Controlling Libya’s Weapons

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

“Raise your head high, you are a free Libyan” chanted tens of thousands in Benghazi on October 23, 2011 as the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) announced the liberation of Libya. “The tyrant is dead and his rotten body is under the feet of the Libyan people,” said the NTC’s Minister of the Martyrs and the Injured to an ecstatic crowd in Benghazi. “He told us we were rats. But we caught him hiding in a sewage tunnel, exactly like a rat. Let the other tyrants remember,” said Muhammad Abdullah, a fighter from Misrata.

The defeat of the dictator is not enough for successful democratic transition. Libya will now have to deal with the legacy of that tyrant: decades of underdevelopment, corruption, vendettas, repression, and a war that left tens of thousands of Libyans dead and billions of dollars worth of damage. But pessimists are wrong to assume that these challenges doom Libya to collapse into violent chaos.

“Libya will not be another Iraq. I can guarantee you that,” said Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, the former commander of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group and now the commander of the Military Council of Tripoli. Every Libyan politician, tribal leader, military, and paramilitary commander I have spoken with realizes the stakes of the coming transitional period. If Libya survives the volatile transitional phase, it has the chance to be a democratic Dubai. If not, it may look like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia. To get through this transition, Libya urgently needs a strategy of disarmament, reconciliation, and reintegration to avoid a clash between the many armed Libyan units.

The de-centralized nature of Libya’s “liberation army” resulted in several outcomes. On the positive side, it was a people’s army in many ways—popular, legitimate, and inclusive. It avoided many of the potential depredations which a single, hierarchical rebel army might have inflicted on local populations. On the negative side, the absence of a clear command-and-control structure means that the units “coordinated” but did not “obey.” This led to a long list of rogue acts. The most shocking was the murder of General Abd al-Fatah Younis, the former chief of staff, by his own side in July. It is possible (though not yet known) that the killing of Muammar al Qaddafi and his son Mo’tassim were a result of this decentralization as well. Even if it is true that the NTC instructed their forces to capture rather than kill, those orders would not have been easy to enforce. This could also have been the case in the recently reported abuses and killing of Qaddafi loyalists, including the Human Rights Watch report revealing the discovery of 57 corpses in Qaddafi’s hometown.

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