On October 23, Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) declared the country liberated and the transition to a post-Gaddafi state officially underway. Over the following week, we’ve seen the first of what I expect will be many stories about tensions and conflict among the groups over whom the TNC is claiming authority. Here’s the opening to one such story, from today’s Washington Post:

Libya has emerged from its civil war with more than 300 militias and no political consensus on forming a national army, raising concerns that irregular, gun-toting groups could become entrenched and pose a long-term challenge to the government, officials here said. On Monday, Libyan leaders began to establish a new interim government with the authority to create the armed forces, choosing the technocratic Abdurrahim el-Keib as prime minister. But the militiamen who won the eight-month war have made it clear that they will not submit meekly to the new civilian authorities.

In the Guardian, we hear from a reporter who tagged along with rebel militias to Abu Salim, a neighborhood in Tripoli, about the mistrust among those militias:

The plan was simple, Essam said. Gaddafi had distributed a lot of guns to the people of this neighbourhood. The rebels would go from house to house, search for weapons and detain wanted fugitives. Three units were to conduct this operation, one from Misrata, one from Essam’s Freemen of Libya unit, and the local rebel military council of Abu Salim. The Misratans, experienced and well-equipped, had a reputation as ruthless fighters who didn’t trust anyone else. Essam’s unit respected them but didn’t really like them, and both the Misratans and the Freemen mistrusted the local rebels of Abu Salim. “They became rebels after Tripoli was liberated,” said one of Essam’s men, smirking.

In some cases, the mistrust has erupted into open fighting. Here’s a snippet from today’s Telegraph:

Two people died from bullet wounds and at least seven fighters were injured during a battle that started when militia from the town of Zintan were stopped by guards from the Tripoli Brigade from entering the city’s Central Hospital to kill a patient.

These stories illustrate the massive governance problem Libya now confronts. Libya is a collapsed state. It has no functioning central authority. The NTC has proclaimed itself to be the country’s national government, and the international community has endorsed that claim, but that claim is only now starting to get tested. The conventional view is that internal authority and external endorsement are intertwined, but that’s an international legal fiction, not real politics. As places like Afghanistan and Somalia remind us, international endorsement does not magically cause domestic factions to fall in line behind the anointed party.
There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the state-building problem. To establish itself as a functioning national government, Libya’s TNC needs to build up trust in its authority. To build that trust, the TNC needs to get the country’s disparate militias to start obeying its writ and, in so doing, to demonstrate that it deserves their trust. Those militias are going to be reluctant to follow the TNC’s writ, however, as long as they are worried that the TNC or other rival factions might take advantage of them if they do. So which comes first: obedience, or trust?
I know very little about Libyan politics and society, and I certainly don’t know how this situation will evolve. As a scholar with experience studying state collapse, though, I have to say that I’m pessimistic. In some collapsed states, one faction holds a preponderance of coercive power, and that imbalance can encourage other factions to start falling in line behind it. When coercive power is distributed broadly and more evenly, however, it’s more difficult to get that kind of bandwagoning started. I would be surprised to see another organization make a competing claim to national authority; foreign powers’ endorsement of, and investment in, the TNC should succeed in discouraging that. I would not be surprised to see emerging local governments and the militias that back or control them adopt a “wait and see” attitude, occasionally clashing with the TNC or each other when they step on each others’ political or economic toes. Hopefully, Libya’s factions will manage to negotiate their way out of this dilemma soon, but that outcome would be an exceptional one.
(This post went up earlier this morning on my own blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.)
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