The Middle East Channel

Controlling Libya’s weapons

"Raise your head high, you are a free Libyan" chanted tens of thousands in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 as the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) announced the liberation of Libya. "The tyrant is dead and his rotten body is under the feet of the Libyan people," said the NTC’s Minister of the Martyrs and ...


"Raise your head high, you are a free Libyan" chanted tens of thousands in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 as the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) announced the liberation of Libya. "The tyrant is dead and his rotten body is under the feet of the Libyan people," said the NTC’s Minister of the Martyrs and the Injured to an ecstatic crowd in Benghazi. "He told us we were rats. But we caught him hiding in a sewage tunnel, exactly like a rat. Let the other tyrants remember," said Muhammad Abdullah, a fighter from Misrata.

The defeat of the dictator is not enough for successful democratic transition. Libya will now have to deal with the legacy of that tyrant: decades of underdevelopment, corruption, vendettas, repression, and a war that left tens of thousands of Libyans dead and billions of dollars worth of damage. But pessimists are wrong to assume that these challenges doom Libya to collapse into violent chaos.

"Libya will not be another Iraq. I can guarantee you that," said Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the former commander of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group and now the commander of the Military Council of Tripoli. Every Libyan politician, tribal leader, military, and paramilitary commander I have spoken with realizes the stakes of the coming transitional period. If Libya survives the volatile transitional phase, it has the chance to be a democratic Dubai. If not, it may look like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. To get through this transition, Libya urgently needs a strategy of disarmament, reconciliation, and reintegration to avoid a clash between the many armed Libyan units.  

The de-centralized nature of Libya’s "liberation army" resulted in several outcomes. On the positive side, it was a people’s army in many ways — popular, legitimate, and inclusive. It avoided many of the potential depredations which a single, hierarchical rebel army might have inflicted on local populations. On the negative side, the absence of a clear command-and-control structure means that the units "coordinated" but did not "obey." This led to a long list of rogue acts. The most shocking was the murder of General Abd al-Fatah Younis, the former chief of staff, by his own side in July. It is possible (though not yet known) that the killing of Muammar al Qaddafi and his son Mo’tassim were a result of this decentralization as well. Even if it is true that the NTC instructed their forces to capture rather than kill, those orders would not have been easy to enforce. This could also have been the case in the recently reported abuses and killing of Qaddafi loyalists, including the Human Rights Watch report revealing the discovery of 57 corpses in Qaddafi’s hometown.

However, the worst fears about violent clashes between militias have not materialized. Rival provincial militias have so far shunned fighting. One reason for this is counter-intuitive: many of the fighters have experienced warlordism firsthand in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, and elsewhere, and found the experiences horrendous. "We saw Muslims fight before…Neither Afghanistan was liberated, nor the Islamic state was established…We had enough with this. We just want to raise our kids in a safe society" said a fighter from Derna who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan multiple times.

The NTC, under Musfata Abdul Jalil, was able to maneuver through a few potential disasters, such as the Younis assassination, and is actively seeking to prevent a collapse into violence. His controversial speech on the supremacy of sharia laws was in fact an attempt to avoid a potential clash with the multiple armed Islamist brigades. While Libya’s liberals might not see it this way, it is telling that every part of his speech stressed both the role of Islam and the importance of disarmament. As Abdul Jalil put it, "thanking God should not be by firing weapons. It should be by putting them down and building Libya."

The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of the multiple armed brigades in the military and security apparatuses and other state bureaucracies will be critical in the coming few months. The experience of South Africa and the reintegration of the African National Congress (ANC) fighters can provide some useful lessons. Among those is that the DDR process should go in parallel with political inclusion. Both Dr Ashour Shuways, the head of the Libyan National Security Apparatus, and Fawzi Boukitf, the representative of the Revolutionary Platoons, made that promise. They called on Libyans to hand over their arms and join the newly formed institutions. Given that the platoons are mainly composed of civilians, Boukitf specifically promised to deliver every armored vehicle and heavy machine-gun to the national army. The disarmament process should include a wide variety of benefits and selective inducements. In order for the process to gain legitimacy it will need the support of credible religious scholars and tribal sheiks across Libya and Arab World.

The timeline for Libya’s constitutional crafting, electoral process, and transition to democracy is quite ambitious. It will depend critically on how the DDR process unfolds, on the NTC’s success in containing the ideological polarization, within and without it, as well as on the level of external support to the democratization process form Western countries and Western and Arab civil society groups. If those factors are successful, Libya should be on the right track toward democracy.

Dr. Omar Ashour, a lecturer in Arab politics and Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK), is a visiting fellow in Brookings Doha Center and the author of "The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements."

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