November 26, 2013
Its Prime Minister briefly kidnapped, its oil trapped in the pipelines by protesters, its capital city in chaos, and its high-end hotels increasingly devoid of businessmen, Libya is now reaping the "benefits" of 42 years of ideological one-man rule, eight months of polarizing armed struggle, and two years of seemingly endless and aimless "transition." In an attempt to reverse the descent towards anarchy that has characterized his tenure, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan issued a stern ultimatum on November 11 stating that he would finally take action against protesters at oil installations if they did not surrender to the central government within a week. To frighten his opponents, he added that Western powers might feel a need to intervene if Libya fails to address its power vacuum by itself.

Unfortunately, Zeidan's bombastic ultimatum was not credible and was soon overtaken by events. On Friday November 15, Tripoli witnessed its bloodiest day since its liberation from Muammar Qaddafi  in August 2011. Forty-three civilians were killed and more than 400 injured as residents confronted one of Tripoli’s most notorious militias—the Misratans who occupy the Gharghour neighbourhood.  Then on Monday November 25, clashes erupted in Benghazi between army units and extremist militants from Ansar al-Sharia, leaving nine dead and dozens injured. Following events in Tripoli, people in Benghazi took to the streets to show support for the army and its leadership in the city, while outrage against the government and the General Nation Congress (GNC) mounts.  Finally, the inhabitants of Tripoli and Benghazi are attempting to reclaim ownership of their cities from the militias, and it even appears they are succeeding to do so, after the government’s long string of abject failures. The massacre of unarmed civilians has led to broad popular outrage in Libya, but could this crisis serve as a catalyst and consensus maker for bold nation-wide action in Libya?

Two possible scenarios are now likely: either the capital gradually descends into low-level anarchy with non-essential diplomatic personnel forced to flee; or the government and people rally together as one body to finally evict the militias. Given the general trend line in Libya, one might assume that the former is a foregone conclusion. Superficially, Tripoli appears to be following in the footsteps of Benghazi—where since the murder of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012, attempts to oust the militias and Islamist extremists have increasingly devolved into urban warfare between rival militias. Government officials are frequently assassinated and civilians killed.

Time to Seize the Moment

Yet for Tripoli, there are some encouraging signs: November 15th's violence against civilians has united previously opposed social segments like the Grand Mufti's office, the militias of Zawiyya and Warshafanna, and various members from all political spectrums within the GNC, all calling for the Misratan militias to leave town. Simultaneously, popular elements in Tajoura have blocked reinforcements from reaching the Misratans. Unprompted by the government, various Berber militias from Jabal Nafusa have left the capital and instructed their sister brigades to abandon their blockade on the gas pipeline to Italy. Even more encouragingly, some politicians and elder statesmen in Misrata have called home their rambunctious youngsters, whom they acknowledge have made a mess of things. It would appear, then, that faced with extraordinary circumstances such as these, the government and the Libyan people are capable of coming together. Nonetheless, old animosities die hard. The Zintanis, the main rivals to the Misratans in Western Libya, have not agreed to release their strangle grip on certain vital downtown areas and hence stand to benefit from the popular anti-Misratan outcries.

Seen in its totality, this current crisis allows the government an unprecedented opportunity to change course and to abandon its previously failed policies. To date, Ali Zeidan has attempted to portray himself as a Libyan Gandhi—unwilling to use force against his own people. When he has chosen to employ a strong hand, he has had a preference for utilizing local councils or their paramilitary arms to do the government’s job in confronting thorny issues like security, strikes, or civil unrest. When loyal paramilitaries turned against the government, he has too frequently chosen to appease them rather than confront them. The events in Tripoli have forced Zeidan to act in line with the public’s demands instead of giving in to the pressure of the armed militias. However, after Zeidan’s previous failures to act upon the people’s demands in Benghazi, it is hard to see him leading and acting upon the positive momentum that is developing in Libya these days. His actions in finally calling in the national army to deal with the situation in Gharghour may show a slight change of heart or a step in the right direction. What they certainly reveal is that Zeidan's approach has failed and both new blood and a totally new approach are needed. To cut the Gordian knot in Libya, the periphery (where power lies) must be linked to the center (where legitimacy and institutions should lie). The key to the present crisis—and to cutting the knot—is an accurate understanding of Libya's past.

The Periphery has Historically Dominated the Center

Libya's colonial and post-colonial trajectory prevented the creation of strong, centralized institutions, while facilitating the creation of far stronger non-governmental actors. Historically, the reason Libya has never developed functional state institutions is that the country's myriad peripheries have never been effectively linked together or enabled to act on behalf of the center of power. No ideology or emotional attachment has ever transcended the feelings of mistrust and estrangement that pervade many of Libya's region's perspective on "central government." Cognizant of Libya's history, many outside observers opine that Libya is headed towards a Yemen-on-the-Mediterranean scenario. Yet this fear misunderstands that in spite of the amount of heavy weaponry floating around Libya, the country remains "relatively" safe.  In fact, amidst the chaos on the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi, the country nurtures many oases of calm and economic development.

Successful Case Studies

For example, the city of Tobruk in the extreme east is highly peaceful and does not currently have any units of revolutionary militiamen (thuwwar) providing security. The city's security forces are currently more or less the same ones that existed during the Gaddafi era with some thuwwar joining their ranks as lone individuals. This arrangement is the result of Tobruk’s geographical isolation and its domination by traditional tribal structures. These same factors meant that during Qaddafi’s reign, the regime had to rely on locals to police and govern their own city. When the revolution erupted, the security forces and army simply refused to fire on protesters because they were their cousins and tribesmen.

As such, when the uprisings began, Qaddafi’s authority melted away in Tobruk without a shot being fired. The continuation of the pre-revolutionary security forces after regime change was an arrangement reached by community leaders and supported by the city’s inhabitants. Yet, despite two years of relative peace in Tobruk, protesters have closed the al-Hariga export terminal and blockaded the offices of the state oil company based there. They are enraged by the government's failure to create jobs in their region as well as its dysfunctional attempts to centralize authority away from functional local governance structures. These protests are not only pushing the Libyan government towards bankruptcy, they are beginning to send the global price of crude higher.

Another extreme example of Libya's diversity is Misrata—the wealthiest, most powerful, and safest major city in Libya today. Its security infrastructure depends entirely on its myriad revolutionary brigades, which are a by-product of the uprisings. Misrata suffered terrible rape and pillage during its siege by Qaddafi’s forces in Spring 2011. It is understandable, therefore, for Misratans to refuse to accept any security institution staffed by those who might have served the former regime. This is a reality that the central authorities have to recognize and deal with accordingly, otherwise Misratans will continue to use it as a justification for their militia's assaults on the central government’s institutions.

Misrata seems to enjoy more autonomy than any other city in Libya because it has the financial and human resources to run its own affairs. Attempts to centralize authority away from the local commanders in Misrata have proved ineffective and have led to abuses of power such as those in Gharghour. Moreover, when their interests are threatened, the Misratans roll their tanks into Tripoli and hold the central government hostage until their demands are met.

From one perspective, Tobruk's oil protesters and Misrata's militias are the cause of the central government's failures. Yet from another, it is poor central government policy which has turned Misrata and Tobruk into enemies rather than attempting to harness their local success stories.

Learning from Failure

Cities with weaker or failing security arrangements have suffered far worse from ill-calculated central government policies because their local institutions lack the ability to take matters into their own hands. The type of obstacles facing local authorities weaker than those of Tobruk and Misrata was made strikingly clear by various government attempts at micromanaging the municipalities. For example, the Ministry of Interior recently demanded that Benghazi’s local council halt a project to install 120 CCTV cameras at 40 separate locations. The excuse was that the project should fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior and not that of the local council. The Ministry's heavy-handed micromanagement shows that they have learned the wrong lessons from Tobruk and Misrata.

To learn from their mistakes and capitalize on this unique public consensus for bold action, the Libyan authorities and the international community need to start engaging in efforts at "localizing" power. This means crafting solutions which both empower local actors constructively and grant them a feeling of ownership. 

The strategy of localizing power alone will not be enough to create the functional national institutions that Libya needs to get the oil flowing and effectively manage revenues. To build these institutions, outside expertise is desperately needed. America and the EU should direct more money and expertise to local training schemes while also broadening their engagement in Libya to encompass more than just central government actors. The localities have mostly opposed Western training schemes because they have hitherto only trained central government actors. Just as the Libyan government must "localize" itself, so too must Western aid and training schemes "localize" themselves.

What the United States Can Do

As we pointed out in the New York Times on October 18, the cancellation of some military aid to Egypt should allow President Barack Obama to redirect part of the withheld funds towards projects in Libya without the need for congressional approval.  Additionally, now is the time for Obama to return to multilateralism. Only Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron can spearhead a coalition for reengagement in Libya that recreates the one that enforced the no-fly zone. It must include various regional partners like Jordan, the UAE, and Turkey who possess the Islamic credentials for on-the-ground military training or policing schemes.

What the Libyans Must Do

Institution-building is the only real path to success in Libya. Despite the various localities building functioning security apparatuses, they are not engaged in the heavy lifting of creating national institutions. Only truly national institutions answerable to the elected government can jump-start the economy and administer the mega-infrastructural projects that Libya so desperately needs. Since centrally-controlled institutions threaten their own local arrangements, the stronger localities prevent such attempts at centralization.  For any nationwide institution-building process to succeed it must be driven by a web of relationships between the state and local communities. The institution formation process must be both bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. Paradoxically, to build centralized institutions the central Libyan government must first localize itself. Localization is the only way to address many of the central government’s failures by drawing upon the functioning sub-national institutions in Libya that are better positioned to respond to the expectations and aspirations of the Libyan people.   The international community must be aware of the trend towards "localization" currently afoot in Libya and advise the Libyan government as to how other post-conflict states have successfully incorporated disparate communities and peripheries into their institution building processes.

The inability of the central government, so far, to respond to the needs of local communities throughout Libya has allowed undemocratic forces (mostly militias, thugs, criminal gangs, and extremists) to exploit the situation by championing  the legitimate needs and demands of local communities. This has conferred a modicum of legitimacy on these peripheral "spoilers."

Time to Delegate Authority and for Zeidan to Go

Effective localization and delegation of authority in post-Qaddafi Libya while maintaining oversight would not only respond to the public’s needs but would also support an inclusive national reconciliation that Libya needs. No matter how broken the political situation appears to be, there is still a window of opportunity to reshape current realities and to rectify underlying power imbalances: Libya is still in its constitutional drafting process and the relationships between center and periphery are not yet fixed.  Despite his pledge to not resign, Prime Minster Ali Zeidan should step down and allow for the formation of a national unity government which will fulfill a caretaker function—recalibrating the relationship between center and periphery while overseeing the elections for the constitutional committee. Those close to Zeidan know that he has proven himself not only ineffective but also an obsessive micromanager and control freak; his track record and his personality make it impossible that he can implement the localization agenda.

Events have shown localization is becoming a reality by default. The citizens of Tripoli, not the government, are re-conquering the capital from the militias. The central government can embrace this or become increasingly irrelevant to the realities on the ground. For Libya to avoid the Yemen-on-the-Mediterranean scenario, Tripoli must be safe and foreign diplomats, businessmen, and experts must be able to move around with ease. Now is the time for the government to work with the citizenry to craft new security arrangements with functional top-down and bottom-up linkages, while having clear chains of command and control.

The government has recently announced the appointment of a military governor to Benghazi to address the security situation in the city. He is vested with extensive powers to make important decisions without the need for central government approval. Benghazi’s residents have welcomed this step, but skepticism persists about the candidate's suitability for the post and the central government’s true willingness to pursue the localization of power. If the government miraculously follows through and utilizes the new mood in the country to unite with the people and local institutions and scores an unlikely success in Benghazi, it could serve as a blueprint for new security arrangements elsewhere that could gradually bring stability to the country.

The current crisis in Tripoli presents a rare opportunity. Quickly localizing power should help the government centralize its authority. And delegating power should strengthen, rather than weaken, the government’s hand.

Jason Pack, a researcher at Cambridge University, is the editor of “The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.” 

Mohamed Eljarh, a native of Tobruk, writes on Libya for Foreign Policy’s “Transitions” blog. 

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