Libya’s Government and Militias Vie for Power

Libya’s Government and Militias Vie for Power

Almost two years after former Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed, the political situation in the country is not living up to the promise of the revolution.

The life of an average Libyan is now more than ever before riddled with uncertainty about jobs, security and the democratic process. The many armed groups – representing factions as diverse as reform groups, the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign and domestic jihadists – arguably rule unabated. Each has systematically absorbed weaker counterparts and then carved out its slice of authority in a country devoid of solid national institutions. The reaches of government are thus either tenuous or openly contested in violent clashes.

Colonel Gaddafi purposely maintained weakened national institutions for fear of uprising. He played on the tribal diversity of Libya to designated favorites, form alliances and oppress still others. The fervor with which the revolution began in northwest Libya is symbolic of the decades-long resentment he sowed. As such, the modern Libyan state lacks the tradition of democracy, civic involvement and bedrock institutions to counter the power of the militias.

Of the roughly 250 militia groups and 40,000 men who partook in the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, some estimate that the government is nearly half-way through disbanding them. Of course, those left are both the strongest and most pernicious threats to the elected national government, led by the General National Congress. One particularly stark example is the Supreme Security Committees (SSC), a private militia group and the de facto justice authority in Tripoli. Tasked with maintaining order on the streets of the capital where the police are either incapable or undermined, the SSC wields the sort of influence that has eluded the government.

This past week, the militia holding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Colonel Gaddafi, in the western Libyan town of Zintan refused to hand him over to the Tripoli authorities for trial in crimes committed against protesters during the eight month civil war in 2011. Underscoring the power the group wields and the scant ability of the government to reign in extrajudicial players, Gaddafi instead appeared at a separate hearing staged locally in Zintan.

Other militia groups controlling swaths of territory vital to the production and transport of petroleum have since 2012 also made successful attempts to disrupt flows by either blocking off transport routes or exploiting the chaos caused by sit-ins of oil fields workers demanding better security and higher wages. While the pre-war production levels of 1.6 million barrels per day were restored soon after the revolution, production has recently fallen by about a million barrels per day, causing, along with other tremors in the oil-rich Middle East, soaring crude oil prices.

Apart from the consternation that rising crude prices inevitably bring, the international community, weary of Arab Spring revolutions that have mutated into situations far more complex, has stayed clear of Libya. The September 11th, 2012 attack on the U.S Consulate in Benghazi and the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, represents the change in sentiment toward international military intervention. The incapacity of the Libyan government to offset that reluctance with its own agenda for change and cohesion has thus put the entire state in the crosshairs of strife, extremism and a downward economic spiral.

What needs to change to stem the tide of instability is a tall order: an economic agenda that leverages oil revenues for economic opportunity for all and thus offsets the instability upon which armed groups prey. De-militarization with incentives needs to be a robust, national campaign. Co-opting militia groups under the umbrella of government and raising salaries are but a small start toward that end. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the distrust and inequality among the many factions in Libya needs to be addressed. Without the sense that the national government represents the full spectrum of the Libyan people and cares equally about the grievances from the east as it does the south, the cohesion will be doomed and militia groups will persist.

The international community, in its post-intervention reluctance to wade into chaotic Libyan dynamics, must accept its part in seeing this transition through, by supporting (financially and otherwise) civic groups which seek to engage with the democratic process. A strong and engaged civil society will, presumably, demand an equally responsive and representative government. This self-reinforcement is the biggest hope that Libya has to develop a social contract that marginalizes groups which thrive in uncertainty and discontent.

About Author

Sanja Davidovic

Sanja is an international development professional whose research and writing focuses on issues of political economy of conflict, state building and security sector reform. She holds a Master of Science from the London School of Economics in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Fairfield University.