As Libya celebrates its one-year anniversary of the start of the uprising this week, all eyes are on the recent clashes between militias and the difficulties the transitional government faces in exercising its authority throughout the country’s territory. Indeed, former revolutionaries’ refusal to surrender their arms complicates an already daunting challenge, as their possession of weapons has evolved into a negotiating tactic for a larger stake in the interim decision-making as well as a practical means of defense against rival groups. 

Militias are involved in intense competition with one another. The most significant competing factions are the two groups that liberated Tripoli: the Misratan Sadoon Swayhil legion and the five Zintani brigades organized under the Military Council of West Libya. The former claims its contributions as greater, having sacrificed thousands in addition to the capture and execution of Qadhafi, while the Zintani brigades—who liberated the Western half of the city—possess more tangible tools and occupy strategic infrastructure (such as Tripoli’s airport) to negotiate for influence. The National Transitional Council (NTC) has had to play to a balance in recognition of both militias’ contributions, reserving leadership of the ministries of the Interior and Defense to the commanders of the Misrata and Zintan brigades, respectively. 

Also, at this point, many of the tens of thousands of militia members remain unconvinced that the best intentions of the national authorities line with their own interests—especially as the legitimacy and transparency of the NTC is more frequently drawn into question. Revolutionaries are troubled by the return of Qadhafi-era acolytes. Youssef al-Mangoush’s appointment as the new national army’s chief-of-staff was rejected because of his service as a colonel under the old regime (he joined the rebels early in the uprising); moreover, the militias were disgruntled because their suggestions for the post were dismissed by the the NTC on his nomination. The interim government has made repeated calls for the dozen or so militias that continue to occupy sections of Tripoli to vacate. And while many Misratans have returned home, the Zintanis, fully aware of their negotiating position, steadfastly refuse. At present, however, both Zintanis and Mistratans are seemingly working under the same aegis, forging a potential peace pact for Tripoli. Militias in the capital have also coordinated this week to form alternative committees to the NTC: 100 militias from western Libya announced a new federation to challenge the NTC. Incidentally, this grouping also happens to belong to the Military Council of West Libya formed by Defense Minister Osama al-Juwali—which may further complicate NTC-militia tensions.

But there are also many positive signs. Most militia rivalries are hardly this pronounced, and many expect that inter-militia tensions will dissipate following the election of a constituent assembly and a universally acknowledged central authority. The presence of weapons also does not necessarily indicate that militias have a need to use them; given the militias’ degree of fragmentation, no group is capable of decisively defeating the others, leading to a general incentive to refrain from violence rather than induce it.  For the most part (aside from isolated turf scuffles that appear unrelated to tribal affiliation) militias have sought to provide security to their respective localities, not disrupt it.

Furthermore, though a comprehensive long-term strategy for disarmament and reintegration has yet to be developed, it is happening, albeit on an ad hoc and uncoordinated basis. The NTC' attempts to collect weapons have proved fruitless, although it did manage by December 2011 to successfully clear major cities of large artillery—such as the media-ubiquitous pickup-mounted rocket launchers. Civil society groups—nonexistent until a few months ago—are bridging the gaps between the interim authority and the militias that distrust it. In Tripoli, for example, one privately funded organization, Libya al-Hurra, registered 1,400 of the capital’s estimated 17,000 fighters in the month of January alone. 

The situation is also improving as finances are becoming more readily available and the interim authority is preparing for elections that the majority of Libyans (militia members included) regard as the next step to a unified nation. A constitution will legitimize the call to disarm. And while the government at this stage cannot cope with an immediate integration of an estimated 120,000-200,000 militiamen into the national payroll, the administration will become increasingly capable of offering revolutionaries jobs in the civil or security sectors as state assets become unfrozen, as well as job training and education.  

Three challenges to preventing internal conflict will remain: first, the government must formulate a clear long-term national strategy for comprehensive disarmament. Second, it must secure Libya’s extensive desert borders from arms traffic; and last, it must establish a functioning judiciary to try those militia members who inflict torture on their detainees, refuse to respect due process, or hold their weapons past a final disarmament deadline.  

Setting realistic and flexible timetables for disarmament in the long-term and assessing the financial capacity in which to carry them out will be crucial to success. If the government implements a registration period for militia weapons within a period of time that cannot reasonably be enforced, its authority will be undermined and militias will see little incentive to disarm. And no matter how effective the disarmament and demobilization plan is at the local level of cities and towns, loose borders can quickly render any successes futile. Libya’s vast, unsecured borders with the Sahel along Chad, Niger, and Algeria have established smuggling routes for arms and other illegal goods, as highlighted in a December 2011 UN mission report. If borders remain uncontrolled for an extended period, arms will flow freely and any weapons collected during the disarmament program will simply be repurchased on the black market.  

Furthermore, the new Libyan government must also establish a respected legal and judicial system capable of enforcing a weapons reduction plan.  While the international community is engaged in disarmament efforts, UN involvement via an official peacekeeping function is notably absent under the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).  Without a mandate that can be enforced by legal and security bodies, neither the government nor the militias can be held accountable for breaking either end of the commitment once weapons have been turned over. As UNSMIL is explicitly limited to a support role, it is not necessary for the government’s procedures to agree with international norms – a considerable afterthought in a country with no viable court system.  

Disarmament in any context is never merely an issue of weapons reduction, but rather a social contract between the people and its government. The real test for Libya will come after the June elections when the established government is forced to reckon with the host of challenges to Libya’s long-term stability—the least of which will be the occasional militia flare-up. But so far, the widespread awareness that militias have more to lose by inciting violence than by refraining from it is rendering Libya a fairly stable transitioning state.

Amanda Kadlec developed this piece from field research she conducted in Libya in December as a Research Assistant for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.