Last week’s attack on the French Embassy in Tripoli was the first significant terrorist attack against foreign interests in the Libyan capital since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. More crucially, it marks an escalation in the covert war being waged to determine the future orientation, institutions, constitution, and very soul of the new Libya. At the same time the conflict between the government and militias has escalated, with the latter besieging the ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, demanding the resignation of the ministers and the immediate application of the political isolation law, which is in the process of being debated and voted on. Collectively, these events show a decrease in the legitimate political institutions’ capacity to guide the transition process successfully and an increase in the attempts of armed elements to alter the rules of the political game in their favor.
For the international community the attack against the French Embassy and the radicalization of the conflict between militias and government institutions must serve as a wake-up call, and remind them that the gains of the NATO-led intervention are at risk of being undone. The countries that helped overthrow Qaddafi should redouble their efforts to support the creation of professional armed forces and police, vocational training, and constitution writing. If greater support is withheld, the French Embassy attack may prove to be the start of a trend, in which case Libyan — and by extension North African — instability would become a permanent status quo. The crisis in Mali and the growing instability in Algeria — and most recently Tunisia — offer clear evidence in support of this conjecture.
The French response has thus far been encouraging. Within hours of the attack they dispatched their foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to Tripoli. Unlike the Americans, who backed off following the brutal killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, the French signaled they would double down in Libya and not make the same mistake.
Understanding the actors behind the bombing is key to conceptualizing the appropriate international response. Of note, the recent attack is perhaps more likely to have been motivated by domestic Libyan politics rather than the default explanation seized upon by the media — blowback over French intervention in Mali. Indeed, an underreported and ill-understood struggle is afoot in Libya between forces that want to build a coherent government and utilize the country’s vast resources to facilitate the transition to democracy, and local and jihadists actors who benefit from the chaos of the status quo, and wish to cling to their local fiefdoms based on intimidation, militias, smuggling, tribal networks, and porous borders. In other words, many newly entrenched power brokers in Libya simply do not want to see a democratic success story and are willing to utilize violence to prevent it.
It is against this inauspicious backdrop of a full-fledged “struggle for post-Qaddafi Libya” — and not simply that of Mali backlash — that last week’s bombing, this week’s militia occupations, and heated debates concerning the political isolation law must be understood. The key Western powers in Libya (Italy, France, Britain, and the United States) have all been nominally supporting the Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan in his efforts to build functional, centralized institutions. To date, however, the West has adopted a hands-off approach. The United States in particular, partly because of its Benghazi wounds and the partisan climate on the Hill surrounding this issue, has shown little more than verbal support for Libyan reconstruction. Present conditions, however, demonstrate that the time for hesitation is over.
The Libyan political scene at present strongly signals the need for more proactive engagement. At the moment, the Libyan government is besieged by its opponents. It must assert itself and organize elections for a constituent assembly tentatively scheduled for the late fall. This body will draft the long-awaited constitution, successful completion of which will be crucial in regaining the support of the populace and quelling growing dissatisfaction among youth. Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) has become highly unpopular. This has made it even more crucial that it conduct the constitutional process in an inclusive, transparent manner that attains buy-in of the population writ-large, so as to lobby the populace against the militias.
Maintaining security throughout this delicate constitution-writing process is crucial. An unstable Libya, unable to write its constitution, will destroy the state’s great potential to be a prosperous, democratic model for the Arab world. Unfortunately, the Libyan government has been unable to protect even its own institutions. Since Monday, the ministries of justice, interior, and foreign affairs have all been besieged by armed militias and the wheels of bureaucracy have ground to a halt. Only adding to overall instability, criminal mafias are also on the rise.
Worse yet, the country’s fledgling national armed forces — historically weak under Qaddafi and being largely built from the ground up — have been subject to internal crises, only slowing their lackluster reconstruction. Most recently, officers from Eastern Libya demanded the removal of Chief of Staff Youssef Mangoush, citing his inability to restructure the armed forces and reinforce security. Moreover, the Southern Military Governor appointed to bring order to the country’s lawless south, recently denounced the lack of resources at his disposal, publicly admitting the impossibility of his task. The Libyan military is, to put it mildly, ill prepared for its mission to defend the state and maintain order.
In the wake of the bombing and without viable interlocutors within the Libyan military, it is tempting for foreign diplomats in Libya to toss up their hands and minimize their involvement. The Libyan state, however, remains a crucial lynchpin of North African stability, and close engagement is thus more necessary than ever.
Libya’s international partners should intensify their support for the Libyan armed forces and police by offering intensive training and better equipment. As a complement to re-establishing security by force, the international community should lend advice and political support to a process of national dialogue between all Libyan groups in order to establish a common program and common vision for the new state. The international community also has a vital role in advising Libyan political groups on how to conduct the constitution writing process, particularly on how to engage the population at large and garner popular support for the government’s efforts.
Perhaps no less important, Western countries should also facilitate the entry of private businesses in the fields of health care, vocational training, English language instruction, information technology (IT), and construction. So long as Libya remains a daunting business climate for Western firms, it will be difficult to provide Libyans with the services they so badly need. There are, it should be pointed out, very simple and tangible steps the international community can take to reach this end. For example, the British, French, and U.S. governments should join hands with their Libyan counterparts to make the FDI Libya Conference in London in late May a success. This will help restart the cooperation between the private and public sectors, which is so essential for Libya’s transition to democracy.
Post-Arab Spring Libya — and North Africa by extension — has reached a turning point. Greater engagement, as outlined above, may prove decisive in allowing Libya to navigate its constitution writing process successfully, address its security issues, and settle on a stable path of reconstruction and democratization. Conversely, the consequences of continued Western disengagement could be highly disruptive. It is no exaggeration to say that the internal political forces inside the country are balanced on a razor’s edge. An unexpected gust of political violence could lead to anarchy; a helping hand providing a gentle push in the right direction could ease the transition toward democracy and stability.
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.Jason Pack is a researcher of North African History at Cambridge University, president of Libya-Analysis.com and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and The Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy.