State-Building Challenges in a Post-Revolution Libya
Authored by Dr. Mohammed El-Katiri.
Following the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi, Libya’s National Transitional Council inherited a difficult and volatile domestic situation. The new leadership faces serious challenges in all areas of statehood. Libya’s key geostrategic position, and role in hydrocarbon production and exportation, means that the internal developments in Libya are crucial not only to the Libyan people, but also to neighboring countries both in North Africa and across the Mediterranean in southern Europe. Therefore, mitigation or prevention of conditions that could lead to Libya becoming a failing or failed state is of vital importance. A review of the major challenges to the new Libyan regime, including the continuing role of tribalism and the difficulty posed by the new government’s lack of monopoly on ensuring security in Tripoli and beyond are discussed. Special attention is given to the key issues of concern that foreign partners should have when engaging with the new Libyan leadership; and a number of policy recommendations are made as well. Libya’s immediate future is of critical importance, and will determine whether the country faces state consolidation or state failure.
A peaceful transition to a new form of government in Libya is of vital importance not only to the people of Libya, but to neighboring countries—and to security in the broad sense much farther afield. Yet, at the time of this writing, the new interim leadership remains fragile, with limited capacity and sovereignty, and the inability to enforce security is still a critical challenge. There is a risk of conditions being created that could lead to Libya becoming a fragile or indeed a failed state.
Despite the mitigation of the threat from supporters of the old regime, the interim government has no monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. The security risks of Libya’s uncontrolled armed militias are not restricted to within national borders. By jeopardizing state-building efforts, clashes between militias or between militias and government authorities threaten to undermine the security of neighboring countries and the international community. Risks include renewed waves of refugee flows to Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Mediterranean to Italy and beyond, and continuing disruption to oil production, which will once again deprive the international market of Libyan oil and harm the economic interests of U.S. and European companies. Furthermore, the current lack of a capable national army leaves Libya an open playing field to be exploited by international criminal or terrorist groups active in the region.
A key challenge confronting the interim government in Libya is the creation of political institutions to provide for the functioning of an effective democratic state. The interim government is, in effect, inheriting a stateless state. Drawing up a constitution for Libya will not be straightforward. Political infighting between secularists and Islamists has already surfaced on varying issues of political significance to Libya’s future, including vital elements, such as the structure and religious identity of the state. Democratic culture deficit is another key challenge, since political parties and civil society institutions were absent from Libya for more than 4 decades.
The socioeconomic and political factors that led people to revolt against the regime are equally pertinent to post-conflict stabilization, and require early attention. Unemployment was a significant long-term issue in Qadhafi’s Libya, as was frustration at the fall in standards of living while the country generated billions of dollars from hydrocarbon exports, much of which was spent on Qadhafi’s foreign policy adventures. Ordinary citizens argued that a country rich in energy resources with a relatively small population should be able to offer high living standards to its population, in the same manner as in the rich Gulf states. A rapid resumption of oil and gas production will not only assist in the rebuilding of Libya’s infrastructure and economy; it will alleviate economic pressures on neighboring countries, as the Libyan economy reabsorbs thousands of Egyptian and Tunisian workers in different sectors.
The political role of tribes cannot be understated in determining the future shape of Libya. A number of attempts to seize power from him prompted Qadhafi to accentuate tribalization, turning to his tribal kinsmen to counter increased political opposition and appointing several blood relatives and in-laws to key security and military positions. Manipulating tribes and building informal tribal alliances became an important part of Qadhafi’s internal political maneuvering, with nepotism and favoritism becoming the pillars sustaining Qadhafi’s informal political alliances. Elements of these tribal dynamics remain in the post-revolution environment, and in the interests of stability and the avoidance of further conflict, their management and mitigation are every bit as important as they were during the reigns of King Idris and Qadhafi himself. The key nature of this challenge should not be underestimated by foreign partners engaging with the new Libyan regime.
• As the Libyan interim government continues to struggle to maintain law and order while simultaneously facing the daunting tasks of state-building ab initio, the United States and other leading actors in the international community can assist in maintaining stability by engaging and providing vitally needed assistance essential to avoid destabilization and deterioration within Libya, gravid with consequences not only for Libyan citizens, but for neighbors and energy consumers both in North Africa and Europe. The involvement of the international community should be focused on what Libya needs in order to perform its functions as an effective sovereign state, both at a national and international level.
• The ambitions of the interim government are inhibited by the lack of a clear security reform strategy that includes specific measures for the disarmament and reintegration of revolutionary fighters, and the management of legacy armaments in general. The sooner the interim government launches its security reform plan, the better the chances of success for political transition. Assistance to the interim authorities in implementing security reform in order to mitigate the risks outlined above should therefore be a priority of the United States and other foreign partners.
• Tribes play an important role in the daily life of many Libyans, and are likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Under a new regime that does not favor tribal politics, tribal leaders might agree to take a limited role at the national-political level, but will be likely to want to keep their political influence at the regional level. Leading tribes in different areas of the country will have great aspirations to play an important role in their respective regions. The United States and other foreign partners engaging with the new Libyan state need to be aware of the limitations on the power and reach of that state imposed by the tribal nature of its society.
• An important task for the interim government, and an important step for the stability of the country, is to organize a truth-recovery and reconciliation initiative. International experience shows that reconciliation initiatives in post-conflict situations or following regime or political change constitute an important step toward healing the wounds of the past and strengthening political transitions. Given the importance of reconciliation initiatives for stability during transition, the United States and other foreign partners should encourage these efforts and provide targeted support for the process.
• U.S. and United Nations (UN) expertise in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of armed fighters in post-conflict situations could be of pivotal help to Libya, but such support should be carefully provided. Although the situation on the ground at the time of this writing suggests that the interim government in Libya would appreciate external help with the armed militias, any level of visible foreign military presence in Libya risks igniting more political instability than it provides. Any DDR assistance would be best provided through diplomatic channels in the form of continuous advisory and monitoring support.
• Preventing the hostile exploitation of Libya’s vast territory and largely uncontrolled borders remains a key task for the international community while Libya still lacks an adequate national army. The new Libya needs well-equipped and well-trained military forces to protect and secure its borders and national territory. The new security apparatus that will be put in place should be trained to play a neutral role in internal political life, and specifically avoid domination by or favoritism toward specific tribes or clans over others. A new security system will reduce the risk of intimidation and violence during Libya’s political transition. The United States and other international partners with the experience of building security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are well-placed to offer this experience to Libya.
• International nongovernmental organizations have much to offer the nascent democratic political culture and civil society in Libya. The new Libya requires the establishment and strengthening of a party system, elections, media, and an independent judiciary. Technical assistance in setting up legal systems on political and economic fronts is an essential prerequisite for Libya’s transition toward democracy.
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