Guns blazing, Libya’s various militias are showing little sign of laying down
their arms and giving authority to the Libyan state. Even Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, has said that Libya faces a risk of widespread conflict, after a gun battle between militias in one of Tripoli’s busiest
streets killed four fighters.
Publicly, the militiamen are reluctant to lay down arms for fear of a rearguard pro-Gaddafi takeover. In reality, they like their newfound power and want to ensure that they swap their weapons for
status and influence. How many of these groups exist is not clear — some estimate 100, with over 125,000 armed Libyans making up their numbers. As a new report from the International Crisis
‘Militias mimic the organisation of a regular military and enjoy parallel chains of command; they have separate weapons and vehicle registration procedures; supply identification cards;
conduct investigations; issue warrants; arrest and detain suspects; and conduct security operations.’
This is clearly not what most Libyans fought for and want — and people hope they don’t have to wait until after elections are held before the situation is cleared up.
The Libyan government needs to have, in the words of Max Weber, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but is too weak to enforce it. In other post-war states — like Bosnia, Kosovo,
and East Timor — the UN, NATO or EU troops have bridged the gap between the state’s ambitions and its means. With the Libyans rejecting a post-war, UN-mandated military presence, and
with few NATO states in the mood to send one, the gaps remains.
But all is not lost. The appointment of Yousef al-Manqoush, from Misrata, as the new Libyan defence chief will help. A former colonel who retired from Gaddafi’s military and participated in the
rebellion is respected by many of Libya’s postwar groups. He will need considerable assistance from Britain and other NATO allies; including funds to help demobilise militiamen, and support
to create a better-organised military (that can incorporate militiamen and quash those who resist). In addition, Libya needs help in developing a vision for a civilian police. Militamen and the
army should be eased out of any inward-facing tasks. They must also feel international pressure, including from the UN Security Council and the Arab League, so they know they could be seen as an
obstacle to stability.
Britain has expertise in all these fields, and should take the lead in providing what Libya needs. General Colin Powell was wrong: you don’t own it if you break it. Libya is not
Britain’s responsibility to fix. At least not entirely. But having helped save a people from a dictator, David Cameron must now play a role in saving ordinary Libyans from their saviours.