The Middle East Channel

Militia politics in Libya’s national elections

Tripoli’s visual landscape has transformed dramatically over the past two weeks. Candidate portraits, campaign billboards, party platforms, and voting instructions have been pasted, plastered, and positioned everywhere. Until recently, a different kind of sign had dominated Tripoli: the shahid (martyr) memorial. From billboards to handmade posters, these were erected by communities and families in remembrance ...


Tripoli’s visual landscape has transformed dramatically over the past two weeks. Candidate portraits, campaign billboards, party platforms, and voting instructions have been pasted, plastered, and positioned everywhere. Until recently, a different kind of sign had dominated Tripoli: the shahid (martyr) memorial. From billboards to handmade posters, these were erected by communities and families in remembrance of those killed by the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. There have also been countless have-you-seen-me? type posters for the thousands of Libyans still missing from the 2011 war. But, the graphic cacophony of election propaganda has since drowned out the missing and martyr posters. Though, this visual transformation is not indicative of a total transition from armed revolutionary politics to civil electoral politics.

Here’s the good news from Libya on the eve of Saturday’s elections: there is little motivation to steal them. The bad news is the reason why. Libya’s next government will still be seen by many as just another, if more robust, interim government. Yes, the national assembly will appoint a new cabinet and, more importantly, a commission to draft Libya’s post-Qaddafi constitution. These processes, however, will take place under duress. I recently asked an Amazigh (Berber) writer if he thought his mother tongue, Tamazight, would become an official national language in the new constitution. "Of course it will," he insisted. "Now that we have guns, they have to listen to us."

As academics and legal experts debate the finer points of various forms of government for Libya (presidential vs. parliamentary, unitary vs. federal), power will continue to accrue in the hands of regional and local actors. It will particularly be concentrated among those who maintain a unified body of militias — what often amounts to standing armies in some areas. While all Libyans swear that national unity is a shared long-term interest, the short-term goal for key regional constituencies is to consolidate and expand their influence during the constitutional writing process. Until Tripoli’s first constitutional government emerges over a year from now, the power of the central authorities will take a back seat to the real masters of Libya today.

Politics is both local and national in Libya. On the campaign trail in Sirte, I observed a public forum where a previously exiled Libyan dissident made his case to be the district’s representative in the new national assembly. Fitting with his background as an organizer, the candidate made few concrete promises and instead lectured the audience on the need to join parties and form associations to advance their interests, especially if they wanted their city rebuilt. His insistence that Libya needs to break with the welfare politics of old did not sit well with the audience, who complained that Sirte is being deliberately isolated and punished — that is, not rebuilt — because it was favored by the Qaddafi regime.

The level of destruction in Sirte is quite shocking, especially in the neighborhoods known as Area, or Zone, 2. Fresh loyalist graffiti in Area 2, vowing never to forget the martyrs, intimates that the war is still not over for some. But contrary to most foreign media accounts, it is not as if the entire city has been leveled. Countless buildings and homes were indeed destroyed during the last days of the fighting in 2011, some by loyalists, some by rebels, and some by the rebels’ air force known as NATO. On the whole, however, Sirte is not Grozy. In most parts of the city, the damage is superficial, not structural. Compared to Tawergha, which was literally burning for months following its ethnic cleansing by vengeful revolutionary forces, Sirte is in a far better position.

Asking whether or not Sirte needs to be rebuilt misses the point. The subtext to the question is the important part. What role will Qaddafi’s showcase cities — cities like Sirte — play in the new Libya? Sirte, after all, was Qaddafi’s hometown and grew disproportionately because of it. Sirte benefited immensely from Qaddafi’s largess despite that its role in the national economy was minimal. Libya often seems like a missing chapter from James C. Scott’s study of modern authoritarian planning, Seeing like a State. Late in Qaddafi’s 42-year delusion of grandeur, he transformed Sirte to become the new capital of Africa after the founding of the African Union. There is now enough brand new world-class infrastructure in Sirte to make Brussels jealous. The problem is that though Qaddafi built it,  Africa did not come. In the 2011 war, Sirte’s most stunning architecture suffered from deliberate shelling, machine gun fire, and spray paint precisely because it was seen as a reflection of Qaddafi’s intense vanity. Façades, though, are easily mended. The reconstruction debate is actually a coded language for a far more important political debate regarding the forces restructuring power relations in Libya today.

Power in Libya is now heavily determined by three factors: the size and reach of each area’s militias; each militias’ role in the revolution; and each area’s economic independence. On all three counts, the people of Sirte are keenly aware that they have drawn the shortest straw, regardless of whether they individually supported Qaddafi’s last stand in September and October 2011. They have no militia, they supported the regime, and the local economy is in disarray because of active and passive forms of isolation. The people of Sirte are right to be worried.

This new reality also helps explain the vociferous calls for autonomy from Cyrenaica. On the one hand, Benghazi can certainly lay claim to being the original site of the uprising, providing some of the first and most crucial fighters to the war, and also being the first home of the National Transitional Council (NTC). But eastern Libya’s influence in the new national political realm has been curbed since the NTC decamped to Tripoli, depriving Cyrenaica of crucial national leverage. Moreover, eastern interests do not appear to be backed by an identifiable armed force unlike prominent groups in the Sahara, costal Tripolitania, and Nafusa Mountains. On the other hand, eastern Libya is home to the country’s most developed hydrocarbon infrastructure, giving it an economic edge over other regions. Seeking autonomy would press this economic advantage vis-à-vis the new configurations of power in the west. The protesters in Benghazi want de jure what Misrata has achieved de facto — economic and political autonomy.

Some Libyans now say that Misrata saved the country and Zintan saved its oil. Such hyperbole is telling. The legitimacy and cohesion of the Misrata militia brigades stems from two significant considerations. First is the intense suffering the city experienced during loyalist forces’ brutal siege of Misrata during the middle months of the war. Both figuratively and literally, Libyans across the country now speak of the rape of Misrata. Such conversations often take place in the context of Libyans explaining why there could be no compromise with Qaddafi (i.e., why he and his diehards had to be hunted down relentlessly). It also serves to excuse the excesses the Misratans visited upon loyalist strongholds like Sirte, Tawergha, and Bani Walid.

The second aspect of the Misratans’ legitimacy is their role in the final days of the war, when they exacted harsh vengeance on Qaddafi, his last defenders, and any poor soul who appeared to be standing in the Misratans’ way. While Misratans were not alone in delivering the rebels’ coup de grâce against the old regime, popular narratives of their heroism and ferocity have helped solidified their identity as a national force to be reckoned with. Fueling the Misratans’ power is their Mediterranean port, which is again one of the busiest in the country, as well as Misrata’s strong industrial sector. With the central government in disarray (key players in the NTC hardly ever meet, less call each other), Misrata is basically free to make its own economic destiny.

Zintan, on the other hand, has played a slightly different role in the evolution of the war and the post-conflict situation. While the Zintanis military exploits are similarly harrowing, the Zintan militias were also quick to seize — "protect" — key strategic assets like oil production infrastructure, pipelines, and, most infamous of all, Tripoli’s international airport as the regime crumbled in late August 2011. And then there is Libya’s former heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, who remains under Zintani custody and, not that of the ostensibly sovereign national government. What price the central authorities have paid to Zintan to relinquish the airport and, more recently, International Criminal Court (ICC) staffers accused of illegal collaboration with the remnants of the former regime, are not known. Making matters all the more curious is that the official government security force now in control of the airport is simply a Misratan militia with government uniforms.

Equally unknown is the extent to which the (post?) revolutionary environment in Libya is being used to disrupt and reconfigure long established patterns of illicit trade flows across roughly 4,000 miles of land and sea borders. The northeastern border with Egypt saw little fighting and, consequently, the black market remains relatively untouched. Some attribute this to a turncoat effect. A popular image circulating Libyan Facebook groups is an image of a chameleon with its rear half matching Qaddafi’s green flag and its front half matching the "new" tricolor flag of Libya.

In southeastern and northwestern black markets, however, change is apparently afoot. Efforts by the Zintanis to dominate the lucrative flow of goods across the Tunisian border in the Nafusa region are said to be driving superficially "tribal" clashes there. Likewise Tebu populations in Kufra, in Libya’s far southeastern corner (near The English Patient‘s "Cave of Swimmers"), are similarly making a bid for regional hegemony in their corner of the Sahara. Sabha, a key transit chokepoint in the center of Libya, is also being contested. In all cases, an effect of these conflicts is the exacerbation of pre-existing social and economic fault lines that Qaddafi carefully cultivated and manipulated for over four decades.

But these are not petty squabbles over colonial land titles and imagined bloodlines. They are very real, and very deadly, conflicts over crucial sources of revenue to those that can access and control them. For example, gasoline is cheaper than water in Libya. Even a small truck with several dozen jerrycans of gas can make a good profit in Sudan — a tanker truck can make a killing. On top of this, there is the northward circulation of Asian and sub-Saharan migrants, drugs, and other illicit and not-so-illicit goods. At a dusty roadside cafe near Waddan, I encountered roughly two dozen African migrants taking a break on their way north. Libya’s political instability and ongoing security problems are clearly no longer the deterrent to clandestine labor flows that they were a year ago.

As elsewhere in the world, trans-Saharan and trans-Mediterranean black market trade is easily a billion dollar enterprise across any given frontier. Unless the Libyan government and its regional backers can de-incentivize such activities (assuming they even want to), it is likely to serve as a wellspring for local political ambition and regional strife during Libya’s tense transition.

On the way into the Tripoli’s suburb of Janzur this week, where the United Nations has cloistered itself in a posh resort complex, I passed through a routine militia checkpoint staffed by Kalashnikov-toting youths. They were nonetheless professional in their mismatched camouflage uniforms, lazily waving us through as the afternoon sun beat down on their sweaty foreheads. On costal highways, I have found the much-feared Misratan checkpoints to be the same, if a bit more formal and a bit less aloof. In central Tripoli, such checkpoints have mostly disappeared. Everyday more and more brand new police cruisers, with their distinctive red and white paint jobs, fill the streets. At night, there is sporadic gunfire, but it is typically celebratory. For $100 dollars, a family can rent a Russian anti-aircraft cannon to make a lot of noise at a wedding. In the Eurocup soccer final, each goal by Spain against Italy — Libya’s former colonial ruler — prompted sporadic small arms fire.

Elsewhere around the country the gunfire is not so innocent. For this reason, almost every foreign government, intergovernmental agency, and non-governmental organization (NGO) is working on reforming Libya’s security sector. The shifting and sometimes conflicting dynamics of militia politics in Libya today are made all the more complex by the routine foreign prescription of DDR: demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of former fighters. The DDR paradigm grew out of international experience in the 1990s with much longer and far more devastating civil wars in countries typically endowed with far less material assets than Libya.

Moreover, the numerical figures surrounding security sector reform have a stunning uncertainty range. Though close observers of the war believe that the population of active revolutionary fighters never surpassed 25,000, reportedly a quarter of a million Libyans have since registered with the government as revolutionary fighters, particularly after compensation packages were announced. Wild figures are likewise thrown about for the number of these fighters that will join the police or the military, and when they will do it. Far more certain is the central government’s desperate need to prove that it is in charge by squelching clashes in the Sahara and the Nafusa. Hence Misratan or Zintani militias are deputized to act on behalf of the central government to keep the peace.

What appears to be going on in Libya today in terms of security sector reform is actually re-mobilization (professionalization of the militias), re-armament (better weapons), and de-integration (taking the militias out of their home environments). While the first two are expected steps in the normalization of a truly national security, intelligence, and military apparatus (rather than one that serves the whims of a personality cult), the last development is the one to keep an eye on. As the Libyan war unfolded, it is generally understood that revolutionary militias behaved ethically in the home neighborhoods they sought to protect. War crimes and crimes against humanity attributed to militias, like those documented by the U.N. Independent Commission of Inquiry, tended to take place in areas far away from militias’ home communities where revenge is thought to be a key motivator.

The tension Libya faces is over whether or not local militias can be trusted with a truly national role, to serve the national interest rather than home interests. The emerging political-economy of power in Libya today suggests it will be the latter. The effect this will have on the formation of a new government and the writing of the new constitution will be the next stage in the Libyan revolution after Saturday’s elections. That is, how regional interests will leverage economic clout, prize bargaining chips, and local monopolies of violence to advance their interests in coordination with or at the expense of national interests. It is strange that last year’s unifying eruption of nationalism has given birth to divisive, violent localist politics, but such is the legacy of the late Brother-Leader.

Jacob Mundy is an assistant professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University where he is also serves in the Middle East and Islamic Studies program. His current research in Libya is supported by a grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.