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.
Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the challenges stemming from the large number of local forces and militias which were decisive in ousting Qadhafi’s regime but are now becoming a significant threat to the country’s security. Having swiftly achieved broad international recognition, the National Transitional Council (NTC) quickly became the face of the rebellion. On the ground however, the picture was different. The uprising was highly decentralised with essentially autonomous, self-armed and self-trained military brigades in both east and west and an array of forces in Tripoli. Today, over 125,000 Libyans reportedly are armed and members of well over a hundred militias. These are in the process of institutionalising themselves, mimicking the organisation of a regular military and engaging in independent activities (registering persons and weapons; arresting and detaining suspects) that are becoming ever more entrenched.
“Libya was liberated in piecemeal fashion, mostly by local rebellions and ad-hoc military groupings that used both military means and negotiations to achieve their goals”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “As a result, a large number of local forces and militias grew up that could legitimately proclaim themselves national liberators”.
The problem posed by militias reflects hard truths about the political landscape from which they sprung. Defectors from within Qadhafi’s regime, who were instrumental in forming the NTC and the rebel National Army, stand accused by revolutionary fighters of belonging to the old order. Rifts between regions as well as between Islamists and secularists play into this dynamic. Weapons are in abundance and suspicion among armed fighters runs high. Above all, the NTC has inherited a country with a long tradition of local government and divided, indecisive ministries, reinforcing mistrust of central authority.
Until a more legitimate governing body is formed and until more credible national institutions are developed, notably in the areas of defence, policing and vital service delivery, Libyans are likely to be sceptical 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 doing nothing. The NTC should communicate clearly, act with transparency and consult closely with local military councils and community leaders on all issues related to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR). Together, they should agree on and enforce a common set of rules and behaviour for all armed fighters – particularly in terms of treatment of detainees — and join their efforts to reintegrate armed rebels, notably the youngest among them, by offering alternative civilian employment. The international community should offer its own advice and technical assistance.
“A top-down disarmament and demobilisation effort by an executive lacking legitimacy would backfire”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Qadhafi centralised power without building a central state. His successors must do the reverse”.