Sep 23, 2012

The Great Wall of Libya

In one of his stories, Franz Kafka suggests that China would not have come to being if it were not for the construction of its Great Wall. People from all over the kingdom were summoned by an Emperor whose existence was probably unknown by many workers-to-be peasants. As well, at the building site, people from diverse regions would have suddenly realized that, though coming from villages previously just heard of in fantastic stories, they actually must have some kind of link because they were collaborating in the same effort. Even more, Kafka (maybe without sufficient historical accuracy but certainly with literary audacity) suggests that the enemies from which the Chinese were trying to protect themselves had never gone through the site where the Wall was being built, had never reached the villages of any of the workers or even could have been gone for many years. But the construction of the Wall, and with it saying “Here is China, there is not China. You are Chinese and must protect yourselves against the not-Chinese who want to attack you”, set the bases for an Empire that fell just 100 years ago.

Today, Libya might be under an analogous situation: trying to rebuild (or, perhaps, plainly build) their country as a single political unit. This Sunday’s English version of the Al-Jazeera website reports that the government “moves to dissolve rogue militias”. It is equivalent to say “We are the authority, you are not.” This matches with one of the key elements of the state as defined by Weber and that has been present in the mind of statesmen during all of the 20th Century: the state has the legitimate monopoly of violence. What is more, Libyans want their state to be democratic: “Even if you are not the authority, you can form a political party, present to elections, win representation in the parliament, talk and then we will see.”

Literature on transitions to democracy notice how difficult it can be to build at the same time the state, which implies a sense of political unity (or, at least, a tacit agreement that the institutions in place will not be challenged, even less by armed means), and a democracy, which entails a sense of political plurality (potentially opening the door to organizations that could undermine democratic practices). In Libya these two problems converge in one political actor: rogue militias.

Indeed, the term is used in plural. And in contrast to Kafka’s story, the danger in Libya is real. In December 2011, Al Jazeera organized a discussion panel which the participation of Libyan scholars, students, former rebel fighters and NGO representatives. At that time, a month after the interim government was inaugurated, they all agreed that one of the most important concerns of Libyans had to do with the two largest militias: pro-Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi. On the one hand, given its weakness the government could do little to regulate weapons or to uncontestably impose its authority throughout all the national territory. On the other hand, there was a shared fear among the country’s population that if the course taken by the political processes did not satisfy the armed groups in one way or another (they could say a dictatorship was replacing that of Gaddafi, they could feel excluded from the institution-building discussions, they would like to prevent a particular group from being involved in the new political life of the country –a militia group says they attacked Sufi camp sites because they “supported Gaddafi’s regime and they believe in magic”-, they would pursue more radical ideas than the government or they wanted to catalyze changes) they would return to arms and the violence would resume. And no state, even less if it is weak or trying to become democratic, can survive in a violent environment.

In the interview mentioned above, the participants were proud to say that the Libyans had shown exemplar behavior after the fall and death of Gaddafi, as no mob riots had occurred and the only sources of violence were the militias. However, during this year, it has been clear that without a central authority any pretext can lead to violence. Just think of the last two weeks: the diffusion of the video The Innocence of Muslims caused anti-American revolts which, directly or indirectly, translated into the death of officers at the United States Consulate in Benghazi. In spite of the civic sense most Libyans have, rogue armed groups offer no guaranty.

Fortunately, the order of the Libyan government seems to have encountered a favorable environment. Even before being issued, this Friday inhabitants of Benghazi evicted members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, arguing they were tired of living under their presence and to avoid more episodes similar to that of the American Consulate. As reported by Al-Jazeera, the Libyan military had established its presence in some hours’ time, apparently without incident. Then this Sunday, the government says it has decided to dissolve all remaining rogue militias. It is still to be seen if this goal will be achieved. It will be a major challenge for the newly elected Prime Minister, Mustafa Abushagur, who beginning September 12 has one month to form a cabinet. In any case, it is positively remarkable that in a state trying to consolidate power and to be democratic, citizens’ actions turn into government orders and not the other way round.



  • While I completely agree that the call to disband all militias in Libya not under government control as a response to citizens’ demands is impressive and deserves recognition, to what extent will this act remain simply a call without an answer? (Debbie Downer here I come.) This call has been made before, but little disbanding resulted because the government was still relying on some of these groups to act as police forces in the country, whether they were always officially under state auspicious or not. Have state forces grown strong enough to take over some of the law and order enforcement that groups of these militias were doing without destabilizing the country further?

  • Very good point. Governments do not achieve things by saying they will do them, they actually have to act. The Libyan officers have not given constant proof of their capacities to exercise their authority. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next government, due to open sometime during the next month (as soon as the Cabinet is formed), to see what they are actually capable of. In any case, being apparently weak, they will need to establish tight alliances with the citizens to achieve the common interest of security.

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