Chronicle of a Death Foretold

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“Libya is finished.” “It is a failed state.” “There is not much more we can do.”

These are just some of the comments I heard in the course of my visit last week to Tripoli and its surrounding environs. There is indeed widespread pessimism about the future of a viable Libyan state. It seems few people here harbor any illusions about their country’s transition to democracy.

The events of the past weekend in Benghazi, where clashes between demonstrators and militias resulted in thirty-one deaths, have drawn further attention to the deteriorating security situation in Libya, but this focus is misplaced. The tragic violence and lawlessness underscore one critical point: what is really going on in Libya today is an intensifying decline in the state’s legitimacy. This is an urgent crisis that must be addressed, and the only way to begin restoring the institutions’ legitimacy is by convening a national dialogue.

Libya’s obstacles toward fulfilling the promise of its revolution are manifold. The government does not exercise the monopoly of force in any part of the country. As the incident in Benghazi demonstrates, even the militia forces that are supposedly part of the national army operate with continued autonomy. Large swaths of the country are under the control of terrorists or criminal organizations, while in other parts, such as Benghazi, there is a growing movement openly calling for secession. Public order and human security are also severely undermined; clashes between militias are a daily occurrence, and weak police or other state forces are unable to guarantee citizen safety in the face of growing threats.

In the arena of politics, the General National Congress (GNC) is highly disregarded and delegitimized because of its impotence, lack of capacity, and paralysis. Rumors of corruption within the government are widespread, and the GNC has done little—either due to lack of capacity or political will—to build confidence with various segments of Libyan society and polity. Illustrating its ineptitude, the GNC sent no representatives to a conference convened by local councils to discuss their work and the government’s plans to replace them with elected municipalities. The absence was notable and indicates a growing distrust between the entities over the municipal electoral law.

Although Libya enjoys the advantage of oil revenue unlike the other Arab countries in transition, beyond that sector, the economic activity is essentially non-existent. But even the country’s oil output is stifled as protests and technical problems cut into production rates. Moreover, questions abound about how the government expends its monetary resources and whether the oil wealth is reaching ordinary Libyans in the form of public works and social services.

Meanwhile, the precarious situation is exacerbated as militias, criminal organizations, and terrorists all play a role in weakening public order and preventing the state from building up its own security forces, thereby driving citizens to take matters into their own hands. The absence of rule of law is demonstrated by a recent event in Tripoli, a city that by many accounts is deemed to be under the control of central authorities more so than most other places in the country. During a neighborhood argument, a riot ensued and in the midst of gunfire exchange, a young man shot one of his neighbors, according to witnesses. In the following hours, the family of the man killed went on a rampage, burning three houses owned by the alleged culprit’s family and chasing them into hiding. All of this occurred despite the fact that the alleged culprit had already turned himself in to authorities. If the public had confidence in the state’s ability to exact justice, the space for such lawlessness would be minimized.

Although such episodes raise concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Libya, insecurity is merely a consequence of a more deeply-rooted crisis. All of the problems outlined above emanate from the lack of a common understanding of what Libya is, of what it ought to be, and of who its citizens are. The transitional process cannot proceed effectively without a defined common identity and national mission.

To solve the security issue, the Libyans have to address the crisis of legitimacy of their institutions. The way forward is to convene a public national dialogue or conference involving representatives of all sectors of Libyan society with the intended goal of producing a shared national pact. This pact should address issues of transitional justice and national reconciliation, helping to pacify Libyan society through debated and shared solutions to the country’s obstacles. The pact could constitute the basis of work for the forming constitutional committee.

This would no doubt be a heavy lift. But the alternative to this course of action is Libya’s progressively slow descent into chaos and anarchy. As it is now, and as the recent episode in Benghazi shows, the level of tension between the people, militias, and al-Qaedist organizations is reaching a boiling point. There is already enough evidence of jihadist training camps, most run entirely by al-Qaeda, settling into the country and exploiting the security vacuum. The Libyan government must act swiftly to convene a national dialogue and take decisive actions to bolster the Libyan economy, defuse the people’s malcontent, and build confidence in the state and a shared vision for the country. Only through such actions will the government be able to take back the power it has ceded to extremist elements out of weakness and to begin to chip away at the root causes of the country’s insecurity. 

The international community, which has a mutual interest in preventing Libya from spiraling out of control and becoming a terrorist safe haven, can play a supportive role in this endeavor.

Although the West has demonstrated a propensity to intervene militarily when its immediate interests are threatened—the example of France’s intervention in Mali a case in point—the appetite for such action is limited in Washington. Yet despite this hesitance, steps must be taken to prevent Libya from becoming a failed state; disengagement and inaction are not an option.

Short of a full-fledged western military intervention to destroy the well-financed and well-trained extremist Islamist elements, the only alternative is for the West to follow the example of the victorious powers of the Second World War. The Marshall Plan is often heralded as a financial and economic plan, but what saved Europe was the Free World’s support of trusted political parties, mostly Christian Democrats, in countries threatened by strong Communist parties. The moderate voices in Libya are losing ground to extremism and lawlessness. The international community must lend active support for Libya’s transition and provide technical, targeted assistance to the government as it undertakes the massive responsibility of convening a national dialogue. By doing so, the international community will bolster the capacity of those elements within the Libyan polity that embrace the universal values of human rights and embolden the central government and provide much needed encouragement to the Libyan people to define their nation and build their institutions in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Photo Credit.

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