Militia Rule in Libya

Militia Rule in Libya

The recent violence testifies to a deeper problem in post-Qaddafi Libya—and one that threatens to undo the country's significant progress.

The assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, points up a persistent problem in post-Qaddafi Libya, one that involves the most fundamental functions of governments: providing for the physical of safety of those living in the space over which they assert sovereign rights.

Without basic security, as Thomas Hobbes warned in The Leviathan, the other pursuits that make for a normal life, among them commerce, culture and social relations, become impossible. Now life in Libya is not “nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes maintained it would be in societies lacking a state. Libya does have a state, but because it is one that has been unable to establish its authority, life there can be dangerous. Christopher Stevens’s murder, a result of the furor produced in Muslim countries following the appearance on the Internet of an amateurish and inane film depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a clownish womanizer, is but the latest reminder of this.

Yes, there have been positive developments in the new Libya—ones that are particularly praiseworthy considering that barely a year has passed since the ancien regime was overthrown by a popular rebellion (backed by abundant external support, particularly from NATO). Libya’s progress is commendable also because the country faces tougher challenges than its other postrevolutionary neighbors do. Consider Egypt, for instance. There, state institutions did not implode following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster; they remained intact, and the political drama following the dictator’s demise has centered on the struggle between the old guard that still inhabits those structures (especially the armed forces) and forces—particularly the ruling Muslim Brotherhood—that stand for thoroughgoing change.

In post-Qaddafi Libya, by contrast, state building started anew. But there have been significant achievements nevertheless. In July, nearly two million Libyans (just about two-thirds of those eligible to vote) elected a General National Congress (GNC), an interim parliament that succeeded the hapless Transitional National Council, which was hastily formed to fill the void created by the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime. Despite much hand-wringing in the West, the radical Islamist parties fared poorly in the election in contrast to the liberal and moderate Islamist ones.

In August, the GNC elected a president and, last week, a prime minister, a Caltech Ph.D. who taught in the United States for more than two decades and was a longtime member of the anti-Qaddafi opposition. The assembly will next authorize a committee to draft the new constitution, which will be voted on in a national referendum. These are not trivial achievements.

Then there is Libyans’ generally positive attitude toward America. While the United States is unpopular and distrusted in the Arab world—in no small measure because it has long backed authoritarian and corrupt rulers while offering up disquisitions on democracy—Washington was not Qaddafi’s patron. Together with its NATO allies, the United States played a pivotal role in the victory of the uprising that brought him down. There is, as a result, considerable goodwill toward the United States among Libyans, and it was apparent in their sadness over Ambassador Stevens’s slaying and in the forthright condemnation by Libya’s top leaders of the storming of the Benghazi consulate.

While all of this provides grounds for optimism, it cannot hide the bad news: Libya’s government has been unable to provide the basic necessity of physical safety identified by Hobbes. And it has failed largely because it must contend with a constellation of militias and other armed groups that act with impunity and use violence routinely.

These militias—some are identified with particular towns, others with tribes, still others with contending conceptions of Islam or tribal or ethnic constituencies—arose during the fight against Qaddafi’s army. Now they answer to no authority save their leaders and believe that they have a continuing right to exist and to act independently because of the sacrifices they made during the revolutionary war.

Ambassador Stevens’s murder is but the latest example of the mayhem they have produced. While the details of what precisely happened during attack on the U.S. mission remain murky, there is now strong evidence that a Salafi militia, Ansar al-Sharia, was the culprit. To repulse the attackers, the government was forced to turn to another militia, which tells you something about the state of the Libyan security forces. The attack that killed Mr. Stevens was the most serious one launched against diplomatic personnel and installations and international organizations, but it has not been the only one: among the others was a June 6 bomb attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.

Libyans have suffered far more on account of the government’s weakness than have foreigners. This summer, fighting between tribal and ethnic militias in Kufra, Mizdah, Zintan, Zlitan and Shegayga killed close to two hundred people and injured many more. And in Tripoli, Rajma and Zlitan, radical Islamists attacked the grave sites and shrines of Sufi saints, in one instance triggering clashes that led to fatalities.

The extremists’ brazenness has underscored the government’s ineptitude. On one occasion (the partial destruction of the shrine of al-Shaab al-Dahmani in Tripoli) its security forces stood by even as the attackers brought in bulldozers and went about their wrecking operations for two days; in others, they sought help from other militias or spontaneously formed armed groups. After the attack on the shrine in Tripoli, the embattled interior minister pointed to the firepower of the militias and remarked that he couldn’t enter a “losing battle.”

So what’s wrong with a nascent government relying on militias when it has neither the capacity to bring them to heel nor the ability to provide security without relying on some of them to battle others? Plenty, as it happens.

The more a government relies on the muscle of armed militias, the less reliable it appears to its citizenry as a provider of public order. The weaker a government appears because of this dependence on militias, the more its legitimacy erodes and the less able it is to move against them. The less willing or able a government is to disarm and disband militias, the more audacious they become and the greater their inclination to act as statelets. As the public’s apprehension is stoked by persistent violence among militias, or between militias and the government, it increasingly turns for protection to the militias, who then gain the legitimacy lost by the government. The more the government uses some militias to fight others, the more it will be dragged into internecine blood feuds that expose it to attack, making it dependent on militias for its own safety. Soon the distinction between the militias and the state becomes blurred.

This dynamic does not amount to an iron law, and so Libya is not doomed to succumb to it. But there’s no denying that it could, given the government’s inability to disband the militias. What’s more, unless the government ends the reign of the militias—and soon—it will imperil the progress it has made. Its future goals—presumably making Libyans’ lives better—will become even more difficult to achieve. And this battle for legitimacy will be fought in a society that has already been warped by four decades of dictatorship and mismanagement.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Image: Al Jazeera English