Four months after the National Transitional Council (NTC) declared victory over Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has indeed experienced a profound revolution: From one of the world’s most centralized regimes, it has become a chaotic patchwork of militia-controlled fiefdoms.
By some estimates, up to 200,000 men – veterans of the country’s eight-month-long civil war last year – are organized into as many as 300 militias, each reporting to a commander who controls his own territory, maintains a private system of justice and does battle with rival groups and with the NTC, Libya’s ostensible government. One group controls Tripoli’s main airport and others the country’s borders.
When it isn’t being ignored, the NTC is held in disrepute by the militias. In an attempt to buy the allegiance of Libyans, Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Keib over the weekend offered to pay unemployed former rebels retroactively for the past year and reiterated government calls for these fighters to join the national police and security forces.
But, said Geoff Porter of North Africa Risk Consulting, the militias are less likely to be bought off than to sever whatever remaining allegiance they have to the NTC. Militia groups in the capital of Tripoli, who have ignored government calls to evacuate the city, earlier this month formed alternative committees to the NTC. In western Libya, 100 of the fighter groups announced a federation to challenge the NTC.
“The biggest problem we’re seeing is some militias withdrawing their support from the NTC,” Porter told The Media Line. “They haven't articulated specific political demands but have simply set themselves up as an alternative …. The leaders of the militias and constituencies are not convinced the NTC will be a proper mechanism to secure their interests in the future,” Porter said.
Last October 23, days after Gaddafi was captured and killed by militiamen, the NTC declared the civil war over, US President Barack Obama wished Libyans a “new era of promise” and a transition process to democratic rule was proclaimed. Nearly two weeks ago, the NTC confirmed the transition plan, vowing elections in June.
But Libya experts have been dubious from the start about a seamless transition to democracy and unity, pointing to Libya’s division into tribal, ethnic and regional factions that were largely papered over during more than 40 years of Gaddafi rule. Libya lacks even the rudiments of normal governmental institutions.
The NTC did succeed last December in clearing Libya’s cities of pick-up-truck-mounted rocket launchers that had been the workhorse of the opposition forces during the civil war. But the NTC has failed to even announce a program to disarm the militias. Neither the Defense Ministry nor the Interior Ministry has incorporated the fighters into the police force or army.
Instead, the fighter groups are running Libya as a kind of vigilante state, according to a report last week by Amnesty International. It said they have taken captive thousands of suspected Gaddafi loyalists, torturing and sometimes killing them in makeshift prison camps. They have looted and burned homes and carried out revenge attacks, forcibly displacing tens of thousands of people, it said.
One militia, the powerful Zintani brigades, is keeping Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar’s most famous son, in a remote mountain stronghold in defiance of the NTC.
“Militias in Libya are largely out of control and the blanket impunity they enjoy only encourages further abuses and perpetuates instability and insecurity,” said Donatella Rovera, the London-based organization’s senior crisis response adviser.
Reining in the militias, much less disbanding them, will be difficult. The NTC is weak and divided and lacks cash to finance its operations, much less deploy its own forces. There are so many militias and they tend to merge and divide so frequently that no one can estimate with any authority their actual number.
They tend to be based on tribal, ethnic or regional loyalties rather than ideology, which will complicate any attempt to integrate them into a single force. Their rivalries are sharpened by jealousies borne of conflicting narratives about the revolution and the extent of their contributions and sacrifices.
In a December report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recommended that the NTC not even make the effort at disbanding the militias for now and instead focus its efforts on getting them to cooperate and accept some common ground rules.
“A top-down disarmament and demobilization effort by an executive lacking legitimacy would backfire,” ICG concluded. “For now, the NTC should work with local authorities and militias – and encourage them to work with each other – to agree on operational standards and pave the way for restructured police, military and civilian institutions.”
Amanda Kadlec, who wrote a report on Libyan militias for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after a field trip to the country in December, offered some hope. She suggested that the militias would avoid reigniting civil war since no one group is strong enough to prevail. She cited ad hoc successes in disarming groups.
She and other Libya-watchers say moving forward with elections might start the process of ending militia rule.
“Disarmament in Libya will take a long time, like it did in Kosovo or any other post-conflict state,” she said in an e-mail to The Media Line. “By that same token, if they also feel they have actively created their state through an elections process, their hands are more tied (so to speak) than in this interim phase because the government they form will be a direct reflection of their own choices.”
But that will take time. Even if the elections process keeps to its schedule, it will take about 20 months – time Libya doesn’t have as the economy struggles to recover from the civil war. But many fear that the transition may easily take longer while the threshold for getting the militias to accept the results is likely to be high given the distrust among the fighter groups and between them and NTC.
“I’m skeptical we’re going to have elections before October or November this year,” said Porter. “The logistical hurdles are so enormous. They have to create electoral districts. There are structures democracies have that never existed in Libya.”