Libya – A one-sided standoff in Tripoli

It all happened so quickly. On Sunday, April 28 in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, an unbridled militia armed with machine guns parked their trucks in front of the foreign ministry, effectively surrounding the building. Another group of armed men stormed the interior ministry and a state-operated TV news headquarters. Why? They demanded that parliament pass a law barring all Qaddafi-era senior officials from presently holding public office.

The next day, yet another like-minded group briefly occupied the ministry of finance. On Tuesday, April 30, a different militia—this time armed with heavy anti-aircraft guns—quickly formed a perimeter around the nation’s justice ministry. The gaggle of militants surrounding the various sites did not fire a shot…they did not need to; Libyan security forces had neither the capacity nor the will to dislodge them.

It did not take long for the government to cave in to their demands. By Sunday, May 5, the Libyan parliament had passed a law banning any official who ever served in a senior position under Colonel Qaddafi’s rule from participating in the present government. Though the law had been hotly debated for months, it was not until facing the raw intimidation of the militias—coupled with popular protests backing them—that the assembly took up the vote. (Two days later, armed protesters were still not satisfied—this time demanding that Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, a former diplomat under Qaddafi, agree to step down. Defense minister Mohammed al-Barghathi tried to throw them a bone, himself resigning today—though he appears to now have cold feet.)

How (not) to make policy

This week-long disaster sets a troubling precedent in Libya: if your militia has enough people, guns, and pickup trucks, you can effectively strong-arm parliament into making bad policy. Removing all Qaddafi-era senior officials makes little to no sense—it effectively cuts out all skilled personnel with any significant experience in running the country. Iraq learned this lesson the hard way after U.S. de-Baathification policy in 2003 effectively purged all government and military officials who had served under Saddam Hussein; the result was a deeply fractured and insolvent government that still has not recovered today. Libya should not repeat this same mistake.

Yet it appears to be doing exactly that—and policymaking will suffer until the country can get its security situation under control. It has become clear over the last year and a half that Libya’s new government—though far more inclusive and democratic than before—has little leverage with which to contain Libya’s numerous local militias. The consequent power vacuum has allowed dangerous militants to virtually walk free—at the expense of not only Libyans, but also American and other Western diplomats—and murmurs of an Al Qaeda comeback in the country are growing. And forget about extending government control over the nation’s vast and wild peripherythe west, south, and east.

If one defines “state” using Charles Tilly’s widespread definition as the monopoly on the use of force (or Max Weber’s monopoly on “legitimate” use of force), Libya is far from it. If a couple hundred men with guns can effectively grind the government to a halt with no negative consequences, things are not looking up.

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