Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and author of A History of Modern Libya.

Libya continues to face grave political difficulties that will ultimately have an impact on how secure the country will be. The attempt to create a National Dialogue in the face of faltering political institutions (like the General National Congress, or GNC) reveals that without the creation of meaningful institutions capable of solving the country’s lingering political difficulties, the reform and reconstruction of the security sector will only lead to continuing instability and chaos in the country. 

The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) keeps prodding political parties and a host of informal political actors to engage in a dialogue that it hopes will result, Tunisian-style, in some sort of compromise and will lead the way toward shared political goals. The last few months have indicated how complex and arduous this process continues to be. In Libya there are, as yet, no commonly accepted rules of the game, and very little sense of political accommodation. The country also lacks functioning civil society organizations or institutional arrangements, making the inability to compromise an enduring and prominent feature of the country’s political life. Although perhaps understandable from a practical point of view, the government’s use of the country’s financial resources to keep a number of competing groups balanced has, unfortunately, not provided any further impetus toward compromise either.

The ongoing institutionalization of the country’s political life has masked the fact that the major political institution created by the national elections—the GNC—has become a hollowed-out body that is valued more for what it can deliver in terms of patronage to different groups than as a national political institution that mediates citizens’ concerns. As the GNC’s decline demonstrates, an important bifurcation seems to be taking place in Libya. On the one hand the country’s political institutions are being constructed, but, on the other hand, they carry increasingly less relevance and meaning within the country. What must provide ultimate security for Libya as a country and as a political system—an institutionalized state that enjoys the legitimacy of those it governs—seems to be slipping away.

The idea of a National Dialogue was in part an attempt to remedy this growing alienation between politics and the reality of life in Libya, by bridging the gap between the country's formal political framework and those groups that have been excluded. Some observers have pronounced the National Dialogue a stillborn exercise; others are more optimistic that it can still have an important role as an intermediary in Libya’s fractious political life.

Bringing the security sector under government control is a sine qua non for the country’s stable future. But unless Libya can also create the political institutional arrangements that are ultimately needed for long-term stability and legitimacy, reform of the security sector will not be sufficient. We would do well to extend all the help we can as Libya struggles with the political aspects of its state-building effort. Political reconstruction will prove to be as significant to its security as the reform of its security sector.