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Libya’s Militia Problem

Libya’s recent clashes will go on until jobs are found for the hundreds of thousands of young people out of work.
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Militias in Bani Walid.

On January 1, a militia loosely aligned to Libya’s provisional government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), announced that it had foiled an attempt by a group of nine pro-Gaddafi militants to blow up the Tripoli power grid. These militants, it was claimed, had received funding from “businessmen” sympathetic to the late dictator’s defunct regime.

Two weeks on, however, no substantive evidence has been brought forward – either by the NTC or by the militia itself – to verify this story. That does not necessarily mean it is not accurate. Indeed, in light of widespread reports of “revenge attacks” carried out against Gaddafi supporters – both at the height of the civil war and during its prolonged and messy aftermath – it is entirely conceivable that there are still pockets of anti-NTC “resistance” operating throughout the country.

The NTC’s legitimacy problems

True or not, the story in of itself is hugely significant as it highlights the troubling failure of the new government to establish itself as Libya’s sole legitimate ruling authority more than five months on from the fall of Tripoli. More specifically, it exposes the NTC’s inability to rein in the many powerful militia forces and armed political factions which participated in the February uprising that have yet to disband, despite no longer having any officially sanctioned role to perform.

There are two main reasons why the militias have been so difficult to ‘pacify’. The first is the high rate of youth unemployment. Before the revolution, the proportion of young people without a job stood at a nearly 1 in 4. Although there are no readily available figures for the post-revolution period, it is safe to assume that number has significantly increased, not least because the Libyan oil industry – upon which the whole Libyan economy is built – is only functioning at 60% capacity according to Austrian energy firm OMV.

In addition, the median age in Libya is just 24.5 (Europe’s is in the late-30s), so young people make up a much higher proportion of the population than they do in most economically-advanced nations. These factors, coupled with the fact the country is overflowing with light weaponry and arms from the war, have ensured the challenge of bringing the well-manned and dangerous militias into line has so far been more or less insurmountable for the authorities.

The second reason is that the NTC has not done enough to ensure ordinary Libyan citizens enjoy a minimum degree of day-to-day security. Militias have therefore assumed the role of a de facto police force, albeit one comprised of a multitude of factions. The difficulty, though, is that these factions are hostile to one another and began to clash almost as soon as the Gaddafi regime had been deposed. Since the start of 2012, this hostility has only grown more violent and intense. On January 3, gun fights broke out in Tripoli and Misrata killing four, while on Friday 13 rival militias traded artillery and rocket fire near Abassia, south of the capital.

The lesser of two evils

Confrontations have become so frequent that even Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the NTC, has warned that they could push the country into another conflict before it has even had the chance to recover from the last. Speaking in Benghazi recently, he said:

“We are now between two bitter options. We must deal with these [clashes] strictly and put the Libyans in a military confrontation which we don't accept, or we split and there will be a civil war. If there's no security, there will be no law, no development and no elections.”

The threat, though, of postponing elections – and thus of reducing the pace of Libya’s already painfully slow transition to democracy – will only exacerbate the problem. Having never been formally endorsed in an election, the NTC lacks any real democratic legitimacy. This makes it much easier for militia leaders to ignore government pleas to disarm and integrate or coalesce into an official security force.

The fact that the NTC is so heavily packed with former members of the Gaddafi regime further diminishes its credibility. Free elections, held sooner rather than later, would allow the Libyan people to elect a government of their own choosing, with a mandate to impose order. It is even possible the electoral process itself may help to institutionalise the militias by drawing them into parties and political organisations operating in conjunction with a clearly defined and mutually-agreed set of regulations.

Yet, the single most important task for any Libyan government remains the revival of the economy. The problem of the country’s rampant militias cannot be resolved unless some form of employment is quickly found for the hundreds of thousands of young people currently out of work.

While the future constitution and make-up of any future congress will be crucial, these issues, alongside Libya’s myriad other challenges, are for the moment secondary to the economy.

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