Libya Must Be Stabilized

From Cairo on the Nile to Tunis on the Mediterranean, a political vacuum has descended across North Africa. The Arab Spring ushered in new freedoms, but it also weakened existing state structures and unleashed a cultural and political free-for-all, favorable to mobilization, assassinations and propagation of extremist ideology. The region’s newly elected governments are rapidly failing to produce results, put aside internecine bickering or form grand coalitions. Despite their democratic legitimacy, they are losing the consent of their populations. Amid this chaos, North Africa’s Saharan underbelly, the Sahel, is on the verge of replacing the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as the major global safe haven for terrorist networks. Libya is both at the root of these problems and the key to the solution. 

The spread of Salafist and jihadist groups, the war in Mali and the recent terrorist attack in Algeria are all direct consequences of the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi. Paradoxically, international action in support of the Libyan people led to this whole mess, yet it is also the key to resolving it.
At present, Libya’s new central government is so weak that swaths of the country are ungoverned space — local authorities mediate disputes and the revolutionary militias dominate what few security institutions exist. Radicalized jihadists come and go as they please and heavy artillery from Qadhafi’s stockpiles is sold to the highest bidder.
Until very recently, the post-Qadhafi Libyan government lacked the legitimacy, will or power to demobilize the revolutionary militias or secure the country’s borders. Fortunately, in the wake of successful elections, one man has emerged who is capable of rationalizing Libya’s institutions and securing its future: Prime Minister Ali Zidan.
Politically, Zidan has to contend with an ongoing power struggle against Mohamed Magariaf, the president of Libya’s parliament — the General National Congress. The president was supposed to be a ceremonial position, yet Magariaf is deliberately exceeding his hazily defined authority to play Libya’s deep social cleavages to his advantage.
On Feb. 6, members of the GNC announced that the constitutional committee will be directly elected by the Libyan people. Each region will select 20 deputies. This undoes the GNC’s original mandate, while facilitating a drift toward federalism. It also expands the influence of the president while inflaming social tensions. Many Libyans are now ready to join their brothers in Tunisia and Egypt by declaring their new regime a failure.
Friday marks the second anniversary of the anti-Qadhafi uprising. The Libyan government is bracing for huge demonstrations and attacks on government buildings, especially in Benghazi.
To help Zidan bring stability, win back the trust of his people and cement his legitimate authority against Magarief’s overreach, a new international coalition must help the Libyan government construct a coherent security apparatus. On Tuesday, representatives of the major Arab and Western powers — including the U.S. — met in Paris under the aegis of the Support Libya conference and finally agreed to “the rapid deployment of European experts” to train and rebuild Libyan security forces. To be effective, the whole process must be initiated, owned and managed by the Libyans, while building upon the international community’s role as guarantors of the Libyan revolution.
When Qadhafi’s forces were poised to take back Benghazi in March 2011 and crush the rebel movement in its infancy, the international community acted in an unprecedented manner: passing a U.N. resolution calling for a no-fly zone and innovating ad hoc forms of cooperation to enforce it. The multilateral coalition was led by France, Qatar and the U.K., with America playing a key supportive role. However, as soon as Qadhafi was defeated, the coalition melted away and subsequent international engagement has been sporadic and bilateral.
Since multilateral engagement won the war, it is now time to reconstitute the coalition to win the peace. Tuesday’s decision could be the turning point. Success is achievable only if the right type of training is paired with high-level political engagement and if America invests significant diplomatic and technical resources.
The coalition should start by training a new security force, approximately 6,000 strong. NATO countries should lead, but key Arab allies should also be given a prominent role. This force should receive on-the-job training while securing the country’s borders and physical institutions. American know-how is needed to build an army capable of handling diverse threats from nonstate actors, leaving the Europeans to focus on training the police.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron made a savvy surprise visit to Tripoli on Jan. 31. Secretary of State John Kerry should follow suit and go to Libya as part of his first trip to the Middle East. This would signal to the world America’s commitment to engagement. It could also signal the U.S.’s commitment to spearheading the diplomatic coalition and lending its unique technical expertise rather than continuing its role of passively “leading from behind.”
If America attempted to dominate capacity-building efforts in Libya, it would fail and be accused of protecting its economic interests. However, if we coordinate our efforts with the coalition that helped overthrow Qadhafi, Ali Zidan and the Libyan people would welcome such efforts.
Even the speedy French-led dispersal of Islamist forces in Mali cannot provide long-term gains if Libya remains an ungoverned space. Unrest in neighboring Tunisia — long thought of as the success story of the Arab Spring — threatens to undermine the very model of transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy in line with Islamic cultural norms. Libya has the wealth, educated populace and strategic location to succeed. It is up to the Libyans and their allies to close ranks. Libya is truly the linchpin to any comprehensive strategy to bring stability to North Africa and the Sahel.
Jason Pack is president of and editor of “The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future.” Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a professor at SAIS-Johns Hopkins. This column was originally published by POLITICO.

Related Experts: Karim Mezran

Image: libya-celebrates-3.jpg