Libya’s decentralized rebellion: will it produce a weak state?

I have a short blurb up on CNN.com, along with four other Libya commentators, on the challenges facing the new interim government. Others mentioned the political transition, disarmament, and changing the Qaddafi-era habit of reliance on connections and corruption. I mentioned the need for the central government to assert its control over all the locally-based militias.

I think, in retrospect, that the autonomy of Libya’s rebel militias were a major reason for the country’s fairly smooth transition from Qaddafi control to rebel control. Usually, every attack on a Qaddafi-held town was spearheaded by a group of exiled fighters from that town, while simultaneously rebel sympathizers staged an uprising from inside that town. Regime forces, softened up by Nato airstrikes, often tended to collapse very quickly, fleeing to safer circumstances. Without these fifth columns to assist and to sew panic among Qaddafi loyalists, the rebels had considerably more difficulty — as we’re seeing now in Sirte and Beni Walid.

Politically, this gave each region a strong sense of having engineered its own liberation, and prevented the perception of a takeover by outsdiders. Just as importantly, it tended to prevent looting — the first thing that the insurgents, after grabbing a weapon from abandoned Qaddafi outposts, was to secure control of key facilities. The rebel National Transitional Council tended to tread very lightly with these militias and insurgent groups, allowing them to operate and to run their respective areas without much interference.

The downside, however, is that now that the NTC is becoming a real interim government and acting a little more like a state, some of these groups are beginning to resent its authority. Commanders in the long-besieged town of Misrata, who always thought that they had been left a bit dry by Benghazi, were always inclined to gripe about the NTC. In Benghazi, meanwhile, the July assassination of rebel commander Abdel Fatah Younis by rogue militiamen prompted an attempt by the NTC to assert its control over local militias, which they resisted. Now some of the figures associated with the Islamist-leaning February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade have been hammering at the NTC’s authority, particularly that of globetrotting interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who spent much of the past six months outside Libya drumming up support for the rebellion — an extremely useful task, but not necessarily one which wins the respect of hardbitten fighters.

I don’t think that these disputes will necessarily boil over into a crisis. Libya’s rebels were well aware of Qaddafi’s description of them as a bunch of fanatics and thugs who would drag the country into chaos, and are anxious to preserve their revolution’s so-far relatively good international reputation. (The rounding-up of African migrants and their internment in makeshift prisons is the major black spot, so far). Also, the NTC’s chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, although more a symbolic than a hands-on leader, is also extremely popular — which is why those pushing back against NTC authority tend to focus on Jibril.

In the long-term, however, the rebels’ reluctance to cede control to the center may lead to a weak central government, with ex-rebels hanging onto confiscated state property, maintaining their own little militias, taking a cut out of local reconstruction contracts, charging their own taxes, and basically telling the Tripoli government to stay out of its business. This is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily the worst outcome for the country — it’s far preferable, say, to a Cuban model or Eritrean model, where a centralized guerilla movement became a centralized and dictatorial ruling party. As India shows, you can have lots of little dysfunctionally governed localities, and still have a functioning liberal democracy on the national level. Freedom first, rule of law a few generations later. Even if Libya’s central government stays weak, it does not mean that the revolution against Qaddafi will have been in vain.

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One Response to Libya’s decentralized rebellion: will it produce a weak state?

  1. mike says:

    speaking the truth gains respect, distorting the truth does the opposite. I am amazed at the jargon used by journalists, re nato has ‘ softened up’ the loyalists. Nato has relentlessly bombed and therefore slaughtered these people together with innocent civilians whome we should describe as collateral damage. Nato claime justification on the premise of gadaffi’s brutal rule, while intent to state that attempts to recognise a Palestinian state will be subject to ensuring no legal reference can be placed on the history of brutalities carried out by the Israeli military against innocent Palestinians. The west chooses to adopt different moral codes as it suits their financial interests, Lybia was always about removing Gadaffi, the truth has equally been removed in tandem.

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