Dangers ahead

Joshi’s recent piece on how Libya is entering a new golden age as a result of one quasi-peaceful election has been rightly chanllenged.

Frederic Wehrey has argued in Foreign Affairs, that there is significant dangers ahead. He importantly notes that “The victorious Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, has already made signs of reaching out to rival political factions across the country, most notably the federalists in the east”.

Yet, beneath the surface of the election victory he writes cogently that “In the absence of an effective police force and army, the country’s transitional government has pursued a contradictory policy. On the one hand, recognizing that armed militias could destabilize the state, it has enacted some programs to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the country’s countless revolutionary ‘brigades.'” He goes on to write that “At the same time, however, the transitional government has been forced to harness the militias’ power to project its own authority, because the existing police and army are weak and are associated with the old regime”.

Chillingly, he continues noting that “The strategy of trying to dismantle the regional militias while simultaneously making use of them as hired guns might be sowing the seeds for the country’s descent into warlordism. It has also given local brigades and their political patrons leverage over the central government. Emboldened by the writ of state authority, brigade commanders have been free to carry out vendettas against rival towns and tribes”.

He gives examples of tribal and militia fighting and goes on to mention that the government “has ceded an unhealthy degree of authority to local militias and tribal intermediaries. So the Jibril administration’s first order of business will be to right the security sector and bolster the judiciary quickly. Much of its work will should focus on dismantling or institutionalizing two ad-hoc security bodies that the transitional government created or tolerated: the Supreme Security Committees (SSC), which fall under the Ministry of Interior, and the Libyan Shield Forces, which are nominally attached to the Ministry of Defense. These bodies were intended to provide security in the transitional period by harnessing the zeal and expertise of the revolutionary fighters, but they have rapidly become a force unto themselves. They have become more formalized and have preserved the structures of local militias. They also overshadow the regular police and the national army, who remain weak, ill-equipped, and tainted by their affiliation with the Qaddafi regime”. 

He argues that “the more problematic is the SSC. The force is estimated to consist of 90,000 to 100,000 fighters. These men, ostensibly revolutionaries, have acted act as a sort of national gendarmerie, providing transitional security at the local level, particularly during the election period. But ominously, the SCC has not managed to break down the fighters’ old allegiances: entire brigades have joined en masse and their commanders have simply switched hats”. Tellingly, he goes on to note that “Among some Libyans, the incorporation of the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade into the SSC represented a victory: the integration of a troublesome band of fighters into the orbit of the state. But such views are naive: the relationship between the government and local SSC-incorporated brigades will hold only as long as interests overlap”.

Worringly for the future of Libya he adds that ”

The SSC system and the transitional government’s demobilization programs work at cross-purposes. Pay for fighters who join an SSC-incorporated brigade is higher than what most Libyans could hope to make on the outside, so fighters have little incentive to leave and recruits have reportedly flocked to join. Many Libyans have feared the SSC as unruly thugs, who are distinguished only by hastily made logos on their T-shirts. Increasingly, though, there are signs that the SSC is becoming a more formalized unit — the uniforms have gotten better and the SSC now has a Web site. In other words, it looks like the SSCs are not going away anytime soon”.

The one minor sign of hope is mentioned when he writes that “The Libyan Shield Force, meanwhile, is a coalition of militias from the east, Misrata, and Zintan that acts in parallel with Libya’s national army”, yet even this ray of hope is tempered when he writes that “The Shield supposedly acts under orders of the Ministry of Defense to quell tribal and ethnic fighting in Kufra, Sabha, and Zintan. In many instances, however, it has ended up inflaming tensions in these areas”.

He mentions that “One Misrata brigade commander, arguably the most powerful militia leader in the city, plans to transform the Shield into Libya’s reserve military force, which would operate alongside the country’s army, navy, and air force, and would be directly run by the administration’s chief of staff. Under the plan, Shield members would train one month a year and receive a stipend and medical benefits for themselves and their families. In exchange, they would hand over their heavy weaponry — artillery, tanks, rockets, recoilless rifles — to the Ministry of Defense”.

He writes that the Warrior’s Affairs Commission (WAC) has “conducted an exhaustive registration and data collection of nearly 215,000 revolutionary fighters. It also functions as a sort of placement service, moving these young men into the police and the army, sending them on scholarships abroad, furthering their education at home, or giving them vocational training. After being vetted and screened, roughly 150,000 men are now eligible for placement; what happens to the other 65,000 remains to be seen”.

He suggests that “the next government should adopt a dual-track approach of building up the national army and police, focusing especially on training a newer generation of junior and mid-level officers, while downsizing the bloated senior ranks. It should bolster the demobilization and integration programs that aim to give young fighters educational and vocational opportunities, weaning them away from the embrace of the brigades”. He goes on to argue that as there is only a weak criminal justice system, minor crimes go unpunished, leading to reprisals.

He concludes arguing “Many observers have attributed the Libyan transitional government’s impotence on the security and judicial fronts to its temporariness and its lack of legitimacy. If that theory is correct, the successor administration must act swiftly and decisively — or, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, find itself confronted with forces that it cannot control”.

Libya has huge challenges ahead, to pretend otherwise would be foolish and naive.

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