The fall of Muammar al-Qadhafi in October 2011 marked the end of the Libyan uprising, led to the close of NATO’s intervention “Operation Unified Protector” (OUP), and ushered in a delicate political transformation which failed to come to a quick and decisive end with the first round of elections held in early July 2012. To assess some major pitfalls of the current transitional process, this article will propose an analysis of two main challenges the new Libyan authorities will face, the proper handling of which will determine the nature and stability of the future state. The first challenge is the political transition from an autocratic regime via revolutionary credentials to democratic legitimacy. The second involves the construction and governance of an entirely reshaped security sector, both in the military and civilian realms, transcending their previous roles in the Jamahiriyya either as Praetorian Guard or as state-sponsored bullies. (1)
Libyan politics are not immune to the major novelty introduced by the Arab Spring. Political representation transformed into a reflection of forces on the ground: what used to be called in derogatory terms the “Arab Street”—as opposed to the will of the dictator, or alleged Western interests—morphed into public opinion, which was now suddenly relevant in elections. Yet the first free national elections in Libya produced a mixed picture without clear majorities, partially due to the complicated electoral system, which was split into party lists and individual candidates. Furthermore, as could also be witnessed in local elections that took place in Misrata and Benghazi, political Islam as such seems not to be favored by the Libyan people. This means the search for charismatic, authoritative political leadership during the transition phase will most likely continue. However, achieving stability cannot be attained by a successful political transition alone. Rivalries between numerous and relatively autonomous kata’ib (militias) could degenerate into open confrontation.2 If those rebel commanders, who have suddenly transformed into politicians, lose in the elections where they sought to acquire democratic credentials (and in the process to transcend their previous revolutionary achievements as militia leaders), such a scenario becomes more likely.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) and its interim government have prioritized security sector and judicial reform from the very beginning in order to provide for a smooth transition in post-conflict Libya. However, in the current climate justice seems mainly to be understood to consist in indicting former regime officials (such as Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam or the former Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi), rather than in terms of conducting reforms of the justice system. Simultaneously, assassinations are not uncommon. Jumma al-Jawzi, the judge who ordered the arrest of
Abdelfattah Younes (commander of the National Liberation Army since his early defection, assassinated in July 2011) was killed in June this year.3 Several candidates running in the recent elections or former Qadhafi-era office bearers have been victims of politically motivated murder or assassination attempts as well.
Despite the NTC’s rhetoric about national reconciliation, security sector reform (SSR) is making slow progress in an environment that is prone to the settling of old intertribal disputes. These tribal rivalries, which had been used by Qadhafi as a reliable mechanism to consolidate his power, are now free-floating in the absence of a central authority. Practically, mediation efforts for the implementation of fragile cease-fires tend to be undertaken by shuyukh (tribal leaders), elders and notables from influential families. The army claimed on several occasions to have dispatched contingents to intervene in tribal clashes, such as confrontations in southwestern Sebha or southeastern Kufra. The reality looks quite different. In the case of Kufra, where black Tubu tribal members have been fighting against Arabs for the control of smuggling routes, the locally predominant Arab Zuwayy tribe was put under a command structure of the Libyan Army, named Libyan Shield Forces.4 In this way, not only is the fox put in charge of the henhouse, but Qadhafi’s policies of Arabization are perpetuated upon other terms.
Officially, one of main responsibilities of the Ministry of Defense is the integration of rival militias into the armed forces. But practical challenges, such as the ministry’s negative image, more attractive job alternatives, and the reluctance of the institution itself to welcome former irregular rebels inside its walls, impinge on this element of the process of security sector reform. In addition, Libya’s border guards—a crucial element of the security landscape—went on strike on the nation’s eastern border with Egypt to protest their dangerous working conditions, due to regular shooting attacks by smugglers.
Overall, at this early stage in the post-conflict era, the impression remains of various interim bodies delegating security provision to localized militias, whereby they either further entrench the groups in the extra-legal realm or, ideally, prepare them for a role as official security providers under the aegis of the Ministry of Interior. The establishment of the SSC (Supreme Security Council) is a positive example of the latter: an official- and functional- umbrella organization that can help incorporate former thuwwar (revolutionaries/rebels).
The overarching goal for European security policy, in terms of NATO policies as well as from a CSDP perspective, will be to avoid a failed-state scenario that would lead to Yemeni- or Somali-style fragmentation on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. To pre-empt this worst-case scenario, Europe must address the situation in Libya with urgency and wisdom, mainly through providing political support for the newly elected
government. Eventually, this boils down to working to avoid a situation that could entail a ground forces intervention with both peace-making and peace-keeping elements. Such a scenario would not only embolden domestic militant Islamists (such as the LIFG 5), but could even trigger the fervor of global jihadis. Currently, such a worst case seems quite unlikely. However, any further deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel zone, which in the end represents a cordon sécuritaire for Europe, could also adversely affect the state-building process in Libya.
Most probably, the expected return of the oil-based rentier state will allow the state to reinforce central authority via its distributive role. Expectations regarding the largesse of such a patrimonial state continue to exist, which will provide the next elected government with formidable leverage. The state’s tremendous financial clout might turn out to be the single most convincing tool to co-opt pragmatic forces, and should even enable the authorities to rein in unpredictable elements (like rogue militias) on the path towards state building.
NATO should use the positive momentum created by OUP in Libya and engage in enhanced cooperation with the newly elected government and the leadership of the new national army. At the same time, uncertainties persist. Will the results of the political transformation eventually create sufficient political desire on the Libyan side to reciprocate the offer for cooperation formulated at NATO’s Chicago summit in May 2012? The door for Libya’s integration into the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) stands wide open. However, given that Tripoli has a yet-to-be-defined geopolitical orientation, the potential for joining a new “non-aligned movement” under Muslim Brotherhood guidance, and a strong tendency towards nationalism and autonomous action based on considerable resource wealth, the scope and quality of the future NATO-Libya relationship remains a question mark.