Since February, over 250 people have been killed in tribal and militia clashes in Libya’s southern and western regions. A fundamental breakdown of law and order has now reached all corners of the country. These flare-ups are becoming increasingly common and deadlier the closer the scheduled June election nears. Libya’s internal instability continues to have dire consequence for the region as a whole, most notably in Mali’s continuing crisis. The latest reports indicate that Somali pirates have now acquired Libyan weapons as well.
The National Transition Council (NTC) remains unable to do much beside send “brigades” to negotiate ceasefires between warring parties. Dangerously, the NTC is pushing ahead with its planned national assembly elections, regardless of whether the country’s internal security situation seems stable enough to handle it. An unsuccessful election marred by militia and tribal clashes could lead to a collapse of what remains of the Libyan state, a collapse that would further destabilize the region with increasing outflows of migrants and weapons.
The US and EU have chosen to focus solely on weapons proliferation and migrant flows, rather than attempt to deal with either problem’s root cause, Libya’s internal instability. The current stance of Western nations is an unfortunate wait-and-see approach. Political and economic constraints will continue to restrain the West from robust engagement on internal Libyan political issues, despite the necessity of outside mediators to bring the various armed factions of the emerging Libyan political scene together. How can Libya can sustain a legitimate political transition under the shadow of armed militias that are increasingly willing to use their weapons for political leverage?
Part of this post-intervention disengagement stems from the NTC’s early refusal to have outside assistance in the form of any peacekeeping or stabilization mission. At that point in time, the NTC was flying high off of the euphoria of its victory over Qaddafi. Vocal and robust US and European diplomatic support, most which has now since dissipated drastically, obfuscated the treacherous political path that the NTC now finds itself facing. Today the Council is well aware of its increasingly tenuous position and is desperately seeking more political engagement and support from the US and Europe. The absence of major diplomatic displays of support for the NTC from Western capitals have left the Council feeling abandoned.
The US and Europe have gained a significant amount of currency with the NTC as a result of the NATO intervention. Should the diplomatic silence continue, the credibility and influence of Western capitals will eventually evaporate. Right now, the NTC will listen, but only if the US and Europe are once again willing to pursue aggressive public diplomacy initiatives to support the Council moving forward. The Obama administration and its European allies should be working to bolster their influence with the NTC, utilize it effectively, and push the Council toward more responsible and democratic decision making.
The first part of this approach to more responsible decision making is for the NTC to reverse its decision against allowing UN peacekeepers in Libya. The US and EU should be working to convince the NTC that a greater UN role in helping maintain security would be the best way to ensure a successful election. The current UN presence, UNSMIL (United Nations Support Mission in Libya), has little added value in its present form. A greater UN role, in the form of peacekeeping, would lift the security burden from the NTC’s shoulders. A neutral UN presence might also be the catalyst needed to convince the various militias to lay down their weapons. This would allow the NTC to take bolder action on political and economic reforms that are desperately needed and focus its resources on adequately preparing for what could be Libya’s first legitimate national election.
The second part of this approach would be postponing such elections. Right now the NTC feels pressured to have elections as soon as possible to cement its flagging democratic legitimacy. But holding elections under a deeply flawed electoral framework, will most likely result in an election marred by claims of fraud and possible militia violence that would only further damage the democratic legitimacy the NTC desperately needs. Constituent assembly elections were originally delayed in both Tunisia and Egypt for lack of preparedness. Both transitional governments were able to adequately explain the reasons for delay and both nations went on to host free and fair elections, after proper preparations, for the first time in their respective histories.
The US and Europe should be advancing this argument with the NTC to convince them to allow the current spate of locally planned elections in cities like Benghazi, Darna, and others to take place first and revise and update the electoral framework with participation from the local elected councils. While undertaking this political process as a practice run toward a national election, the NTC could allow the security situation to settle as a UN force takes on the security burden. This would create the necessary conditions for Libya to truly begin to stabilize and transition into a functional nation-state.
Alec Simantov is from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He is currently pursuing his Master of Public Policy degree from George Mason University specializing in International Governance and Institutions, with a focus on EU foreign and security policy in the Middle East. He earned his Bachelor’s degrees in History and Linguistics from the University of Maryland with concentrations in Middle Eastern history and Arabic language. Prior to the Atlantic Council, Alec interned at the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, in the Foreign & Security Policy/Transatlantic program and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) as a Legislative Assistant. He currently serves as an executive editor for TABLET, the International Affairs Journal of George Mason University and as an editorial assistant for Foreign Policy Bulletin.