The violence in Libya has crushed hopes for a happy transition to democracy after the downfall and death of former leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in September 2011. Clashes between former anti-Gaddafi rebels, detention of staff from the International Criminal Court, an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, and all of this before the country’s political forces have even begun to discuss key issues, such as the constitution or regulation of the oil industry.
2011 Civil War: The Rise of the Militias
The ongoing violence in Libya has its roots in the bloody civil war that ended four decades of Qaddafi’s rule. In the early days of the anti-government uprising in Spring 2011, regular armed forces largely melted away as protesters took control of most major Libyan towns, particularly in the east of the country.
Barracks and armed depots were looted, and Libya was suddenly awash with weapons. Qaddafi’s opponents formed city militias, armed groups that recruited both local residents and army deserters, and carried on the fight against the elite regime units commanded by Qaddafi’s kin.
Backed by NATO airpower and Qatar’s money and weapons, the militias defeated government forces. Commanders of large militias, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, proclaimed the liberation of Libya but then refused to disarm their men, claiming they needed to keep their weapons to “protect the revolution”.
And so Libya became carved out between dozens of militias, which became the de-facto rulers of the territories under their control. Tens of thousands of heavily armed young men from various parts of Libya descended upon the capital Tripoli, where rival militias began vying for power and sources of revenue.
Weak Interim Government: Militias Dig In
The uprising was nominally led by the National Transition Council (NTC), an opposition coalition recognized by most world governments as the legitimate governing body after Qaddafi’s downfall. But the NTC never actually controlled the unruly militias that saw themselves as the real winners, entitled to some reward for their sacrifices in the war.
And so the post-civil war chaos became a standing reality. Libya’s central government remains weak, the remnants of Qaddafi-era national army vastly outgunned by armed groups commanded by former rebel leaders. Militias assumed the role of the police, manning checkpoints, running prisons, and enforcing law and order. Stories of arbitrary arrests and abuse soon resurfaced, and you can read about it in Amnesty International’s reports.
Militia Violence: Vying For Power, Settling Old Scores
With the central authorities too weak to take over security role and mediate between disputes, tensions soon broke out between groups on several levels:
- Control over Tripoli: In the capital, clashes erupted between rival groups over control of key strategic points. The airport was a particularly lucrative target, and militiamen from the town of Zintan only agreed to hand it over to the government in April 2012.
- Regions vs Tripoli: Division of Libya into de-facto self-ruled territories has greatly reinforced regional identities. Militiamen in Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, mistrust Tripoli and are prepared to use guns to defend their autonomy. Eastern towns with major oil refineries want to get a fair slice of oil profits, and some politicians back the idea of autonomous status for eastern Libya. With so many weapons around, it’s an explosive mix.
- Local rivalries: Some militias have used their new-found power to persecute Libyans accused of collaborating with Qaddafi, as exemplified in the tragic story of people displaced from the town of Tawarga (see Human Rights Watch report. In the south, violence between rival tribes goes back decades and has its roots in Qaddafi’s strategy of playing one tribe against the other. In the west, there is tension between ethnic Arabs and Berbers.
Protracted Disarmament Process
The progress in mobilizing former rebels into the army and police has so far been limited. Often, the authorities just don’t have much to offer, as there aren’t many jobs in Libya’s oil economy (see report in Foreign Affairs).
Just think of it: will a young man, hardened through battles against Qaddafi’s troops, happily give up the prestige and power of a militiaman for the life of a low-paid clerk at the Interior Ministry?
Some militias now perform security jobs for the government, such as guarding the 2012 elections. But this appears only to have deepened the problem, as the state now depends for security on militiamen, who, on the other hand, retain their weapons and remain loyal to their own commanders, rather than the government.
Libya faces a long road toward full stabilization and the presence of autonomous, heavily armed groups will pose the biggest threat to the political process.