In 2011, swept by the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring, Libyans vowed to rid themselves of Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s long-standing brutal dictator. Soon, protests would degenerate into gunfights, and then outright civil war.
With the Gaddafi regime threatening indiscriminate reprisals against its own people, the international community decided to act to protect civilians. Under United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973, an international coalition was forged to implement the resolution through military intervention. Led by NATO, and by the United Kingdom and France in particular, the intervention would last for seven months and would ultimately spell the end of the Gaddafi regime with opposition forces on the ground able to defeat regime forces and set in motion a transition to democracy.
Since the conclusion of the civil war and the beginning of the democratic transition, successive Libyan governments have struggled to establish the authority of the state. The principal impediment in establishing state authority has been the continued existence of numerous militias which had fought together against Gaddafi during the civil war. Rather than disband after having achieved the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, many militias simply remained in their positions. They have often posited that their continued existence is necessary to ensure the success of the revolution.
The Libyan government has attempted to establish its authority by co-opting some of the militias, paying them salaries in exchange for their service in support of the state. Probably the most notable manifestation of this effort is the Libyan Shield Force, an organisation comprising a collection of militias, established by the government in 2012. However, this effort has also failed to establish state authority. The organisation’s constituent militias have pursued their own agendas, separate and contrary to that of the government, and many are now considered terrorists by the Council of Deputies, Libya’s parliament.
The lack of state authority in Libya has produced something resembling a slow motion descent into anarchy. In 2012, the United States’ ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed alongside three of his colleagues in an attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi by Islamist militants. In 2013, militants seized control of several major ports connected to the country’s oil industry, producing an oil crisis that only recently saw some relief. Later in that same year, the then Libyan prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was abducted by a militia, and held for several hours before being released. In 2014, the beginnings of outright conflict emerged between militias primarily aligning themselves with one of two factions, either a nationalist alliance, or an Islamist one. Thus far, fighting has focused principally upon Tripoli and Benghazi. As fighting has intensified, most Western embassies have been closed and diplomats evacuated from the country. The parliament has been forced to leave Tripoli owing to security concerns. It now convenes in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Libya is not without hope, however. Following the conclusion of the civil war, the country’s wartime decision-making body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), passed power to the newly-elected General National Congress (GNC). Over time, the GNC became characterised by infighting and for various reasons was for much of its time unwilling to challenge the power of the militias. The GNC’s mandate expired in June, leading to fresh elections to a new parliament, the Council of Deputies. While turnout dropped compared with previous elections, likely in connection with recent instability, Islamists, who had held sway in the GNC, suffered a significant defeat. In their place, more liberal representatives now hold sway in the new legislature, and they are not afraid to be bold. The new parliament recently voted to disband the militias and called for the United Nations to protect civilians from the violence perpetrated by the militias. This is in marked contrast to the GNC, which was unwilling to take such a bold stand against the power of the militias.
Western nations have, for a considerable length of time now, pursued diplomacy as the sole means to ease tensions and return the democratic transition to a stable trajectory. It is clear now, though, that following the bold stance taken by the new parliament, there is no absence of political leadership pursuing the moderate and democratic path. Rather, Libya is being held hostage by competing forces which prefer the rule of the gun to the rule of law. Democratic politics and the rule of law cannot prevail in Libya unless state authority is established. The new parliament, and the Libyan government, are in no position to establish state authority so long as the militias continue to hold all the cards when it comes to the use of force. Therefore, it falls upon the West to help Libya in the manner only it is able to.
Backed by Western air power, ideally under the auspices of NATO, the new parliament would be able to forge a political strategy to disband the militias. The threat of force alone would act as a strong incentive for the militias to lay down their weapons and pursue their interests through political, rather than violent, means. It is probable that some militias would, at least initially, ignore the threat of force, and in these cases force would need to be employed, so as to ensure that state authority not be undermined.
As these efforts progress, the state would be able to begin to establish its authority throughout the country. With militias dispersing, police forces would be able to return to duty, upholding the rule of law and protecting civilians. Similarly, the military would benefit, enabling it to develop its capability to a point where it would eventually become sufficiently able to challenge the militias itself.
One could envisage that sufficient support could be achieved such that a resolution could be passed in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, thereby broadening the multilateral nature of this effort. Ideally, such a resolution would mandate the presence of UN observers throughout the country to monitor and facilitate peace. Observers could also potentially be joined by peacekeepers if it is deemed necessary in particularly unstable areas of the country.
If the West continues to employ diplomacy as the sole means to resolve the growing instability in Libya, the country’s democratic transition will remain significantly imperilled, with the potential for its complete collapse. There is no doubt that a political solution to the instability in the country is integral to its future, but in this situation political and diplomatic efforts must be supported by efforts to address the lack of state authority. The West and the wider international community must pursue a holistic effort to establish democracy, the rule of law, and state authority in Libya. It is simply not enough to watch from the sidelines – the West must be active and engaged in helping Libya in every way it can. The alternative would be disastrous for Libya.
As an aside, for those who wish to follow events in Libya more closely, I recommend Foreign Policy’s Mohamed Eljarh as a great source for news and analysis on recent events in the country.