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.
Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts, the latest International Crisis Group report, warns that although Libya often is hailed as one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected, it is also a country of regions and localities pulling in different directions, beset by intercommunal strife and where well-armed groups freely roam.
“Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or professional police, local actors have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose ceasefires”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “But ultimately, these actors cannot take on the state’s role in implementing ceasefires and ensuring conditions of peace. Truces remain fragile, and local conflicts are left frozen or fragile rather than truly resolved”.
Qadhafi’s longstanding divide-and-rule strategy set communities against one another, 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 intercommunal 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.
Proper management of the country’s many local disputes will require significant reform of both military and civilian aspects of conflict resolution, notably better coordination between local notables and the government and better coordination among the Libyan Shield Forces, the army and the groups that make up the border guard. It also demands bottom-up reform of the army and police.
The challenge will be to do this even as the newly elected General National Congress and future constitutional drafting committee are focused on establishing the legislative foundations of a new state.
“Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “This is not sustainable. The new government needs to take concrete steps to reform its security forces and establish structures of a functioning state. Anything less will perpetuate what already is in place: local disputes occurring in a fragmented and heavily armed landscape, with the ever-present risk of escalation”.