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November 19, 2013
The horrible carnage that ravaged Tripoli over the weekend was the latest in a series of escalating violence. Assassinations, abductions, and other crimes have plagued Libya’s cities over the last two years since the country’s liberation from dictatorship. Can something positive emerge from this tragic episode, or will continued militia gang warfare merely represent another step toward the final dissolution of the fragile Libyan state? The number of casualties and wounded would suggest the latter, but a closer examination of what unfolded in Libya, beyond the bloodshed, indicates a promising opportunity to reverse the deterioration of the Libyan transition. With Libya at a critical juncture in laying the foundations for the future, its government and the international community must seize the occasion to bring Libya back from the brink. 

Heavily armed militias operate autonomously, loyal to leaders with conflicting visions of the country’s future, personal interests, and political programs. A vibrant, but still nascent (and therefore ineffective), civil society struggles to influence the powers that be. Political power remains fragmented, not only in the upper echelons of the General National Congress, but also at the local level where its distribution is uneven at best.  Tribal entities with national ambitions undermine the central authorities. A prime example includes the justification of oil blockades with claims of refusing to aid an illegitimate government and calls to federalize the country. But with the drop in revenue as a result of these blockades, authorities become limited in their resources and capacity to take corrective action to address the grievances driving the blockades. Given the further destabilizing actions of criminal organizations and jihadists, responsible for many targeted killings and attacks against public institutions, it is no wonder that many would be inclined to think that Libya is imploding.

An alternative reinterpretation of this weekend’s tragedy, however, suggests a turning point. If these events demonstrate anything, they show that no militia, or any other stakeholder for that matter, has the strength and power to overcome all the others on its own. The balance of power (or terror) reigns in Libya, and at this point in time, the inability to unilaterally dominate the political space is not a bad thing. Such a dynamic forces all the players to the negotiating table, given their constraints and limitations. As such, most actors in Libya realize that it is impossible to govern the country and to achieve stability without general agreement.

That an exasperated Libyan citizenry took charge and pushed back against the militias suggests another noteworthy development. By challenging their authority, ordinary Libyans signaled once and for all the political delegitimization of the armed groups which until now have operated with at least the tacit consent of the general public for their heroism during the revolution. Local authorities in Misrata called on their own militias to exercise restraint and to immediately withdraw from their bases in Tripoli. The people of Werfashana and Zawiya agreed to coordinate assistance to Tripoli in support of the efforts by the military in Tajoura to prevent Misratan reinforcements from entering Tripoli, marking the first time since the 2011 revolution that the two rivaling towns joined forces for a common cause. Despite their political grievances about marginalization, the minority Amazigh community also came to Tripoli’s support by stopping their blockade of the Mellitah gas complex in the country’s west and expressing their readiness to send troops in protection of Tripoli’s citizens. Religious figures also spoke out; the Grand Mufti of Libya and other religious associations sided with the people against the militias and their illegal occupation of various parts of the country.

The significance of the international community’s support cannot be understated. Major powers have provided considerable diplomatic and political support to the Libyan authorities. Italy, in particular, has offered humanitarian aid by immediately dispatching medical support and offering to treat the most seriously wounded in Italy. High-level sources indicate that, for the first time since the end of Operation Unified Protector, European capitals acknowledge that Libya may need military support to keep the transition on track. After all, with Libya still under UN Security Council Chapter VII authority, the international community maintains the responsibility to protect civilians. If disparate, targeted assassinations and firefights between competing militias did not indicate civilian and state vulnerability, the weekend’s events now make that crystal clear.

Given all of these factors, the question policymakers should be asking themselves is: what next? How can this groundswell rejection of violence be harnessed to drive much-needed, positive change?

The responsibility lies in the hands of the political forces in Libya. The people of Libya, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice, bravely rejected the illegitimate occupation of their capital and the threat to their well being. Now it is time for their representatives to follow their example and overcome their political divisions to restore a sense of direction and national pride in the country’s transition.

The first step necessitates the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Zidan’s government, not due to any particular negative involvement in the clashes, but simply because these events obligate a new step forward. New faces infused into the ranks, unburdened by the political baggage of the past few years, can help the state reestablish its legitimacy. Only a strong prime minister, appointed by consensus with an agreed-upon national program that the new government should immediately undertake, can bring the Libyan transition back on track.

This new national unity government should then work toward two main goals. The first is the robust implementation of the national dialogue initiated under Zidan’s auspices and conducted by an independent commission focused on how to most effectively and inclusively organize the conference. The government, backed by a coalition of many political forces, would find the appropriate space to galvanize national public opinion in calling for a national dialogue to explore and define important issues—including, but not limited to national interest, peaceful resolution of conflict, nation-building, and basic civic and human rights.

The second goal should include identifying high-priority national projects to tackle as soon as possible in an effort to regain by action—and not by words—the legitimacy lost by the previous governments’ inaction. In other words, the new national unity government should announce five or six special projects—in the realms of health, infrastructure, education, and political reform—to be accomplished within one year and undertaken through the appointment of special inter-ministerial task forces with the support of international advisors.

There are already encouraging signs that the carnage has sparked talks between the major political groups regarding the issue of a national unity government. The international community should exercise all of its influence on Libya’s political players to reach an agreement and act immediately. Otherwise, Libya and its partners run the risk in squandering the opportunities, as presented by the actions of Libyan citizens themselves, to turn the weekend’s tragedy into a transformative moment.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.