By Ash Rossiter
The declaration of Libya’s official liberation on October 23 was met with jubilation not only by the crowd that had gathered in Benghazi’s Kish Square, but also by Western politicians – especially those from Britain and France, the self-styled architects of the NATO operation in Libya. This triumphalism was quickly tempered, however, by the recognition that some of Libya’s toughest days could still lie ahead.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in a recent interview with the Washington Post that the Libyans have “a very complicated political task ahead of them” and that they will need to reconcile the rivalries that have “existed forever between the west and the east, between Benghazi and Tripoli.” This picture of Libya as a country split into factions is in wide circulation. Cambridge University’s Tarak Barkawi, for example, describes Libya as a country “shot through with rivalries, jealousies and blood debts.” The National Transitional Council (NTC) itself is a disparate collection of defected regime elements, Islamists, secular expatriates and Berbers.
During the fighting, the NTC presented an image of national unity. Yet the divisions in the rebel lines often made a sham of this public veneer of brotherhood. The unexplained assassination in July 2011 of former Interior Minister General Younis after he joined the rebels was perhaps the most extreme example of the rivalries. For the most part, however, rival factions subordinated their individual interests behind the larger goal of liberating the country.
Now that victory has been achieved, forging a common agenda in Libya may prove a tougher test. Although the NTC was able to elect an interim prime minister last week, a struggle may still emerge in the coming weeks over how to divide up equitably the all important cabinet posts.
Few underestimate the challenge for Libya in making a new political system work, yet in many respects the more pressing issue if the security situation in Libya. A collapse in public order now could jeopardise efforts to rebuild the country politically or otherwise. Because the interim government is unable to extend its writ across the whole of Libya, a scenario could emerge whereby ambitious local leaders attempt to carve out their own fiefdoms using militias raised in the rebellion to expunge rivals.
The NTC’s control over the militias is tenuous at best. Militias largely comprise of loosely organised local armed fighters and most often report to locally-formed military councils rather than the NTC.
This absence of control over the militias is only too evident in the treatment of captured former regime elements and towns; the scars of score settling are everywhere. Ignoring the interim government’s appeal for restraint, militias have ransacked several towns formally loyal to Qadhafi; they have metered out vicious reprisals on captured government forces; and, instead of handing over weapons from captured government arsenals to the authorities, rebel fighters have hauled back their plunder to their hometowns. So far the interim government has been unable to fully exert its authority over a country awash with weapons and armed men.
There are even signs of tension and distrust between the two most organised rebel formations: those armed groups from Benghazi and Misrata. The latter played a key role in taking Tripoli and Sirte and is holding out for a central role in the new political order.
Likewise, the rivalry between militias in Tripoli could be especially explosive. Many fighters in the capital refuse to recognise the NTC’s designated military commander for Tripoli, Abdul Hakim Belhadj. On October 2, Abdullah Naker announced the formation of the rival Tripoli Revolutionary Council, which he claimed held greater legitimacy in Tripoli because it better represented the interests of Tripolitanians than the Benghazi-heavy NTC. This self-appointed local security body even called on non-Tripoli militias to remove their heavy weapons from the capital. At present, a modus vivendi exists in the capital, but it is not clear whether it would outlive a future spat between the rival groups.
The presence of rival semi-autonomous armed factions could undermine efforts at progress in Libya. While many observers recognise this danger, few have offered up any kind of remedy. That being said, in the months before the Qadhafi’s regime fell, a number of recommendations were made by Western think-tanks on how the post-bellum peace could be maintained. In August of this year, a Council on Foreign Relations report – one of a number published by different institutions in those summer months – suggested that the successor government to Qadhafi would need to establish a paramilitary police force 3000-strong to maintain public security in the immediate period after liberation. In early October, the NTC said that after it secured the remaining few pockets of resistance held by Gadhafi loyalists it would move thousands of rebel fighters into a security forces controlled by the interim government.
Progress, however, has been painfully slow. The NTC appeared to put the first steps in place when the first cohort of 500 trained recruits for the new national army paraded through Tripoli last month. Yet the country still teems with armed revolutionary volunteers many of whose leaders have recently abandoned their pledge to give up their weapons and now say they want to preserve their autonomy. These are tough circumstances to bring into being a centralized security apparatus.
The legitimate civilian government of Libya will eventually need to establish a monopoly over the means of violence in the country. Otherwise, the interim government will be in a position of responsibility without genuine control. But the government should not push too hard or too fast for the militias – especially those with an independent streak – to fall in line with the NTC’s centralizing agenda. To do so may result in these factions pushing back harder to resist what they view as an encroachment on their independence. Some are predicting that a new conflict may be nearing a 50 percent chance of occurring. Overall, it may be best for the interim government to instead concentrate on increasing its own legitimacy outside of Benghazi whilst at the same time building up the national security forces in a step-by-step fashion.
Non-Resident Research Associate, INEGMA