By Ranj Alaaldin
Editor’s note: Ranj Alaaldin is a senior analyst at the Next Century Foundation and a political and security risk consultant specializing in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Libya has become embroiled in chaos over the past week. First, militiamen seized the capital’s international airport for several hours in protest against the kidnapping of their leader. Islamist militants then targeted the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi, following it up with a surprisingly sophisticated attack on a British diplomatic convoy. And in the south, tribal clashes broke out town in the town of al-Kufra, claiming the lives of at least 20 people. Government troops did not intervene, according to reports from the town.
These developments suggest indecisiveness on the part of the interim government, the National Transitional Council, which appears unable and unwilling to try to assert its control over a complicated network of armed militias. Unless national institutions are developed in Libya, an environment of low-level conflict and bloody lawlessness could soon prevail.
The current security environment, dominated by militias, does not constitute a proper security framework: It lacks coordination and creates gaps that allow for conflict between rival groups, as well as criminal activities like smuggling – and terrorism, which appears to be a new factor in the east. It is precisely this form of loosely organized, unaccountable security structure that criminal gangs and terrorists thrive on.
The ultimate test of Libya’s fragile stability could emerge after elections take place in July (delayed by three weeks because of logistical problems), when the stakes are much higher. The question is whether powerful factions, many of them representing tribes and regions, will defer to the new constitutional process or whether they will seek to undermine and circumvent the political process in pursuit of higher stakes and settle what could be longstanding disputes over control of the country and its oil-based wealth. The potential for civil war could, therefore, be amplified after elections when competing groups jostle for positions of power, like control of the military and the country’s finances or lucrative oil industry.
Challenges will begin to arise over who or what group heads security institutions. Many will fear the “personalization” of such institutions by well-armed non-state actors, not least since the very individuals and groups who will have positions in the country’s new government head their own, or have extensive links to, existing militia groups.
The situation is compounded by the fact that, since the former regime was ousted in September, the Libyan army and security forces have remained disorganized, devoid of authority and thin on the ground.
As these deficiencies are remedied (assuming they are), so too may militia groups respond by amalgamating into larger groups. Militia leaders will have a choice: back down to respect the prowess of a more authoritative Libyan army or try to compete with that army. The latter course would obviously create an uncontrollable environment conducive to instability and potentially irreversible violence.
Like Iraq in late 2003, Libya is enduring a somewhat uneasy period of relative stability after international intervention, disrupted only by intermittent attacks and clashes between rival factions. But, like Iraq, that could simply be the calm before the storm. Soon, one group among the many competing for power and authority in the new Libya will seek to assert its authority. For the sake of the Libyan people, one can only hope that it will be the state, with a reformed and capable national army.