This past Sunday Libya’s legislative assembly, the General National Congress (GNC), made perhaps its boldest announcement to date: to seal off the southern border, declare the area a military zone, and appoint a military governor with full authority to arrest wanted criminals. Libya’s south has been plagued by drug smuggling, human and arms trafficking, and general lawlessness since the days of Qaddafi. This measure, from a security standpoint at least, would seem to be a much-needed initiative from what has been an otherwise feckless GNC. The politics behind this hastily reached decision, however, run deeper than immediate security concerns alone, and reveal a potentially dangerous crisis brewing in which individuals are taking advantage of institutional weaknesses to assert their control.
Consider first the context of the GNC’s announcement: just two days earlier, Libyan prime minister Ali Zidan secured agreements on border security following a trip to Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan. Though few details of the discussions have emerged, the neighboring countries agreed to increase border patrols and to closely monitor their shared borders with Mali. What appears evident, however, is that the GNC plan to seal off Libya’s southern borders was not part of the talks, and took all parties involved, including Prime Minister Zidan, by surprise.
In fact, sources from the GNC noted that the assembly’s subsequent militarization plan was brought forth without consultation with the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and without an assessment of the military’s ability to implement the plan. Several members of the GNC also criticized the decision as rushed and without proper internal discussion.
The timing of the plan–in the wake of Zidan’s overseas trips focused on these very security issues– is what is most curious of all. It suggests that GNC President Mohamed Magariaf moved quickly to ensure that the GNC, rather than Zidan and his cabinet, would take a lead role in addressing southern security. In other words, the GNC plan effectively removed Zidan as the key decision-maker in working out the crisis, even though he had reached security agreements with neighboring countries just two days prior.
Zidan’s response has been muted. Rather than admitting to infighting between himself and Magariaf, the prime minister has stressed the continuing validity of the agreements recently secured with Libya’s neighbors. He also noted it was his responsibility, rather than that of the GNC, to appoint a commander to oversee the southern military operations. Perhaps in an attempt to preserve the dignity of his office, however, Zidan failed to note that his choice for military governor would have to be approved by Magariaf.
This latest episode makes increasingly clear that a power vacuum is emerging, one in which individuals are taking advantage of the state’s weak institutions to assert their control. This should not come as a particular surprise – without a constitution and with the country’s current legislative body, the GNC, only loosely defined. The state’s institutions are shaped by what the most powerful individuals dictate. Ali Zidan, for example, may view Mohamed Magariaf as speaker of the GNC, but Mohamed Magariaf views himself as president of the republic, a difference of opinion not easily settled by any of the state’s current legal texts.
This power vacuum is only exacerbated by the country’s lack of institutionalization. Top officials–whether in the government, ruling parties, or the GNC–have moved away from neutral, state-loyal civil servants to fill the ranks of their offices and have instead turned to immediate family or clans. This move has transformed the state apparatus into a mosaic of loyalties and allegiances only loosely connected to the objective functioning of a modern state. In addition to overt nepotism, these same high-level officials lack the capacity to act. This is undoubtedly a byproduct of both insufficient experience and an inadequate educational system put in place during the Gaddafi regime. Collectively, these factors have led to a state of institutional paralysis.
As the GNC’s southern decision explicitly demonstrates, these weak and poorly-run institutions–whether the prime minister’s office, the ministry of defense, or chief of staff of the armed forces–remain exposed to co-optation by powerful personalities like Magariaf.
More importantly, Libya’s transition is at stake if this power struggle continues. Until the country’s various institutions are more sharply-defined, individuals in weak institutions will be unable to assume responsibility for decisive decision-making, further delaying the state-building process and leaving strong political figures with the incentive and opportunity to assert their will in the country.
Libya’s current institutional crisis makes a powerful argument to advance the constitution-development process. The GNC must be proactive in forming constitutional committees–whether elected or appointed–before the state’s institutions are further transformed into battlegrounds for competing individuals and interests. Only when the constitution clearly delineates the duties, powers, and rights for each institution, will Libya’s leaders engage in serious state-building and economic development.
Karim Mezran is a senior fellow at the Rarik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Eric Knecht is a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.