10. Musings on Libya’s militias

Source: Libyan Herald

Protests (left) against Libya’s militias (right)

Thomas Hobbes discussed in his famous work “Leviathan” the need for a strong, civil government. Without a government, the people would fall back to their natural state. This natural state is a chaotic one, a battle of man against man. In order to contain this violence, the government should have the exclusive right to use force. Only the government may thus use violence and force against its citizens if necessary to maintain or restore peace and rule of law. Of course, this right does not give the government the right to kill its people in order to stay in power, as Ghaddafi attempted. On the contrary, it means that the government should ensure that its people can live in peace without any fear or violence by enforcing the rule of law. Perpetrators are arrested and imprisoned, while victims are protected and helped.

After the revolution Libya stood on the brink of returning to Hobbes’ natural state: the fight of man against man. With the defeat and dispersion of Ghaddafi’s army, the Libyan government (either in the guise of the Ghaddafi regime or the National Transitional Council) could no longer enforce its exclusive right of force. Instead it was claimed by the many different militias that had liberated the Libyans from Ghaddafi’s dictatorship. In a sense the militias brought freedom and chaos, because the government had no control whatsoever over them. This resulted in the random arrests and torture of Libyans that were accused of collaboration with Ghaddafi based on unsubstantiated and racists charges.  Also more radical Islamist militias were not stopped, when they attacked Sufi shrines and commonwealth war graves. They did this, because they considered saint worship un-Islamic and did not like the open display of crosses and David stars in an Islamic country.

Libyans did raise their voices against the excesses of these militias and Libyans politicians and key figures, liked Abdelhakim Belhadj, joined them. Their calls for the restriction of gun possession and to bring the militias under government control had little effect. The militias remained outside governmental control and could continue doing as they liked. But the attack on the American embassy and the killing of the American ambassador proved to be the straw that broke the militias’ backs. No protests anymore against America and the controversial film “The innocence of Muslims”, but the Libyans direct their anger and protests against the militias.

These protest had huge consequences for Libya. Militias choose to disband, withdraw or join in the government forces, after they were confronted with the anger of their fellow Libyans. The government forces made good use of the moment to retake several of the militias’ deserted bases. The new Libyan government now seems to be able to retake and enforce its exclusive right of force. This development should lead to increased security and rule of law within Libya. With the decrease of the militias, the possibility of a civil war in Libya also decreases. The Libyan government should make use of this opportunity to create a strong, reliable national army in order to ensure the safety of Libya and its citizens.

However, Libya is a big country with huge desert. Al-Qaeda and other radical organisations have profited from the chaos of the revolution to plunder the armouries of Ghaddafi’s army. Terrorist movements and more radical militias may choose to withdraw themselves to more inhospitable and less controlled areas of Libya or bury their arms for the time being. Libya may become like Algeria in the 80’s and 90’s. During this period several radical, armed Islamist groups waged a war against the Algerian government. Some of these groups, like the Movement Islamique Armée (MIA), could be relatively easy suppressed and were mostly active in specific, remote areas. Others, like the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA), fought on for several years bathing Algeria in blood. For now this last scenario seems, luckily enough, unlikely for Libya. However, in the futures certain areas could come under control of small radical, armed groups with the government unable to enforce its authority. If these radical groups make use of the local dissatisfaction as result of tribal or racial differences or resentment by former Ghaddafi loyalists, they may settle in these areas with the support of the local population. This would make it harder for the government to dispel and destroy them. A national reconciliation is the best way to alleviate local resentment and as a result make this scenario less likely. For the same reason the new Libyan government should make sure that governmental services and protection are extended equally to all areas in Libya and that not some areas or neighbourhoods are left out.

In conclusion, the anger of the Libyans against the militias has enabled the Libyan government to restore its exclusive right of force. Libya should become thus a more secure and stable country in the future. However, the new government has much work to do to make this happen. It should build a strong, professional army. It should promote national reconciliation and make sure that all areas in Libya profit equally from government services and protection. If it fails to do so in one of these aspects, radical, armed groups may create their own “caliphates” in remote and forgotten parts of Libya. However, the lesson of today is that no armed group or oppressive regime is safe when the Libyan people turns against them.

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