Libya: Challenges Abound in post-Gaddafi Era
Tripoli-- 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 inter-communal 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 inter-communal conflicts.
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.
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.
“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”.
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.
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.