Terms of Engagement

Baby Steps

With the slow but steady consolidation of militias and the success of moderate democratic parties, despite all odds, it seems like Libya might be on the right path.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

I get a lot of news about Libya from the Libya Herald, a plucky English-language newspaper which started up earlier this year. One of my favorite leads, from the midst of the elections last week, read, "Though deploring the abduction of Libya’s Olympic committee president, the British foreign secretary William Hague has hailed the progress that Libya has made since the revolution as ‘inspiring.’"

That’s Libya in a nutshell: Baby steps towards democracy against a backdrop of vigilante justice. Both those who advocated the NATO bombing campaign which led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and those who opposed it, can now find grounds for vindication. It’s early days, and no one can foretell Libya’s future. But the surprisingly solid victory last week of a coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate, American-educated businessman, has been enthralling for Libyans, and deeply encouraging to the anxious Westerners who have been monitoring the process.

The common refrain among critics of the NATO campaign was, "We don’t know who they are." Islamists figured prominently in the Libyan militias; Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, led rebel forces in Tripoli. But now we do know who they are. Jibril’s National Forces Alliance roundly defeated the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, taking almost six times as many votes, for example, in Benghazi, a Brotherhood stronghold. Belhaj’s al-Watan Party was routed in Tripoli. (The outcome may change as independent candidates choose to affiliate themselves with various parties.)

There are many explanations for the Islamists’ poor performance. The National Democratic Institute, a democracy promotion group, conducted focus groups in Libya this spring in which, according to Carlo Binda, the country director, "people almost universally said that anyone using Islam as a political device can’t be trusted" — because all Libyans profess Islam. Diederick Vandewalle, a Libya scholar who has been in the country during the elections, says that "the last thing anyone wants is a powerful leader who is going to be  a reincarnation of Qaddafi." Libyans, that is, have had it with ideology. After 42 years of planned chaos, Libyans just want a normal country.

A secondary fear among critics of the air campaign was that Libya, long held together by authoritarian rule, will break up along the east-west axis that defined the rebellion against Qaddafi. A group called the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC), based in Benghazi, had been demanding autonomy for the east. But after the election, Jibril pointedly praised the federalists as "patriots," and invited them to join the coalition he is seeking to assemble. The CTC’s leaders have responded warmly, and have spoken of dissolving their organization. The group may also have noticed that its demonstrations provoked yet larger counter-demonstrations in Benghazi and Tripoli. Libyans, it seems, want to be Libyans.

But if the election constituted a rebuke to Islamists and separatists, it had no such effect on the hundreds of militias which have operated with impunity since they overthrew Qaddafi. In the midst of the balloting, two journalists from the western town of Misrata were foolhardy enough to visit Bani Walid, a southern city where Qaddafi forces made their last stand. They were kidnapped and held for trial. Several hundred members of the feared Misrata militia advanced towards Bani Walid with their heavy artillery in tow. The issue was only resolved when the Misrata forces agreed to give up some Qaddafi loyalists whom they had imprisoned — which perhaps was the kidnapper’s goal.

If, as Max Weber said, a state is defined by its monopoly of violence, Libya is very far from being a state. A recent report by Amnesty International estimates that militias hold about 7,000 prisoners in informal jails. The militias continue to fight one another, to exact revenge on real or imagined Qaddafi sympathizers, to torture innocent civilians, and to contemptuously disregard the authority of the state. "Unless urgent action is taken to establish the rule of law and respect for human rights," the report concludes, "there is a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the ‘17 February Revolution’ will be reproduced and entrenched."

Others I spoke to think this picture is overdrawn. A senior U.S. government official bridled at the Wild West analogy, and said that the security atmosphere has improved significantly over the last six months. Vandewalle pointed out that the brigade that had taken over the Tripoli airport last month had been successfully disarmed (by another militia), and said, "There’s little doubt in my mind that they’re going to get those militias under control; it’s just a matter of where and when." What is clear is that integrating the militias, who number over 100,000 fighters, into the Libyan security forces will be the single greatest challenge facing the new government. In recent months, the transitional government tried to do just that by hiring ex-militias to provide security, largely through a force called the Supreme Security Committees (SSC). But Libya scholar Frederic Wehrey recently wrote that "Many Libyans have feared the SSC as unruly thugs" whose loyalty is still pledged to their militia commander. 

That’s a huge problem, but it’s one that could be whittled down through a combination of political legitimacy and money. A new government which Libyans believed in — unlike the transitional government which often looked hapless — will put pressure on the militias to cooperate, and to re-formulate themselves as political entities, as, for example, the Sadrists have done in Iraq. It’s striking that after being thoroughly trounced Belhaj calmly accepted the outcome; the party’s spokesman acknowledged, "We’ve got to reevaluate our performance."

Money can pay for programs of disarmament, training, and employment. And Libya, fortunately, has money. Oil production has inched close to the pre-war level of 1.77 million barrels per day, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that national revenue this year will reach about $45 billion — this in a country with just 6.7 million people. Rosy projections of oil revenue in post-war Iraq were upended by sabotage and terrorism, but so far Libya’s oil infrastructure, though desperately in need of modernization, has not been damaged.

The bottom line is that it’s hardly ridiculous to feel hopeful about Libya’s prospects. The seriousness with which Libyans took their elections almost universally impressed observers. Moreover, Libyans are generally well disposed towards the United States thanks to the Obama administration’s role in the NATO bombing. A Brooking Institution report even quoted an ex-jihadi as saying, "Our view is starting to change of the West. If we hated the Americans 100 percent, today it is less than 50 percent." I’d call that progress.

Libya offers a rare exception to the bad news emanating from the Arab world in recent months. Oil revenue and a small population certainly help, but there also may be a perverse source of good fortune. Egypt is a country with strong institutions, which was supposed to improve the prospects of a democratic transition; but those institutions, including the military and the judiciary, are now obstructing the popular will and perhaps leading to a crisis. Thanks to Qaddafi’s megalomaniac rule, Libya is a country of no institutions; and so no powerful bloc can stand athwart the political process. It would be a charming irony if Qaddafi’s most pernicious legacy turned out to be Libya’s hidden advantage.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.