Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi
Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Against Seeming Odds, Assistance Comes to Derna
Against Seeming Odds, Assistance Comes to Derna
Report / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi

As a recent uptick in violence vividly illustrates, the fate of militias that ousted Qadhafi’s regime must be carefully addressed lest they jeopardise Libya’s transition.

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Executive Summary

As the recent upsurge of violence dramatically illustrates, the militias that were decisive in ousting Qadhafi’s regime are becoming a significant problem now that it is gone. Their number is a mystery: 100 according to some; three times that others say. Over 125,000 Libyans are said to be armed. The groups do not see themselves as serving a central authority; they have separate procedures to register members and weapons, arrest and detain suspects; they repeatedly have clashed. Rebuilding Libya requires addressing their fate, yet haste would be as perilous as apathy. The uprising was highly decentralised; although they recognise it, the local military and civilian councils are sceptical of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the largely self-appointed body leading the transition. They feel they need weapons to defend their interests and address their security fears.

A top-down disarmament and demobilisation effort by an executive lacking legitimacy would backfire. For now the NTC should work with local authorities and militias – and encourage them to work with each other – to agree on operational standards and pave the way for restructured police, military and civilian institutions. Qadhafi centralised power without building a central state. His successors must do the reverse.

A dual legacy burdens Libya’s new authorities. The first was bequeathed by Qadhafi in the form of a regime centred on himself and his family; that played neighbourhoods and groups against one another; failed to develop genuine national institutions; and deliberately kept the national army weak to prevent the emergence of would-be challengers. The second legacy stems from the way in which he was toppled: through the piecemeal and variegated liberation of different parts of the country. A large number of local forces and militias volunteered to take part in this fight. After Qadhafi’s fall, all could legitimately claim to have sacrificed blood and treasure for the cause, and all could consider themselves national liberators.

To much of the world, the NTC was the face of the uprising. It was formed early, spoke with authority and swiftly achieved broad international recognition. On the ground, the picture was different. The NTC was headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi, a traditional base of anti-regime activity that provided army defectors a relatively secure area of operations, particularly after NATO’s involvement. The eastern rebellion was built around a strong kernel of experienced opposition and commanders who found friendly territory in which to defect at relatively low cost and personal risk. But it could only encourage western cities and towns to rise up, not adequately support them. At key times, army components that defected, stuck on the eastern frontlines, by and large became passive observers of what occurred in the rest of the country. In the eyes of many, the rebel army looked increasingly like an eastern, not a truly national force. As for the NTC, focused on obtaining vital international support, it never fully led the uprising, nor could it establish a substantial physical presence in much of the rest of the country.

In the west, rebels formed militias and military brigades that were essentially autonomous, self-armed and self-trained, benefiting in most instances from limited NTC and foreign government support. Some had a military background, but most were civilians – accountants, lawyers, students or labourers. When and where they prevailed, they assumed security and civilian responsibility under the authority of local military councils. As a result, most of the militias are geographically rooted, identified with specific neighbourhoods, towns and cities – such as Zintan and Misrata – rather than joined by ideology, tribal membership or ethnicity; they seldom possess a clear political agenda beyond securing their area.

The situation in Tripoli was different and uniquely dangerous. There, victory over Qadhafi forces reflected the combined efforts of local residents and various militias from across the country. The outcome was a series of parallel, at times uncoordinated chains of command. The presence of multiple militias has led to armed clashes as they overlap and compete for power.

The NTC’s desire to bring the militias under central control is wholly understandable; to build a stable Libya, it also is necessary. But obstacles are great. By now, they have developed vested interests they will be loath to relinquish. They also have become increasingly entrenched. Militias mimic the organisation of a regular military and enjoy parallel chains of command; they have separate weapons and vehicle registration procedures; supply identification cards; conduct investigations; issue warrants; arrest and detain suspects; and conduct security operations, sometimes at substantial cost to communities subject to discrimination and collective punishment.

They also have advantages that the NTC and the National Army lack, notably superior local knowledge and connections, relatively strong leaderships and revolutionary legitimacy. In contrast, the NTC has had to struggle with internal divisions, a credibility deficit and questions surrounding its effectiveness. It has had to deal with ministries still in the process of reorganisation and whose employees – most of them former regime holdovers – have yet to cast off the ingrained habit of referring any decision to the ministerial level.

But the heart of the matter is political. The security landscape’s fragmentation – and militias’ unwillingness to give up arms – reflects distrust and uncertainty regarding who has the legitimacy to lead during the transition. While the NTC and reconstituted National Army can point out they were among the first to rebel or defect and were crucial in obtaining international support, others see things differently. Some considered them too eastern-dominated and blamed them for playing a marginal role in liberating the west. Civilians who took up arms and who had been powerless or persecuted under Qadhafi resent ex-senior officials who defected from the army and members of the regime’s elite who shifted allegiances and now purport to rule. Although they are represented on the council, many Islamists consider the NTC overly secular and out of touch with ordinary Libyans. Above all else, militias – notably those in Tripoli, Zintan and Misrata – have their own narrative to justify their legitimacy: that they spearheaded the revolution in the west, did the most to free the capital or suffered most from Qadhafi’s repression.

Formation of a new cabinet was supposed to curb militia-on-militia violence as well as defiance of the National Army; it has done nothing of the kind. Instead, violence in the capital if anything has escalated, with armed clashes occurring almost nightly. Regional suspicion of the central authority remains high as does disagreement over which of the many new revolutionary groups and personalities ought to be entrusted with power.

The problem posed by militias is intimately related to deeper, longer-term structural issues: Qadhafi’s neglect of the army along with other institutions; regional friction and societal divisions (between regions, between Islamist-leaning and secularist-leaning camps, as well as between representatives of the old and new orders); the uprising’s geographically uneven and uncoordinated development; the surplus of weapons and deficit in trust; the absence of a strong, fully representative and effective executive authority; and widespread feeling among many armed fighters that the existing national army lacks both relevance and legitimacy.

Until a more legitimate governing body is formed – which likely means until elections are held – and until more credible national institutions are developed, notably in the areas of defence, policing and vital service delivery, Libyans are likely to be suspicious of the political process, while insisting on both retaining their weapons and preserving the current structure of irregular armed brigades. To try to force a different outcome would be to play with fire, and with poor odds.

But that does not mean nothing can be done. Some of the most worrying features of the security patchwork should be addressed cooperatively between the NTC and local military as well as civilian councils. At the top of the list should be developing and enforcing clear standards to prevent abuses of detainees or discrimination against entire communities, the uncontrolled possession, display or use especially of heavy weapons and inter-militia clashes. The NTC also should begin working on longer-term steps to demobilise the militias and reintegrate their fighters in coordination with local actors. This will require restructuring the police and military, but also providing economic opportunities for former fighters – vocational training, jobs as well as basic social services – which in turn will require meeting minimum expectations of good government. Even as it takes a relatively hands-off approach, the international community has much to offer in this respect – and Libyans appear eager for such help.

Ultimately, successfully dealing with the proliferation of militias will entail a delicate balancing act: central authorities must take action, but not at the expense of local counterparts; disarmament and demobilisation should proceed deliberately, but neither too quickly nor too abruptly; and international players should weigh the need not to overly interfere in Libya’s affairs against the obligation not to become overly complacent about its promising but still fragile future.

Tripoli/Brussels, 14 December 2011


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