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Libya’s Happy New Year?

Benghazi residents celebrates Martyrs' Day as they commemorate those who died during the 2011 Libyan revolution that toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi, on September 16, 2013 (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Benghazi residents celebrates Martyrs’ Day as they commemorate those who died during the 2011 Libyan revolution that toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi, on September 16, 2013 (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images)
While part of the world celebrated Christmas Eve, Libya marked its sixty-second birthday; the country gained its independence from British and French military administration and the unification of its three constituent provinces on December 24, 1951. The national holiday should have been a cause for joy, as Libyans post-Gaddafi are now free to express themselves and participate in their own governance. But the anniversary was also fraught with peril, as most observers agree that the country’s prospects in the coming year remains quite tenuous. Libyans must now reconcile their discord engendered by the jostling for power by various factions, and the explosion of divergent ideas on how to organize the new country.

At present, political polarization is frequently given violent expression, since each locality or ideological grouping is aligned with one or more militias. Plagued by weak institutions, the central government has yet to be able to rein in these militias. Now that armed groups have taken to cutting off the flow of oil, gas and water as a tactic in extracting concessions from the government, the revenue available to the government to pay salaries and provide services—including those responsible for security functions—is constantly shrinking.

Seemingly poised to spiral further out of control, the situation will likely get worse before it gets better. Yet in these troubled times there are a few signs of hope. It is, therefore, too early to call Libya’s revolution a failed project. The year ahead may bring a new constitution, and along with it a new legislature that could raise public respect for the government. Armed with fresh legitimacy, new leaders might even rally the people to build a new and better Libya.

At present, political polarization is frequently given violent expression, since each locality or ideological grouping is aligned with one or more militias.

All political factions agree that a change in leadership and a sense of shared purpose is sorely needed. The continued existence of the lame-duck government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan allows the militia leaders to view themselves as more legitimate than the national police and military as a result of the grassroots nature of brigade formation and the continued presence of Gaddafi-era officers in the military and police. As such, armed brigades feel justified in influencing the highest levels of government by blockading or occupying government facilities, including ministries, the floor of the General National Congress (GNC), and important oil and gas sites. The elected government does not yet have sufficient trained forces to counter these armed groups.

For five months, employees at oil terminals in Eastern Libya have been on strike over salaries and management. While the strikes in Tobruk have come to an end, the occupations of Ras Lanuf, Sidra and Zueitina masterminded by Ibrahim Jadran—the former head of the central division of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, who has now become a warlord—have morphed into a larger anti-central government struggle by those who advocate a return to the Libyan federalism of the 1950s. They are seeking to create a modicum of autonomy for the eastern Cyrenacian region before the constitutional committee convenes, so as to present the committee with a fait accompli. Members of two Berber groups, Imazighen in the West and Tubu in the South, have also occupied oil and gas installations and shut down pipelines to draw more attention to their political goals.

Zeidan said again on December 8 that he will use force if necessary against oil strikers if other means such as negotiations fail. Subsequent negotiations with Jadran’s autonomy-seeking group ended unsuccessfully on December 15, after which the GNC Oil and Energy Committee issued its own ultimatum on the use of force. Left unsaid is whether that force constitutes a viable deterrent. With the prime minister unable to guarantee his own safety following his brief October 10 kidnapping, allegedly orchestrated by Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, it seems unlikely that he could build competent security institutions that could provide law and order to the country.

However, it should be pointed out that none of the brigades have tried to take over the government. As Zeidan said in a December 8 interview in the Washington Post, “If they were capable of doing so, they would have done it already.”

Popular sentiment is turning against the militias, especially after a number of groups have turned out not to be the guardians of the people that they claim to be. A focus group survey by the National Democratic Institute determined that the desire for militias to disarm is growing, with more than 90 percent of respondents saying that those militias that do not abide by government authority should disband. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded in the mid-November demonstrations organized by the Tripoli local council to get militias to disband in Tripoli, while Benghazi saw demonstrations calling for the extremist group Ansar Al-Sharia to leave. In Derna, protests demanded increased police and army presence and the withdrawal of the militias.

The Libyan National Army is slowly coalescing and gaining power, as shown by its presence in Tripoli after the militias began to withdraw. This is a positive step, though it seems unlikely that the militias will have entirely disbanded in Tripoli and Benghazi by December 31, 2013, as called for by the GNC in Laws 27 and 53 respectively. UN Special Representative Tarek Mitri’s report to the UN Security Council on December 9 was not particularly sanguine, stating that “despite steps by the government to quickly deploy army units in Tripoli to prevent a security vacuum, the weak capacity of state military and police institutions remains a serious problem. Doubts also remain about how comprehensive or lasting some of the recent moves will be.”

Aside from the slow pace of institutional formation, a major problem with Libya’s new security forces is that different parts of the military, police, and security forces are being trained and funded by different internal and external groups with their own conflicting agendas.

The largest organized political currents in Libya today are the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Forces Alliance, leading some to imagine a dichotomy of Islamists and liberals—a distinction that others reject. The struggle between the two blocs has caused a fair amount of political deadlock. Inept leadership, combined with the fallout from the continued oil strikes with shortages in electricity, fuel, and occasionally water, has led to a loss of confidence in the GNC and the Zeidan government. Their poor performance could lead to a backlash against political parties and a reduced role for them in a new political system under the new constitution.

The largest organized political currents in Libya today are the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Forces Alliance, leading some to imagine a dichotomy of Islamists and liberals—a distinction that others reject.

There have been rumors for months of forces working to replace Zeidan as prime minister. Zeidan’s Washington Post interview could be viewed as his attempt to demonstrate to the world his resilience and the competence of his own administration. Sadly, Zeidan’s numerous gaffes, implicit calls to appease his enemies, and naive belief that he can face down his opponents without the use of force demonstrated quite the opposite.

Only striving to follow the constitutional timetable as much as possible, and conducting fresh legislative elections culminating in a new slate of ministers in the new year could help restore public confidence in the central government and the transition process. As new leadership is so sorely needed, the December 23 GNC decision to extend its legislative mandate to December 24, 2014 beyond the original February 2014 deadline in the draft constitutional declaration has been met with protests. It must be pointed out that even if the new leadership contains the most inspiring visionaries with practical experience formulating policy prescriptions, it would still have a hard time implementing them, due to administrative ineptitude at the lower levels of bureaucracy.

Legitimacy for the future political process and the transition to permanent governance hinges most of all on a new durable, inclusive constitution. Elections for the constituent assembly that will draft the constitution are expected to be held in the second half of January, but at the time of writing no firm date had been set. The greatest risk to the success of the political process would be boycotts by major social groups of the constituent assembly election, and later the constitutional referendum. Amazigh groups have called for a boycott, demanding greater minority representation on the sixty-member committee in order to ensure that the Tamazight language becomes an official state language, on par with Arabic, in the new constitution, which they consider a non-negotiable issue. Other groups may follow suit if the federalists push for a boycott. If this were to happen, the fate of the country as a unitary republic would be in serious danger. Simply put, the less political participation, the greater the likelihood that discontent with the constitutional product will be expressed through violence.

Libya’s uncertainty has the potential to destabilize the region, with its plentiful weapons combined with ungoverned spaces. It therefore seems imperative for outside actors to do what they can to help the Libyan government fill the vacuum. While the international community can assist in creating robust security institutions and fostering educational and economic alternatives to militia membership, it cannot disarm the militias outright. And any attempt to do so would be pure folly. Technical assistance from abroad in training the new military and police, building the capacity of public administration, and cooperation among Libya’s neighbors on border security must only come as a response to a specific request from the Libyan authorities. In short, Libya’s nation-building project cannot be imposed from the outside.

A joint mission by the US, UK and Italy to train 6,000 to 8,000 members of a General Purpose Force as the backbone of the Libyan army, while a useful endeavor, will take months to complete and will unlikely materially affect the balance of forces until after the constitution process is complete. Meanwhile, the status quo will likely continue with Libya having to navigate its own way through weak institutions, plentiful weapons and seemingly entrenched militias.

The true solution to the current morass can only come from within. The healing process of national reconciliation is ultimately up to Libyans to embrace and implement. Outside parties can assist in suggesting best practices and acting as impartial mediators, but the goals of the national dialogue and constitutional process in restoring a sense of ownership of the political process are Libya’s to create.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Jason Pack and Haley Cook
Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013). Haley Cook is director of research at Libya-Analysis.com.

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