Libya’s Chicken-and-Egg Problem

Just over a week ago, Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) declared the country liberated and the transition to a post-Gaddafi state officially underway. This week, we’ve started to see the first of what I expect will be a raft of stories about tensions and conflict among the groups over whom the TNC is claiming authority. Here’s the opening to one from the Washington Post:

Libya has emerged from its civil war with more than 300 militias and no political consensus on forming a national army, raising concerns that irregular, gun-toting groups could become entrenched and pose a long-term challenge to the government, officials here said. On Monday, Libyan leaders began to establish a new interim government with the authority to create the armed forces, choosing the technocratic Abdurrahim el-Keib as prime minister. But the militiamen who won the eight-month war have made it clear that they will not submit meekly to the new civilian authorities.

In the Guardian, we hear from a reporter who tagged along with rebel militias to Abu Salim, a neighborhood in Tripoli, about the mistrust among those militias:

The plan was simple, Essam said. Gaddafi had distributed a lot of guns to the people of this neighbourhood. The rebels would go from house to house, search for weapons and detain wanted fugitives. Three units were to conduct this operation, one from Misrata, one from Essam’s Freemen of Libya unit, and the local rebel military council of Abu Salim. The Misratans, experienced and well-equipped, had a reputation as ruthless fighters who didn’t trust anyone else. Essam’s unit respected them but didn’t really like them, and both the Misratans and the Freemen mistrusted the local rebels of Abu Salim. “They became rebels after Tripoli was liberated,” said one of Essam’s men, smirking.

In some cases, the mistrust has erupted into open fighting. Here’s a snippet from today’s Telegraph:

Two people died from bullet wounds and at least seven fighters were injured during a battle that started when militia from the town of Zintan were stopped by guards from the Tripoli Brigade from entering the city’s Central Hospital to kill a patient.

These stories illustrate the massive governance problem Libya now confronts. Libya is a collapsed state. It has no functioning central authority. The TNC has proclaimed itself to be the country’s national government, and the international community has endorsed that claim, but that claim is only now starting to get tested. The conventional view is that internal authority and external endorsement are intertwined, but that’s an international legal fiction, not real politics. As places like Afghanistan and Somalia remind us, international endorsement does not magically cause domestic factions to fall in line behind the anointed party.

There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the state-building problem. To establish itself as a functioning national government, Libya’s TNC needs to build up trust in its authority. To build that trust, the TNC needs to get the country’s disparate militias to start obeying its writ and, in so doing, to demonstrate that it deserves their trust. Those militias are going to be reluctant to follow the TNC’s writ, however, as long as they are worried that the TNC or other rival factions might take advantage of them if they do. So which comes first: obedience, or trust?

I know very little about Libyan politics and society, and I certainly don’t know how this situation will evolve. As a scholar with experience studying state collapse, though, I have to say that I’m pessimistic. In some collapsed states, one faction holds a preponderance of coercive power, and that imbalance can encourage other factions to start falling in line behind it. When coercive power is distributed broadly and more evenly, however, it’s more difficult to get that kind of bandwagoning started. I would be surprised to see another organization make a competing claim to national authority; foreign powers’ endorsement of, and investment in, the TNC should succeed in discouraging that. I would not be surprised to see emerging local governments and the militias that back or control them adopt a “wait and see” attitude, occasionally clashing with the TNC or each other when they step on each others’ political or economic toes. Hopefully, Libya’s factions will manage to negotiate their way out of this dilemma soon, but that outcome would be an exceptional one.

UPDATE: From this New York Times story, published later in the day this post went up, it sounds like mistrust is winning and obedience is going to be a very hard sell:

Many of the local militia leaders who helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi are abandoning a pledge to give up their weapons and now say they intend to preserve their autonomy and influence political decisions as “guardians of the revolution”…“Nobody wants to give up arms now, and many tribes and cities are accumulating arms ‘just in case,’ ” said Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the council’s executive board…Many members of military councils insist that they need to stay armed until a new constitution is ratified because they do not trust the weak provisional government to steer Libya to democracy on its own. “We are the ones who are holding the power there — the people with the force on the ground — and we are not going to give that up until we have a legitimate government that will emerge from free and fair elections,” said Anwar Fekini, a French-Libyan lawyer who is a leader of the armed groups in the western mountains and is also close to top leaders of the transitional council. “We will make sure we are going to bring the country to a civil constitution and democratic system,” he added, “and we will use all available means — first of all our might on the ground.”

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6 Comments

  1. “In some collapsed states, one faction holds a preponderance of coercive power, and that imbalance can encourage other factions to start falling in line behind it.”

    Or against it.

    The Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 really meant they took St. Petersburg, Moscow and a few other major cities with heavy industry and railroad networks like Ekaterinburg. The rest of Russia’s 11 time zones were in the hands of a variety of Whites, Cossack warlords, Anarchists, Socialist Revolutionaries, ethnic Nationalists, the German Imperial Army, the Japanese Imperial Army and the Czech Legion. Lenin welded the country together with blood, the Red Army and the ChEKA.

    China’s effort at revolution against the Q’ing a decade earlier gave the country forty years of civil war with Kuomintang, Left Kuomintang, Communists,Green Gang, an impressive cast of Warlords, foreign concessionaries, Mongol Bannermen, Japan’s Kwangtung Army and puppet forces of Manchukuo. China lost 20 million against Japan alone and paid an even heavier price for unity under the Great Helmsman.

    Right now, there’s no great ideological driver that requires Libya ignite into the West Africa of the twenty-teens, but the tinder and gasoline are there.

    Reply
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