Two years after its revolution, Libya is a country caught in the throes of troubling challenges—and remarkable achievements. Western commentary on its status often varies wildly, from dark forecasts of its steady descent into sort of a “Somalia on the Mediterranean” to breathless applause for its democratic aspirations and societal resilience. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. As in any post-conflict situation, Libya’s transition will not be clean or linear and is likely to be marked by leaps of progress and heartbreaking setbacks.

Never was this axiom more evident than on the evening of September 11, 2011, when a local Salafi brigade, the Ansar al-Shari’a, purportedly working in conjunction with al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), stormed the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues. The tragic event had a seismic effect, both on Libyan society and on Libya’s relations with the outside power most responsible for its liberation—the United States. The attack came on the heels of a wave of violence over the summer: the assassination of Qadhafi-era officials in the east, vendettas between rival towns like Misrata and Bani Walid, Zintan and Mashashiya—the death rattle of Qadhafi’s divide-and-rule strategy—and rampages by armed Salafists against the country’s Sufi shrines.   

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
More >

For Libyan citizens, the assault was the final straw. It was a wake-up call that the Faustian bargain the country’s provisional government had made with the  revolutionary brigades was no longer tenable. It was time for the government to reign in the numerous armed groups that had filled the security vacuum left by the collapsed national army and anaemic police. In Benghazi, crowds called for the disbandment of Ansar al-Shari’a and other so-called rogue brigades that had refused to fall under the government’s writ. The protests soon spread to Tripoli in a remarkable display of collective civic action against a transitional government that was both unwilling and unable to deliver one of the most basic goods of governance: security.

In the West, Libya leapt back into the headlines, accompanied by a discourse that was heavily “securitized.” U.S. policymakers refocused on Libya’s restive east, where longstanding pockets of Salafism like Darnah and Benghazi were seen as providing fertile grown for a resurgent AQIM. In tandem, there was renewed attention on the country’s southern periphery, where porous borders, arms proliferation, smuggling networks, and the presence of long-marginalized non-Arab minorities, the Tabu and the Touaregs, were seen as two-way conveyor belts for al-Qa’ida to penetrate the country and destabilize Libya’s Sahelian neighbours. Exhibit A of this peril was the collapse of the Malian government, brought about in part by a northern rebellion buttressed by hardened Libyan Touareg fighters who had been subsidized by Qadhafi, and arms looted from Libyan arsenals. Finally, troubling questions were asked about Libya’s role in shipping arms and fighters to Gaza and Syria. In short, post-revolutionary Libya seemed to be displaying all the hallmarks of a failing or failed state: a state that is unable to control its borders, cannot provide basic security for its citizens, and exports its problems to its neighbours.

While it is appropriate and necessary to ask these questions, it is important to not exaggerate the severity of country’s security problems, to accurately characterize the nature of civil-military relations in the post-revolutionary state, and to take stock of the country’s progress in other areas. Specifically, observers and analysts must note the country’s tremendous structural assets that have kept it on a largely upward trajectory: an urban, ethnically homogenous population that is concentrated in a narrow territorial strip; relatively high GDP; an infrastructure that was relatively unscathed by the NATO campaign; oil production that has nearly returned to pre-war levels, and a general lack of serious meddling by ill-meaning neighbours. 

Added to this is the Libyan citizenry’s propensity for local collective action, filling the gap left by the weak provisional government and the institutional shells of the 42-year reign of Qadhafi. Across the country, a variety of informal actors—tribal elders, NGOs, youth groups, town councils and, yes, local brigades, have stepped into the vacuum left by Qadhafi’s departure. While these networks hardly match established criteria of the Weberian state—especially the centralized control over the means of violence—they have made for relative stability and progress. The country has not descended into massive internecine strife à la Iraq or Bosnia.  

And perhaps more importantly, the country’s lack of institutional baggage may be an asset in its democratic transition. Unlike Egypt, there is no entrenched officer class or judiciary to obstruct the country’s transition to more participatory governance. Similarly, the diffuse, bottom-up nature of the revolution—while certainly responsible for the proliferation of brigades across the country—also resulted in no single party or group being dominant, imposing its will over others. Contrast Libya to South Sudan, where the initial euphoria of independence gave way to the depressing reality of authoritarian, one-party rule by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, buttressed by staggering oil wealth.

With these observations in mind, a clearer, more balanced picture emerges of the country’s most pressing near-term challenges—and the state’s ability to meet them. Chief among these is tackling the brigades, incorporating its southern and eastern periphery, and drafting an effective constitution. 

Filling the Security Vacuum

Among the country’s security challenges, none has gathered more attention than the problem of brigades. As noted, their presence is the outgrowth of both the unique course of the revolution and the particular pathologies of the Qadhafi regime. Unlike Afghanistan or south Sudan, there was no longstanding armed opposition that could commandeer the revolution. It was truly a grassroots, diffuse revolt by the periphery against the centre. Its currency was the katiba (plural: kata’ib—literally, brigade)—the armed fighting groups ranging from 20 to 200 young men, formed along neighbourhood, town, or regional lines. Gradually, as the revolution progressed, these diffuse units fell under loose regional commands in the war’s three fronts: the western Nafusa Mountains, the coastal city of Misrata, and the east. With the fall of the Qadhafi regime, these groups naturally stepped into the void. Meanwhile, the soldiers of the national army had all but disappeared—either through defections, deaths, or simply shedding their uniforms and fading away. In truth, the army had always been neglected, ill-equipped, and underfunded by Qadhafi, who feared a repeat of the coups that had rattled his grip on power in the late 1980s and early ’90s. A similar neglect afflicted the national police.

For a while, the public welcomed the revolutionary brigades as a sort of local constabularies: manning traffic stops, guarding key installations, patrolling the harbours and airports. At the same time, another type of brigade arose in the chaotic aftermath of the war—the so-called rogue brigades that had actually never fought in the revolution but were formed purely for opportunistic financial gain. These groups entered the black market. In tandem, the powerful brigades from Misrata and Zintan, which had fought the bloodiest battles en route to the liberation of Tripoli, descended on the capital to claim the spoils of their hard-won sacrifice. The well-armed Misratans and Zintanis pillaged automobiles, took over ministries, and encamped at key institutions like the airport and oil fields.

Their end state seemed clear: to convert their firepower and armed clout into a lion’s share of political power in the new order. Unsurprisingly, when the revolutionary brigades stayed on their home turf, where their young men were connected to the communities they policed, their behaviour was more restrained. Regardless, the brigades were accumulating worrisome powers and formality—issuing their own ID cards, vehicles, armouries, payroll, and intelligence services. A low point came in the fall of 2012, when the newly elected parliament was unable to hold its session because an armed brigade prevented it from doing so.

Elsewhere in the east, the brigades exhibited even greater autonomy and power. Here, however, their hue was Islamist and Salafi—a reflection of the deeply entrenched religiosity of the region. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Darnah, a grim port city where longstanding unemployment, economic neglect, and a long tradition of resistance dating back to the Italian occupation combined to produce a spirit of jihadism that sent armed volunteers to Iraq and Afghanistan. In this town, armed groups like the Ansar al-Shari’a (separate from the group in Benghazi) and the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade were commandeered by former veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. As the de facto enforcers of social order, they began a campaign to implement draconian mores, shutting down beauty parlours and overtaking radio stations. As 2012 progressed, there were disturbing signs of more nefarious activity—the assassination of Qadhafi-era officials and arms and narcotics smuggling.

During the spring and early summer of 2012, there were indications that the brigades had exhausted the patience of certain sectors of Libyan society. Assassinations of security officials had spurred a tribal backlash, with Darnah’s prominent tribes briefly chasing the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade out of the city. In June, the Ansar al-Shari’a and affiliated brigades staged a “rally” on Benghazi’s seaside cornice, brandishing anti-aircraft guns in pickup trucks and loudly calling for shari’a. They were met by vociferous opposition from the city’s NGOs and women’s groups—an early preview of the more sizeable protests that would rock Libya in the aftermath of the September 11 Benghazi attack. 

In many respects, the problem of brigades is a function of the temporal nature of the country's provisional ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC). Local commanders resisted disarming their groups as a hedge against an unfavourable outcome in Tripoli. For its part, the NTC encouraged the autonomy by funding key brigades and organizing them into two quasi-official bodies: the Supreme Security Committees (SSCs) and the Libyan Shield Forces (LSF) under the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence, respectively. The former body became widely despised by the Libyan public as ill-disciplined, ill-trained and, worst of all, a thinly guised cover for brigades to operate, albeit officially. The SSCs frequently stood by while Salafi brigades committed their worst excesses. In some cases, local brigade commanders were simultaneously the heads of SSCs. Similarly, the Libyan Shield Forces became a bottom-up initiative by local brigades to resist incorporation into the national army, which they saw as tainted by Qadhafi-era officials.

In tackling the problem of demobilizing the brigades, the NTC was hobbled by a variety of factors. The first, as mentioned, was its temporal nature: the brigades retained their arms as hedge against a government in Tripoli that could be unfavourable or unresponsive to local demands. The ultimate solution to the integration of the brigades, therefore, is a political one—restoring trust and cooperation between the centre and the provincial towns, building sufficient confidence that the armed groups will surrender their leverage. Simultaneously, the young men of the brigades need to be convinced that their future lies not with their respective brigade commanders but in reintegrating into society—returning to school, entering the work force, or joining the national police and army. The NTC developed a program to do just this—the so-called Warriors Affairs Commission under the prime minister’s office, a sort of placement office for young revolutionaries. The program screened and registered over 140,000 fighters, identifying their preferences for jobs, scholarships, or police and military training. While well-meaning in intent, the program remained hobbled by a lack of funding and mistrust among the brigades.

In addition, the larger problem of building the army and police remains fraught with difficulties. Many in these brigades see the institutions tainted by their affiliation with Qadhafi. For outside actors like the United States and Europe, there is a pressing need to assist in the rebuilding of the military and police through equipment transfers and trainings. But to do this, the Libyans must first identify their requirements and training needs. To date, this has not been done because the Ministry of Defence is bereft of the most basic staffing functions. In the midst of this gridlock, the United States is reportedly focusing on establishing an elite counter-terrorism force. While this is undoubtedly necessary, it is important also to not neglect the broader question of a civilian-controlled military that is representative of all sectors of society and is not controlled by a specific faction or tribe. This imperative is all the more important in light of the grievances and dissent by significant minorities on Libya’s poorly governed southern periphery.

Securing the Periphery

It is important to note that much of the brigades’ power derives from their ability to project the weak government’s authority and, especially, quell the numerous conflicts along the country’s western and southern periphery. Many of these conflicts were between rival towns battling over power and resources in the post-Qadhafi order. In other instances, the roots were related to Qadhafi’s policies of longstanding ethnic marginalization. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the southern border cities of Sabha and Kufra, which since the revolution have been wracked by conflict between minority Tabu and ethnic Arab tribes favoured by Qadhafi. In Kufra, this conflict has been especially violent, with nearly 200 people killed during 2012. At its core, the conflict is about re-establishing social equilibrium and, more importantly, control of the illicit border economy. During the Qadhafi period, the Tabu were confined to serf-like status under the local Arab tribe, the Zway. The NTC, eager to control the border, handed authority and power to a local Tabu leader, effectively granting him control of the region’s lucrative smuggling networks. The proliferation of heavy weaponry has made the ensuing conflict especially violent. So far, the government’s response has relied on informal tribal mediators or the dispatch of brigade coalitions, which ended up inflaming the situation even more. To the west, a similar situation existed in Sabha. And in the border town of Ghadames, ethnic Touareg have clashed with local Arab inhabitants.

Among the aggrieved regions in Libya, none is more pressing than the eastern region of Cyrenaica, where two-thirds of Libya’s hydrocarbon resources rest. The historic seat of authority in Libya during the Sanussi monarchy, the east suffered a precipitous decline in its political relevance and living standards after the 1969 coup. Qadhafi, in an effort to undermine the local notables and families that had sustained the Sanussi monarchy, moved political institutions and development away from the east to Sirte and then Tripoli. Unsurprisingly, Benghazi was the seat of the 2011 revolution.

Yet among many in the east, there is a lingering sense that the marginalization will continue. Some of this sentiment took shape as a move for federalism and autonomy in the run-up to the July 7 parliamentary elections. The federalists, represented by the so-called Barqa Council, called for an election boycott and instigated sporadic acts of violence, including briefly shutting down oil production. But ultimately, the movement for eastern autonomy was the dog that did not bark. Voter turnout in the east ignored the calls for boycott, and the Barqa Council suffered a devastating blow. That said, the issue of eastern grievance and possible mobilization is not dead and may rear its head again if political and economic power is not equitably distributed. A key litmus test in this regard is the equitable distribution of oil wealth.

At the core of this instability are the deficiencies in government administration and the lack of licit economies in these border regions. In addition, the new government must work to overturn the ethnic discrimination that characterized the Qadhafi period. And perhaps more importantly, it must restore balance between the centre (Tripoli) and the periphery—an imperative that hinges on the drafting of an effective constitution.

Drafting a Constitution and Other Political Hurdles

An important bright spot in Libya’s revolutionary journey was the July 7 elections of the General National Congress (GNC). Voter turnout was relatively high, with the majority of voters showing their preference for technocratic candidates rather than dogmatic Islamists. It was a remarkable democratic experiment in a state that had had no experience in any sort of participatory politics or civic action for over four decades. That said, an important, last-minute measure that secured the participation of the east was a unilateral decree by the NTC that the Constitutional Drafting Committee, the so-called Committee of 60, would be elected from Libya’s three regions rather than appointed by the GNC. For the east, this was an important gesture that helped temper its misgivings about the lack of parliamentary representation in proportion to the east’s demographic weight.

The key to resolving much of this discord is the constitution, which will delineate local and central powers, define the role of Islam in political life, and lay the framework for disarming the brigades. There has been no shortage of outside advice and technocratic expertise on constitutional processes. But Libyans are looking to their own experience of drafting the 1951 constitution, reviving—with remarkable immediacy—this important episode of political participation. While few Libyans advocate a full return to this document, there have been vigorous discussions about its merits and drawbacks as they pertain to present-day challenges.

In all of these tasks, Libyans have welcomed outside assistance—but guardedly so. There is still the residual distrust of outside parties as predatory that stems from four decades of Qadhafi’s paranoid rule and the country’s isolation. This is especially apparent regarding the oil sector and the security sector (the Libyans have banned the operation of private military companies, the Blackwater-type outfits that inflicted such turmoil on Iraq). While some of this suspicion needs to be tempered, in other cases it reflects a healthy self-ownership by the Libyans of their own political destiny—and the imperative to balance sovereignty and external assistance during the delicate phase of institution building and reconstruction.

Moving forward, the country faces no shortage of perils and potential setbacks. But an infectious air of guarded optimism and determination still informs the outlook of most Libyans. For many, a country that was long castigated by Arabs, humiliated by its eccentric despot, and besieged by the West has now become, despite its setbacks, a potential beacon for the Arab transition. Nowhere is this sense of pride more evident than in the rampant revolutionary art that festoons the country’s streets and plazas. “Hold your head up,” exhorts one scrawled piece of graffiti across from Martyrs’ Square, “You are Libyan.”

This piece was originally published in Mediterranean Politics.