Libya haunted by chronic security problems

Nadeen Shaker , Friday 20 Dec 2013

The presence militias and government-affiliated security forces has left the country unstable

File photo: A Libyan youth carrying a gun jumps down from the top of a destroyed tank of the pro Gadhafi forces at the site of a NATO air strike at the outskirts of Benghazi, Libya Tuesday, March 29, 2011. (Photo: AP)

The Libyan army has started roaming the streets of Tripoli in place of armed militias for the first time since 2011. Many Libyans in the capital are thrilled by the move after being fed up with the arms-wielding fighters taking charge of their city’s security.

At least 40 have been killed as a result of clashes between the armed forces, militias, and local residents, who took to the streets in mid-November to demand an end to the rule of revolutionaries-turned-militias. The fighting broke out when truck-loads of fighters swept into the city from Misrata, interrupting a mass demonstration. The army then stepped in on the residents’ side.

The same scenario was repeated on 25 November in the second largest eastern city of Benghazi, this time with armed citizens and the army pitted against members of Ansar al-Shariah, a hard-line Islamist group suspected to have been behind the 11 September, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya.

The push to remove militias from Libyan cities is part of the government’s plans to curb the armed groups that fought in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, and have since refused to lay down their arms. Despite its many efforts, the government continues to face chronic troubles with militias and a ramshackle security system failing to ripen.

Several armies, one country

According to an article in Foreign Policy (FP), thousands of troops deployed to secure Tripoli in the aftermath of clashes belonged to the Libya Shield, a security force made up of both militia brigades and governmental troops.

The defense ministry set up the force as a means to integrate the rebel fighters into a singular police force as gendarmeries and effectively bring them under government control.    

The shield is among several bodies designed to incorporate and organize armed groups. The BBC has counted eight state-affiliated military forces in the country while Foreign Policy cites four “armies.” They are the result of government-led initiatives to combat armed brigades and bring them under the affiliation of government ministries.

Analysts, however, have argued that the presence of a multitude of security bodies weakens the security sector, often leading to fragmentation with loose and muddled chains of command. 

“The real question is whether rebels are being integrated as individuals or as groups. We think that the leaders join the governmental bodies with their brigades, and so members work in favor of their leader rather than the government,” Libyan freelance journalist Ayman Alkekly told Ahram Online.

Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also cites “unclear lines of command” and as “tenuous loyalty to the government” as characteristics of the current security entities.  

“In theory, these units, particularly… the Libya Shield, are supposed to augment the regular army and police. In reality, however, they act with a high degree of autonomy,” Wehrey writes, with some pursuing overtly ideological and political agendas.

While the US is set to train 5,000 to 8,000 Libyan soldiers, the same issues of command and who answers to whom pose hurdles to the plans.

Wehrey raised concerns “about the specific roles of the general purpose [US] force, its oversight and command authorities, its relationship with other security bodies, and, perhaps most importantly, the degree of buy-in from Libya’s armed groups and political factions.”

To the negotiating table

A Yemen-like, homegrown national dialogue is what should take place next, Ibrahim Sharqieh, Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Ahram Online.

“Not all revolutionaries are opportunists that care only about their own interests. On the contrary, there are many among them who are genuinely fighting for what they call ‘protecting the revolution’ but might be using the wrong approach.”

“Also, not all state figures are so controlling that the only thing they care about is to put the revolutionaries under their arms,” Sharqieh said. A state-revolutionary dialogue would help build an environment of trust, he added.

Distrust of the post-uprising government and the ruling General National Congress (GNC) has grown of late, particularly since they were elected last year.

 “People lost trust in the government because of the gas prices, security, power cuts, water shortages. What is worrying is that some people will abstain from a vote on a constitution-drafting committee. This will only delay and protract the process even more,” said Alkekly, who also proposes national dialogue and reconciliation.

In an analysis paper entitled “Reconstructing Libya: Stability through national reconciliation,” published by the Brookings Doha Center in December, Sharqieh highlights a number of issues that Libya must reconcile with, and which must be addressed in the dialogue.

In one section, “Dealing with the Past,” he urges Libyans to forge a collective identity based on widely consented “starting points” or important dates in Libyan history. Such starting points are “closely linked to the politics of transition, and any starting point is ultimately likely to be a reflection of the country’s balance of power,” he argues.

Other issues cited include disarmament, getting rid of ‘“he culture of the victor,” the rights of displaced communities, and the drive to “settle scores” by taking revenge against Gaddafi-era loyalists.

He adds that Libyans need to come to terms with dealing with Gaddafi’s public officials, a point which attracted limelight and was divisive in Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction. The Political Isolation Law (PIL), passed on 5 May, 2013, imposes a 10-year ban and exclusion from public life of those who held high-ranking positions in the Gaddafi era. Sharqieh warns that enforcing such a law is dangerous.

“The risks of enforcing PIL lie not only in damaging Libya’s social fabric, but also in wiping clean the Libyan state’s institutional memory by excluding those with experience running the state’s institutions,” he writes.

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