Thinking Aloud: “Assessing Libya’s Transition”

Mar. 27, 2014 by Darius 

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion “Assessing Libya’s Transition.”  Some of the panelists’ interesting observations are summarized below.

The theme of the discussion could be characterized by a quote used in testimony before the US Senate last fall by George Washington University professor William Lawrence, who was not on this panel: “Libya is not one big mess but a bunch of little messes that aren’t very related.”

One of Libya’s main problems at the moment is a chicken-and-egg difficulty relating to political function and militias.  The militias do not want to disband unless and until they believe the political system will function legitimately to provide services and security to the populace.  The political system feels hostage, figuratively but sometimes literally, to the militias.

Libya’s militias are primarily regional, a phenomenon that began as sort of a neighborhood watch on steroids.  Because they are regional, they tend to have strong tribal and/or ethnic and/or religious affiliations, depending on the region and the militia.  There are an estimated 300 different militias currently operating in Libya.  When the Libyan government decided to pay the militias to provide local constabulary services that the central government could not otherwise provide at the moment, the number of militias and men serving in militias, not surprisingly, mushroomed.  Because militia members are currently paid substantially more than regular Libyan army officers, it is also not surprising that the government has not been successful in coaxing militia members into becoming national army recruits.

Despite a few headline-worthy incidents involving militias seizing government buildings or taking government officials hostage, the militias have largely stayed out of politics, being kept in check mostly by (1) concerns about how the international community would respond if a militia or group of militias attempted to seize power and (2) the civilian population’s adamant refusal to go back to the days of authoritarian rule and the international community’s embargos against Libya, according to panelist Karim Mezran with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Despite their considerable frustrations, the Libyan people still strongly support the idea of democracy.  They “own” their uprising against an authoritarian ruler in a way the people of Iraq, for example, do not.  Recent polls have shown that 80% of Libyans still believe democracy is the best path forward for Libya.  That said, Libyans in the eastern part of the country, the part bordering Egypt, show a somewhat higher affection for the idea of a “strongman in uniform,” something panelist Frederic Wehrey from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace referred to lightly as “the Sisi Effect.”

Politically, Libyans are discouraged and polarized.  Elections for one thing or another, including delegates to the National Dialogue and to the General National Congress, have been scheduled and put off.  The current General National Congress is divided between “the Islamists” and “the non-Islamists,” the latter not being secular or liberal, necessarily, just not Islamists.  The Islamists dominate, but the two groups are deeply distrustful of each other, which has hampered legislative action, the selection of delegates to a dysfunctional constitution-drafting committee, and the scheduling of new elections.  Laws are passed without most legislators even present, further reducing the perceived legitimacy of the General National Congress.

While Libya currently is, as panel moderator Charles Dunne from Freedom House put it, “a net exporter of illegal arms, migrants, and drugs,” all the panelists seemed to agree that Libya was far from a failed state.  To allow Libya to become a failed state – or “a version of Somalia on the Mediterranean,” in the words of panelist and former ambassador David Mack – would be a disaster for Libyans and for their neighbors in North Africa and Europe.

What can the US do to help?  Panelists offered several concrete suggestions ranging from reopening US consulates in Libya to improving access to student visas for Libyans wanting to attend American universities, but there were a few big picture recommendations as well:

  •          Top-down nation-building, as the US has tried in Iraq and Afghanistan, is unlikely to work in Libya.  [We’ll leave aside the notion that it has worked in either Iraq or Afghanistan.]  A legacy of the Gaddafi era is that Libyans remain distrustful of initiatives handed down by the central government.  Libyans do have an appetite for help from civil society NGOs, but approaches to governance will need to be built on what has already evolved locally.
  •          Private US companies have an important role to play in serving as a partner in Libya’s involvement in the international community.
  •          The US can work best behind the scenes and in concert with other international organizations, especially the UN.  To be successful, it is important not to leave US fingerprints all over an idea.  Much better to have recommendations and plans come from the UN.  This doesn’t comport well with some Americans’ ideas about the need to have a US- front-and-center role in Libya, but it is more pragmatic if the goal is to assist Libya [and not give speeches for the benefit of US media outlets].
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