stored in regional military zones, overseen by local Shield commanders. 

The scheme is purportedly intended to break up the brigades, since recruits join as individuals, not as part of a group. It is hard not to imagine, however, that it is just an ingenious way of preserving the prerogatives of the regional brigades and positioning the Shield as a hedge against an unfavorable political situation in Tripoli. The fact that the reserve plan originated in Misrata is not surprising, given the town's go-it-alone reputation, powerful militias, and claim to the mantle of the revolution. A senior Misratan commander noted as much, telling me, "Misrata will start this initiative and we are confident other cities will follow." The much-applauded victory of Jibril's National Forces Alliance is only going to strengthen Misrata's resolve against integration. The alliance did poorly in Misrata and Jibril's Warfalla tribe is despised by the city's powerful families. 

What then of the government's plans to institutionalize the brigades and bolster the official security sector? At the forefront of this task is an initiative from the prime minister's office called the Warrior's Affairs Commission (WAC), which has conducted an exhaustive registration and data collection of nearly 215,000 revolutionary fighters. It also functions as a sort of placement service, moving these young men into the police and the army, sending them on scholarships abroad, furthering their education at home, or giving them vocational training. After being vetted and screened, roughly 150,000 men are now eligible for placement; what happens to the other 65,000 remains to be seen. 

The implied goal of the WAC is to break up the brigades by appealing to individual interest: "We need to appeal to the revolutionaries' ambitions and desire for a better life. We need to tell him that the brigades cannot offer you anything." Unsurprisingly, the reaction from brigades has been tepid. Misratan brigade commanders believe that the WAC is either unwittingly or knowingly recruiting loyalist soldiers and that it has been slow to register its fighters. The commander of a powerful Zintani brigade, which is based in Tripoli but has forces guarding southern borders and oil installations, dismissed the WAC as an "academic" exercise that will face difficulty being implemented.

At one level, the system of militia co-option has worked -- low level violence has been confined to peripheral conflicts in the west and south and the elections went off relatively smoothly. But questions remain about its durability and eventual cost to the development of state institutions. Moving forward, the next government should adopt a dual-track approach of building up the national army and police, focusing especially on training a newer generation of junior and mid-level officers, while downsizing the bloated senior ranks. It should bolster the demobilization and integration programs that aim to give young fighters educational and vocational opportunities, weaning them away from the embrace of the brigades. Most importantly, though, the government should address the root causes of local tribal and ethnic flare-ups, and militancy in the east. After all, policing these conflicts gives the militia coalitions much of their leverage over the government.

On this issue, the government should focus on Libya's justice system. In many respects, the ongoing conflicts in Zintan, Kufra, and Sabha are symptomatic of its absence. A relatively limited offense -- a land dispute, theft, or murder -- can quickly escalate because there are no courts, but there are plenty of guns. For its part, the transitional government tried to fill the gaps by deploying a network of tribal elders, business elites, and religious intermediaries to broker ceasefires. A key figure on this front has been the Grand Mufti Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghiryani, who mediated among radical Salafist groups in the east after the desecration of World War II graves and Sufi shrines. 

But there are limits to how far mediators can push, given their local roots and affiliations. This is particularly true for Ghiryani, who is a Salafi and has adopted an ambivalent attitude toward attacks on Sufi sites. Most recently, he rejected Jibril's National Forces Alliance, issuing a fatwa against it on the grounds that it was un-Islamic. 

Then the new government will need to turn to the jails. The presence of brigade-run prisons is problematic. Reports of torture inflame local conflicts. And the current standoff between Misrata and Bani Walid is at least partly rooted in Misrata's prolonged incarceration of Bani Walid fighters. The government decreed that by July 12, the local brigades should either free their prisoners or transfer them to the custody of the state, but progress has been slow and uneven. As of this writing, an estimated 5,000 prisoners still remain in militia-run prisons, while 3,000 have been transferred to the Ministry of Justice.

Many observers have attributed the Libyan transitional government's impotence on the security and judicial fronts to its temporariness and its lack of legitimacy. If that theory is correct, the successor administration must act swiftly and decisively -- or, like the sorcerer's apprentice, find itself confronted with forces that it cannot control.

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  • FREDERIC WEHREY is a Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently returned from Libya.
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