Libya’s quest for democracy is threatened by several serious security challenges, and the recent attack on the US embassy in Benghazi only reinforces Libya’s need to confront the deteriorating security situation.

The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on September 13, 2012, analyzing Libya’s security challenges, reactions to the tragic events at the US embassy, and how best to move Libya forward on the path to democracy. Dr. Karim Mezran, Hariri Center Senior Fellow, Dr. Essam Omeish, Director of the Libyan Emergency Taskforce, and Dr. William Zartman, Professor Emeritus of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, gave their assessments of the current situation and recommendations for moving forward. The event also marked the release of a timely issue brief “Security Challenges to Libya’s Quest for Democracy” authored by Dr. Mezran on the security challenges in Libya, which advances specific policy recommendations for the United States and international community.


Mezran opened the discussion by noting that the events in Benghazi made the discussion of the security situation all the more urgent, and he honored Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans who lost their lives in Tuesday’s attack.

Mezran commented that the development of democratic institutions and the recent election of Mustafa Abushagur for the position of prime minister indicate that Libya is moving in a positive direction along the trajectory of its democratic transition, but the increasing lack of security, as evidenced by last Tuesday’s events, can easily derail the process.  There are multiple sources of instability, but one primary component is the emergence of Salafi groups, whose followers once numbered in the tens and is now estimated to be in the hundreds to thousands, which have been allowed to operate and grow with virtually no restrictions. High-ranking members of the Libyan leadership have openly admitted that the state does not have control over the security forces whose ranks may have been infiltrated by Salafis, which is particularly worrisome.

Mezran outlined how two major mistakes undermined or compromised how the security situation was handled by the transitional Libyan government. Mezran invoked the recollection of Libyan leader Bashir Saadawi’s warning during the 1950’s that Libya should not mistake arrogance for pride, and should not hesitate to recognize that it will need help on its path to democracy. In this case, Mezran asserts, after the NATO campaign was completed, the Libyans should have asked for continued international assistance to ensure a minimum level of security. Second, Libyan leaders Mahmoud Jibril and Mustafa Abushagur presented a narrative that democracy had triumphed in Libya and convinced their people that the introduction of a democratically-elected government would be a manageable transition under the existing security infrastructure. However, the country and its leadership should have recognized that it suffered from a civil war, and that recovering from this trauma would require reintegration of regime loyalists and other combatants into the new, democratic Libyan society. To address this failure, Mezran asserts that the Libyan government must undertake a serious effort to formulate a national reconciliation strategy while confronting security challenges; otherwise the transition will not succeed.

Following this idea, Omeish noted that the looming absence of real security can no longer be ignored, and while the new government has tried to manage the security situation, they have not been proactive enough. Omeish urged an intensive and detailed analysis of the security issues and the various armed groups and active militias in order to map and define the threat in specific, concrete terms. Once these threats have been identified, each needs to be addressed with its own strategy to ensure greater security that also includes a national reconciliation approach.  He emphasized that security must be guaranteed in order to move forward with the wide-scale development and reconstruction that is necessary to absorb and mitigate opponents that seek to undermine the democratic transition.

Zartman commented that a natural first instinct to the consulate attack would be to respond by increasing security measures, but the methods used to do so will have secondary implications that should be considered from the outset. Zartman noted that American policy-makers often believe the right approach is to roll up the sleeves, put things in order, and go home, but in this case it will critical to remain engaged in Libya on a long-term basis. The United States and the international community need to help provide the capability for security and reconciliation, but in a way that will clearly build capacity and empower Libyans to play the lead role. He stressed that it is equally important for the Libyan government to assume its responsibilities, and Libya needs to reassert the values it professes and that are shared with the United States.

In the question and answer session, the audience and speakers discussed the policy recommendations proposed by Dr. Mezran in his issue brief, and there was broad consensus among many that Libya would not be able to handle its security problems alone and should request assistance from the international community. Mezran specifically calls for a UN-led peacekeeping or police force to help ensure a basic level of security throughout the country, while at the same time building up the capacity of Libyan security and military forces through increased US technical and material assistance. Asked further about what a national reconciliation process would look like, Mezran suggested that the government should establish an international committee that includes representatives from all factions, as well as respected foreign leaders, which would identify those from the former regime that could be incorporated back into the government or military forces, and those that had committed crimes that should be prosecuted.

The audience discussion questioned how the attacks on the American embassy would influence the American and international community’s dedication to the democratic transition, and echoed the importance of strengthening security with a nuanced sensitivity not to overreact in ways that might cause problems in the future. 

The ambassador of Libya to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali, concluded the event by extending his condolences and recounting his deep pain for the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens, a great man and advocate for the Libyan people. He acknowledged that Libya does not have the tools to confront the security challenge alone, and that the government must demonstrate to the world that it embraces the ideals and values that Ambassador Stevens represented and should reach out to the international community for help that is clearly needed.

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