Africa Diary: The Way Forward in Libya

Global Centre Stage

George Willcoxon reflects on the revolution in Libya and suggests ways to prevent a recurrence of civil war

Libya is now closer to renewed civil war than at any point since the death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. A low-level insurgency continues near Benghazi, and armed factions from Zintan and Misrata are fighting to control Tripoli and, by extension, the overall trajectory of the transition. At the time of writing, the Misratan militias have seized control of the airport in Tripoli, and their Islamist allies have disavowed recent elections and plan to establish their own government. Meanwhile, the newly-elected parliament – apparently dominated by secular nationalists – is meeting in Tobruk. In late August, the crisis escalated further after Egypt and the United Arab Emirates reportedly launched airstrikes against the Islamist-backed militias battling for control of Tripoli. The internal balance of power that characterised post-war Libya is quickly upending.

Critical Steps to Avoid Civil War

After 40 years of a corrupt and vicious dictatorship, eight months of civil war, and three years of fraught transition, Libyan society finds itself lurching from one political crisis to the next. Even if intensive negotiations and diplomatic pressure arrest the present slide toward outright civil war, Libya’s immediate future looks grim: a fragmented state, disrupted oil exports, shrinking government revenues, local political monopolies, and moribund national politics.

To avoid a collapsed state or a brutal civil war, local and international actors must now take three critical steps. First, they must exert significant pressure on various factions to negotiate a detailed ceasefire and military power-sharing agreement that would, at the minimum, include a timeline for the rapid withdrawal of militias from Tripoli and the transfer of security to Tripolitanian authorities. The international community must stand ready to provide international monitors to verify compliance and to assist with the transfer. Second, local and international actors must identify and act on opportunities for confidence building among moderates from all camps, such as taking concrete steps to ensure free-and-fair elections in early 2015. Third, local and international actors must quash terrorist groups located in the Benghazi area while avoiding a radicalisation of moderate Islamists elsewhere in Libya. European powers should step up their operational and Special Forces assistance to end this low-grade insurgency. In the meantime, Libya’s immediate neighbours should resist the temptation to intervene militarily, and should instead facilitate a ceasefire agreement and confidence building measures.

Origins of the Present Crisis

The insecurity of post-war Libya is the direct outgrowth of Gaddafi’s malign legacy and the manner in which the 2011 civil war unfolded. Gaddafi intentionally kept his formal security sector weak and fragmented, protecting his regime instead with politically loyal paramilitary organisations and a ruthless secret police. Once the rebellion and NATO strikes destroyed these pillars of his regime, the remnants of the formal security sector – especially the police and army – were incapable of establishing public order. Neither were the victorious rebels able to provide adequate security. Indeed, the NATO intervention averted almost certain defeat for the rebels in March 2011, and NATO shifted the subsequent stalemate in favour of the rebels in September and October 2011. The rebels toppled Gaddafi without developing a coherent political-military organisation, and the war ended before the various rebel groups had answered basic questions over command-and-control, their political programme, or transitional governance. Despite the substantial advance work of the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), the TNC entered Tripoli only as the most prominent of several competing rebel factions, rather than as a true post-war government with the popular legitimacy and the administrative capacity to enact its program.

The end of the civil war, thus, marked the beginning rather than the conclusion, of the fundamental contest over Libya’s future, yet no faction had sufficient military strength to impose its vision on the country. Despite these handicaps, the TNC formed an interim government until elections were held in July 2012 for a transitional parliament. By the election, the best-armed and best-organised revolutionary militias had resisted demobilisation, and had burrowed themselves into the firmament of post-war Libyan politics. The most important organisations were the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) and the Libya Shield Force (LSF), broadly constituted out of rebel councils from western Libya and the Misratan rebel organisation, respectively. Given the decrepit nature of the surviving state institutions, the transitional government had little choice but to call on the revolutionary militias to provide public order alongside the remnants of the national army and police.

From their perspective, the revolutionary militias were providing oversight of the post-war transition to ensure that Gaddafi holdovers, Tripolitanians, or politically-suspect tribes did not dominate the new political system under negotiation in the capital. The SSC and LSF frequently mobilised their fighters to influence post-war transition. Most famously, the Misratan militias forced the transitional parliament to dismiss hundreds of government officials and members of parliament due to their prior service in the Gaddafi regime, including the incumbent president of parliament, the former prime minister of the TNC and then head of the secularist party, and several cabinet ministers.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the elected government’s vulnerability to the revolutionary militias, reforms to modernise and strengthen the formal security sector along western models stalled. Turnover was high at the Ministries of Interior and Defence, and on the general staff. Hundreds of new security personnel were sent for training in Turkey and Jordan, with little noticeable effect on the growing insecurity in the country. Laws to reform military justice, discipline, force structure, and compensation and retirement went nowhere, despite the critical necessity of a transition away from the ‘revolutionary’ administration of security and justice to a professional, neutral, human rights-centred approach. Instead the SSC and LSF gained a series of contracts to provide security and the government paid them salaries that surpassed those of army and police personnel until 2014. Enrolment in these quasi-official brigades spiked across 2012, and new militias sprung up to get a piece of the action, and double dipping was common.

The militias that emerged after the war differed from the SSC and LSF: they were undisciplined, totally unresponsive to popular disapproval, and baldly opportunistic. These newer militias were hired like private security companies, but unlike private security companies they had a political agenda and were not chastened by threats of losing current or future contracts. As a result, the contracting system simply handed over vital assets to militias, which then held them for political ransom. One militia, tasked with protecting the transitional parliament, seized the prime minister in 2013. A different militia, tasked with protecting oil assets near Ras Lanuf, declared its support for autonomy in Cyrenaica and immediately tried to export oil to finance this project. The lack of personal safety for political elites and their families was a recurring problem.

Back from the Brink

Libyan society still comprises the same underlying conditions that sustained an uneasy stalemate for three years, while the political process inched slowly forward. Among the countries touched by the Arab Spring, Libyan society has comparatively high level of education, wealth, and ethnic, linguistic, and religious homogeneity. It has enormous oil wealth that can be used to smoothen political differences. If a ceasefire does take hold and political negotiations restart, Libya can still muddle through with significant external support.

First, the main political coalitions and their affiliated militias must negotiate a detailed military power-sharing and power-dividing agreement. This agreement should formalise and precisely delineate the territorial division of power that already exists on ground: a western military zone administered by the Zintani militias, a central military zone administered by the Misratan militias, and an eastern military zone administered by the official Libyan army. The militias would agree to respect each other’s territory on the condition that each organisation roots out violent extremist groups such as Ansar al Sharia. The militias would share responsibility for maintaining peace among tribes in the south. Most importantly, the parties must negotiate a timeline for the withdrawal of forces from Tripoli and the transfer of security control to a local, neutral municipal administration that will need to be organised. Once completed, Libya would establish a fourth military zone in the capital and surrounding areas and parliament could return safely to the capital.

The transfer of territory and assets in and around Tripoli is the central problem and may require a brief international peacekeeping presence. There are multiple precedents for short-duration, narrowly-tailored peacekeeping deployments focussed on monitoring the withdrawal of forces and facilitating the transfer of territory among factions that have signed a ceasefire agreement, but lack the capacity to implement it safely. In post-war Guatemala (1997), peacekeeping troops successfully disengaged combatants, monitored compliance with the ceasefire agreement, collected weapons, and demobilised rebel fighters – all within three months. United Nations forces successfully verified compliance with agreements at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (30 months), at the end of the Aouzou strip conflict (2 months), during the transfer of West New Guinea from the Netherlands to Indonesia (7 months), and after the India-Pakistan War of 1965 (7 months). Monitoring the withdrawal of Zintani and Misratan militias from Tripoli, reconstituting and redeploying the city’s police, and organising a local gendarme could take a couple of months. Much of the local materials for a ‘police-building’ effort already exist on the ground in Tripoli: the local organisations are simply weaker and less organised than outside militias. Less intrusively, NATO could offer to secure, repair, and administer Tripoli’s international airport or extend a security guarantee to the fourth military zone and monitor its boundaries until metropolitan Tripoli is able to secure itself.

A ceasefire agreement can also be structured to provide opportunities for confidence-building measures. For example, a ceasefire agreement might include public commitments to the on-going constitution-drafting process, and an agreement to invite international monitors to observe the ratification process. Despite the current crisis, the constitutional assembly expects to issue an initial draft in December 2014. If events have not overtaken the process, the militias could demonstrate their commitment to peace and democracy by providing security guarantees to the electoral commission as it begins work in their zones of control. The assembly can itself build confidence by communicating clearly that peaceful or moderate actors should not fear any constitution they produce – the constitution will marginalise only violent extremists who wish to subvert a free, democratic, and prosperous Libya at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Another opportunity to build confidence is to issue a new municipalities law and hold local elections for city, town, and village councils. Ad hoc ‘committees of notables’ have governed most municipalities in Libya since 2011. All factions seem to agree that strong, elected municipal governments should, at the very least, administer primary and secondary schools, set rules for land use and urban development, collect trash, and provide basic utilities. Municipal reforms and elections can move forward while the constitutional assembly continues its work on issues of regional federalism and autonomy. A ceasefire agreement should include a schedule for holding municipal elections in the first half of 2015 before parliamentary elections that will be triggered by a new constitution. It could also establish a rough outline of municipal reforms and appoint a committee to propose a detailed law. Many contentious local government issues – the size of councils, the number of reserved seats for women and minorities, district versus at-large elections, partisan versus non-partisan elections – are relatively technical and ‘low stakes’ compared to other items on Libya’s legislative agenda. Municipal government reform, therefore, provides an excellent opportunity for national political actors to demonstrate their commitment to democracy and decentralisation without engaging controversial issues of federalism or autonomy.

Local elections will also give a voice to ordinary Libyans, create new stakeholders in Libya’s day-to-day governance, and inject a modest pluralism into the local political monopolies that have developed under the Misratan and Zintani militias. These new stakeholders would act as interlocutors with militias that happen to control their particular region, and engage them on issues of basic public services and security. By no means a panacea, local elections may shift the political terrain toward moderate, negotiated solutions and away from violence.

Roughly half of all post-war countries endure renewed conflict within five years. In this respect, the Libyan experience is common. A failed state or outright civil war can be avoided, but only with a negotiated ceasefire and the suppression of terrorist groups in and around Benghazi. If these efforts fail, Libya’s powerful neighbours may ultimately intervene – an outcome that would open an entirely new Pandora’s Box.

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