A fresh outbreak of fighting between rival militias erupted at the former HQ of Libya’s intelligence agency in central Tripoli on Sunday. One of the groups was recently ordered to be disbanded for violating a code of conduct, including torturing a prisoner to death, the head of the temporary supreme security council told LANA, the state news agency.
The clashes are raising concerns about the viability of Libya’s transition as the country’s new leadership struggles to enforce the rule of law.
A year on from Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster, the “light-footprint approach adopted for Libya’s transition is facing its most serious test,” according to a new RAND report.
“The security situation requires immediate attention and could still worsen,” the report cautions. “Until the militias are brought under state control, progress on other fronts will be very difficult to achieve.
Libya’s transition has been marred by the legacy of Qaddafi’s personalistic rule, including a lack of administrative capacity. The government has been disabled by the absence of a functioning judiciary and a lack of political will to rein in the militias, analysts suggest.
“In the absence of a functioning court system and stalemated politics in Tripoli, central authorities have increasingly turned to tribal mediation as a means to navigate justice since the fall of the old regime,” writes the Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner:
But real national reconciliation requires more than the “We’re all brothers, big hug” approach, said newly-appointed justice minister Salah Marghani:
Rather, he said, Libya needs fact-finding missions, it needs prosecutors, and it needs central law enforcement. Libyans need to feel like justice is attainable, and abuses need to be prosecuted on both sides — in Bani Walid, in Misrata, in Tawergha and in other towns across the country.
It’s an often-mentioned goal in post-Gadhafi Libya, but one that has eluded officials in the past year of political turmoil. Many Libyan officials said they hoped that the approval of a new cabinet on Wednesday might help achieve it.
“We can’t bring back those who died,” said Marghani. “But we can have rule of law. We can pay reparations to the victims of both sides. We can rebuild Libya.”
The state’s inability to rein in Islamist and other militias threatens to undermine Libya’s democratic prospects, as anticipated in a report from the National Endowment for Democracy which outlined the country’s transitional challenges.
The September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed “showcased both the power of radical Islamist militias and the inability of the government in Tripoli to provide security and maintain order across the country,” writes Dirk Vandewelle, a Libya analyst at Dartmouth College.
But “the power of the country’s militias is slowly eroding” and “the larger story about the new Libya is surprisingly positive. The worst-case scenarios commonly predicted a year ago have not emerged, and there are actually grounds for guarded optimism about the future,” he asserts:
What explains Libya’s relative success? Many scholars saw the country’s lack of institutional development as a bad sign for its future as a democracy. Yet the past year seems to suggest that Libya has actually benefited from having to virtually start from scratch in building a functioning state. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where deeply entrenched institutions, such as the military and powerful bureaucracies, have proved so resistant to reform, Tripoli’s new leaders have not needed to dismantle large institutional remnants of the old order.
Nevertheless, “defying expectations, Libya stands out as one of the most successful countries to emerge from the uprisings that have rocked the Arab world over the past two years,” Vandewalle writes in Foreign Affairs.:
On July 7, with little fanfare but great determination, Libya held its first national elections since Qaddafi’s fall, in which the country’s citizens peacefully voted in the new 200-member General National Congress. A month later, the National Transitional Council, which had emerged as the opposition’s political leadership during the early days of the civil war, formally transferred its powers to the General National Congress. A commission will now draft the country’s constitution, which will be put before the people in a popular referendum. All these developments have followed the schedule that the NTC outlined in the depths of the war.
“Great difficulties lie ahead, but the unexpected smoothness of Libya’s political transition thus far represents a singular achievement for a country still reeling from decades of dictatorship,” he argues.
The transitional authorities and international actors deserve credit for July’s successful elections, “but the political challenges remain significant,” notes the RAND report.
“Libya still needs to write a constitution. In doing so, it must determine the degree to which power is centralized in Tripoli and how to ensure inclusive yet stable governing institutions,” it says.
“Islamist inclusion will be particularly vexing in Libya given the suspect commitment of some of these groups to democratic processes.”
“The truth is that all of Libya’s political parties….maintain Islam as part of their political programs; they differ only on what precise role they assign religion in everyday life,” he writes:
The Justice and Development Party’s weak performance, moreover, had less to do with ideology than with the fact that Qaddafi had effectively eradicated the Brotherhood in Libya, leaving it with few organizational resources in the wake of the civil war. In future elections, as memories of the NTC and its leaders start to fade and as the Justice and Development Party and other Islamist parties organize themselves better and develop more sophisticated and detailed platforms, Islamists will likely gain ground in Libyan politics. That said, most Libyans seem dedicated to preventing any single party or political movement from dominating their newly democratic government.
“The larger challenge for Libya will be fostering a true political community,” Vandewalle asserts. “Unlike in much of the West, where countries with cogent national identities developed into electoral democracies, Libya will have to construct a national identity out of its newly formed democracy.”
The transitional authorities can promote political inclusion through “actionable mechanisms using technological and grassroots means to motivate the participation of all factions,” say Gilbert Doumit and Carmen Geha, civil society activists and partners at Beyond Reform & Development:
The Committee of Sixty should hold debate sessions among experts and other stakeholders in all three regions to identify means of mediating conflict in future decisions. Additionally, the GNC should take immediate steps to involve political activists from all three areas to shadow the committee and provide feedback during the drafting process. While these measures have not yet been attempted, there is strong evidence that Libyan citizens will respond positively to GNC-encouraged dialogue: when the NTC put up the electoral law for input from citizens, more than 14,000 replies provided feedback and helped produce a final electoral law for Libya.
“Whether or not the dialogue for a new governance system will be left in the hands of the few or open to all citizens will determine whether and how fears will be put at ease,” they write in Carnegie’s Sada journal. “Best to quell these fears and tensions now, rather than have them emerge later in the form of political deadlock.”
Despite NATO’s role in helping to oust Qaddafi, the groups is absent from Libya today, RAND laments.
“A greater role for the alliance is worth exploring, for example training Libyan security officials and forces and providing technical assistance for security-sector reform,” it notes, recommending an international Friends of Libya conference on assistance for the country’s transition.
“If current challenges are handled adroitly,” the report concludes, “Libya could become a positive force for democratic stability in North Africa and a valuable partner against al-Qaeda.”
Libya expert Vandewalle is also cautiously optimistic.
Recent attacks by radical Islamist groups on Sufi shrines “demonstrated how profound religious differences in Libya will continue to hamper the creation of a harmonious political community,” he notes. “But the larger picture of the transition should still inspire hope.”
Just a year after the fall of a dictatorship that deprived Libyans of any political role, a modern state has, against all odds, started to emerge…. Libya’s recent accomplishments mark only the beginning of what promises to be a long and difficult process of repairing a war-torn country. But if the July elections are any indication, most Libyans are determined to build a political community that respects differences of opinion and resolves disputes through democratic processes — something they have never before enjoyed.
If this progress continues to take root, resulting in solid institutions, Libya may well prove to be an important exception to the so-called resource curse: the seemingly immutable rule that oil-exporting countries are bound for authoritarianism and stagnation.