PRISM, the Journal for the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University in Washington, has just published a significant article of mine entitled, “Libya: The Transition Clock.”

Some three months on from the October 2011 slaying of Gadhafi, the piece offers a realistic appreciation of Libya’s progress on the transitional road to a stable, functioning, representative state.

Imagine an imaginary twelve hour clock face on which zero hour is chaos and twelve hours is a stable, functioning, representative Libya. Against that clock-face I set five principles of conflict transition established by the United States Institute for Peace and the US Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute: a safe and secure environment; rule of law; stable governance; a sustainable economy; and social well-being.

A safe and secure environment (3 o’clock) is defined as the “ability of the people to conduct their daily lives without fear of systematic or large-scale violence.” With much of the country effectively lawless, public order is virtually non-existent. The physical challenge alone is daunting. Even though 90 per cent of Libya’s 6.5 million people live on the coastal strip, the country is roughly the size of Alaska with 1.1 million square kms/680,000 square miles of territory. The coast alone is 1,758 kms/1,099 miles long with land borders totaling 4,357kms/2,723 miles. Furthermore, with so many militias spread across the country, it is going to be some time before legitimate state monopoly over the means of violence is reasserted or indeed control over borders re-established. Critical to the entire transition process and, indeed, one of the key indicators will be to what extent, and at what pace, Tripoli can weld all the militias into a single national army.

Rule of law (3 o’clock) is defined as the “ability of the people to have equal access to just laws and a trusted system of justice that holds all persons accountable, protects their human rights, and ensures their safety and security.” Logically, the first order principle for Tripoli is to establish the equitable rule of national law in Libya’s two major population centers, Tripoli and Benghazi, and then expand its writ across the country once the seat of government has been firmly established.  However, a just legal framework for the whole of Libya will not only take time but will prove an intensely political process. Islamist groups insist on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, a position that led Berber representatives to walk out of meetings to discuss transitional arrangements. Public order, another key facet of rule of law, is fragmented and uncertain. Furthermore, accountability under the law, access to justice, and eventually a culture of lawfulness will likely require the establishment of an entirely new system for the administration of justice.

Stable governance (4 o’clock) is defined as the “ability of the people to share access or compete for power through non-violent political processes and to enjoy the collective benefits and services of the state.” Libya is in early post-conflict transition, which requires the steady and sustained reduction of conflict across security, economic, and political spheres. Tripoli is only taking the first and most tentative steps toward representative government. What is emerging is a hybrid, instable political structure involving secular, tribal, and Islamist elements with all three vying for supreme state authority. How this equilibrium is institutionalized with the necessary checks and balances to ensure that no single group dominates will be a critical test of transition.

A sustainable economy (2 o’clock) is defined as the “ability of the people to pursue opportunities for livelihoods within a system of economic governance bound by law.” According to the UN Development Programme Human Development Index, Libya ranked 53rd out of 169 states prior to the civil war. Libya thus enjoys a relatively educated population with enough of a middle class to in principle provide an entrepreneurial impetus to the economy. One of the first order requirements for the new government is to re-establish macroeconomic control over consumer price inflation, growth in the gross domestic product over one or more business cycles, changes in measured unemployment and employment, the effective management of fluctuations in government finances, and currency stability. However, Tripoli at present lacks any real influence over its conflict-torn economy and is thus incapable of establishing the functioning structures critical for effective economic governance.

Social well-being (2 o’clock) is defined as the “ability of the people to be free from want of basic needs and to coexist peacefully in communities with opportunities for advancement.” Libya’s greatest assets (apart from its people) are its high-grade hydrocarbon and gas reserves. These will in time fund the resources for meeting the basic needs of the people, but only in time. Encouragingly, Tripoli has moved rapidly to establish new contracts with potential partners. At an estimated 41.5 billion barrels, Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa—about 3 per cent of the global total—with much of the country unexplored due to past sanctions. The geology, however, looks very promising. Even without further discoveries, Libya has some 20 years of reserves at 2009 production rates. Libyan oil is also easy to recover. In addition, the country has proven gas reserves of 52 trillion cubic feet, making Libya the world’s 14th largest producer. That said there are profound tensions between the rural-based militias that did much of the fighting and the city dwellers that sat on the fence for much of the conflict, particularly in Tripoli, which could hamper exploitation. Moreover, it is the intellectual capital represented by Tripoli that is vital to Libya’s future stability.

Libya is thus only at 3 o’clock on the transition clock with the next year or so being pivotal for the transition process. With Tripoli only some 294 kms/184 miles from both the EU and NATO now is the moment when the transitional government in Tripoli needs maximum support.

Libya, sadly, is still a country at war with itself.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.