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Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 130 / Middle East & North Africa

Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts

The violent death of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of the challenges Libya still faces and should serve as a wake-up call for the authorities to urgently fill the security vacuum.

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Executive Summary

The 11 September killing of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of Libya’s security challenges. It also should serve as a wake-up call. There is, of course, more than one way to look at the country today: as one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected; or as a country of regions and localities pulling in different directions, beset by intercommunal strife and where well-armed groups freely roam. Evidence exists for both: successful elections on one hand, violent attacks on the other. In truth, the most and the least promising features of post-Qadhafi Libya stem from a single reality. Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or police, local actors – notables, civilian and military councils, revolutionary brigades – have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose ceasefires. It will not be easy and will have to be done gingerly, but it is past time to reverse the tide, reform army and police and establish structures of a functioning state that can ensure implementation of ceasefire agreements and tackle root causes of conflict.

Colonel Qadhafi’s bloody end and the collapse of Libya’s police and armed forces left in its wake an armed population with 42 years worth of pent-up grievances. Qadhafi’s longstanding divide-and-rule strategy set communities against one other, each vying for a share of resources and the regime’s favour. Some towns grew wealthy thanks to connections with the ruling elite; others suffered badly. Meanwhile, the security apparatus at once fomented, manipulated and managed intra-communal conflicts. Once the lid was removed, there was every reason to fear a free-for-all, as the myriad of armed groups that proliferated during the rebellion sought material advantage, political influence or, more simply, revenge. This was all the more so given the security vacuum produced by the regime’s precipitous fall.

A measure of chaos ensued, but up to a point only. Communal clashes erupted across the nation both during and after the 2011 conflict. Tensions that had long been left simmering on the back burner came to a boil, aggravated by the diverging positions various communities took vis-à-vis Qadhafi’s regime. That most of the fighting ended relatively quickly owes in no small measure to the efforts of local leaders, revolutionary brigades and the variety of civilian and military councils that took it upon themselves to keep the country whole. The ad hoc security patchwork registered significant and even surprising success. But it is no model; even as it manages to contain conflicts, it simultaneously fuels them. Some armed groups cannot resist the temptation to target foes and settle scores; battle for political and economic influence; evade accountability; and entrench geographic and community rivalries.

Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups. They had a reason: the army and police were in disarray, suffering from a deficit in personnel and equipment; officers and soldiers had either defected, fled, been killed or jailed. The rebels who rose up against Qadhafi were much better armed and – both suspicious of remnants of the old regime and pleased with their newfound power – unwilling to either surrender their autonomy or come under state control. Yet, it would be wrong to see the parallel military and police forces that emerged as having done so against the central authorities’ wishes. Rather, and although they were set up by revolutionary brigades themselves, the Libyan Shield Forces and Supreme Security Committee – the former operating parallel to the army, the latter to the police – were authorised and encouraged to take action by the ruling National Transitional Council, which viewed them as auxiliary forces without which the state simply could not secure the country.

Just as armed groups physically have kept warring parties apart, so have local notables led negotiations designed to achieve longer-lasting ceasefires. Appealing to the higher ideals of Libyan identity and Islam and resorting to social pressure as well as customary law, they have proved remarkably effective mediators.

However, none of this offers a sustainable solution. Truces are fragile, local conflicts frozen rather than durably resolved. In stepping into the breach, local notables and armed groups have done what the government could not. But effective implementation of ceasefire agreements depends in large part on an impartial authority capable of providing services and enforcing decisions. The involvement of revolutionary brigades and local armed groups in efforts to end hostilities blurs the line separating neutral mediation from partisan meddling. In some instances, their attempts to simultaneously play the role of army, police, mediator, judge and jury have helped revive old communal hostilities or competition for control over smuggling routes. The hope is that the central state can set up truly national forces equipped to deal with local disputes, notably a gendarmerie and elite auxiliary corps within the army. Until then, reliance on revolutionary brigades and local armed forces will continue to be an uncertain wager.

Perhaps most serious is the fact that, in the absence of a strong state, agreements mostly have remained dead letters. Disputes are rooted in competing claims over land, property and power that pre-existed Qadhafi and were first exacerbated by his regime’s clientelism and patronage networks, next by communities’ varying positions during the uprising, and finally by acts of revenge in its aftermath. To resolve them requires clear, written understandings, government follow-up, genuine enforcement and accountability. Too, it necessitates proper policing of borders; fair determination of land ownership where the old regime resorted to confiscation; and some form of transitional justice. All are sorely lacking. Although local notables negotiate agreements, these are seldom unambiguous, committed to paper or coordinated with central authorities. Without an effective government, strong state institutions or police force, follow-through is implausible. The judicial system is overwhelmed and the establishment of a justice and reconciliation process awaits. Hard-earned reconciliation agreements founder.

There is much to celebrate in post-Qadhafi Libya but also reason to worry. The battle between central government and armed groups is not yet won, yet of late the latter have been acting as if they enjoyed the upper hand. If steps are not swiftly taken, reversing this trend is only going to get harder – and what has been a relatively good news story could turn depressingly sour.

Tripoli/Brussels, 14 September 2012

Good News in Libya?

This week, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Libya expert Claudia Gazzini about the successful formation of a new interim government in Libya and the challenges in unifying the country.

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Libya expert, Claudia Gazzini, about the historic turn of events resulting in a new unity government in Libya. After years of chaos, division and war, often fuelled by foreign powers, the past six months saw Libyan leaders engage in UN-led peace talks and agree to an interim cabinet headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Claudia talks through events that led the warring parties and their external backers to agree to the unity government, the benefits of the UN’s inclusive, multitrack process, the significance of a peaceful handover of power and the challenges that lie ahead for Dbeibeh’s government.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Contributors

Interim President
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Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law & Armed Conflict
Consulting Senior Analyst, Libya