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Opinion

Libya: Security versus democracy

Democratisation has to be Libya's destination to stem the tide of implosion so that Libyans can live peacefully.

Last Modified: 05 May 2013 16:16
Larbi Sadiki

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).
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"The bombing of the French embassy is a veiled message - it sends a signal of opposition to French and Western intervention in Mali," writes Larbi Sadiki [AFP]

Whenever a bomb explodes in Libya, so do the arguments amongst those who profess to be the guardians of democracy despite their differing discourses on what constitutes security. It then becomes a chicken-egg dialogue: what should come first, security or democracy? Or are they, as many argue, the two sides of the same coin? 

I am biased. Democracy precedes all other imperatives. The Arab World prior to the Arab Spring diced with security first, democracy later. So, on this ground alone, it makes no sense today in the midst of the Arab Spring moment to regurgitate and stress the primacy of security. 

Even if the transformation is slow, North Africa has embraced change, and so new ideas, new language and new ethics are needed. Like democracy, security itself cannot be recycled in the same monotone of the hyper-realists of the 1990s and 2000s, readily packaged as "one size fits all". Nuance is often missing. The context is not sufficiently appreciated. And this complicates the career of both security and democracy in the Arab region. 

In the old days, when development and modernisation gurus had buoyancy, the reigning wisdom was that order (security) is prioritised over freedom (democracy). However, the new mantra of the moment is democracy-building first, which makes sense today in the context of the Arab Spring, a moment heralded by rebellious publics to engender freedom and its most important associate - dignity - in the minds of Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans. Through it, institution-building and construction of the legal foundations of the state, and the design of the cake of values, the glue that keeps polity and society united around shared vision and aspirations. This is challenging. It is this vacuum that allows for the rise of umbrella identities - bearing the Quran or Kalashnikovs or wearing the mask of sectarianism or tribalism - to carve out margins of existence and recruit "foot soldiers".   

Hyper-security voices will feel validated by their "theses", calling for maximum vigilance and matching measures to ensure "threats" to Western interests in Libya and North Africa are contained. The voices on the other side worry for democracy: the return of security does not bode well for democratisation for obvious reasons, including the threat of militarisation of polity. Plus, security cannot be discussed in isolation of distribution: economic security, human security, recognition, justice and opportunity in the new Libya. 

Regardless, one thing is common ground: security problems fester in political crises and the absence of shared values, equal opportunities, regional development, inclusiveness, trust and the distribution of both power and wealth. 

Libya's heavy arms being funnelled across border

In Libya, there are three main issues that may provide clues as to the acute security situation. 

Militarisation of polity 

The revolutions led to a downpour of public passions into the squares, including the fighting fields of Libya. Libyans distinguish between "genuine revolutionaries" and "fake revolutionaries". Criminals, former prisoners and detainees were unleashed by Gaddafi to tip the balance of power in his favour and many dissolved into the country, still armed with weapons and the same un-rehabilitated dispositions to harm society. 

The "genuine revolutionaries" have an unruly side to them too. They have the twin benefits of wages and legitimacy due to integration into the police forces, and to a lesser extent the army. No precise figures exist. However, more than 140,000 individuals have been integrated into the police force. Training is poor and little is done in terms of civilianising policing and professionalising it in a way that works in tandem with democratisation. Under an agreement facilitated by the National Transitional Council, an over-arching umbrella - the Supreme Security Council - would be the organisation that oversees the process of integration. 

There is a problem: no figures exist of how many militias exist in Libya, according to many Libyan officials. 

One thing has not changed: under Gaddafi coercion was official policy but unitary. Right now, use of force is "informal" and diffuse, as the militias supposedly integrated into the police force and the army owe no loyalty whatsoever to the centre. They have, more or less, maintained loyalty to the militias they belonged to during the revolution in the lead-up to the ouster of Gaddafi. 

Moreover, the geography of what might be called "hinterland" has expanded, and the South and the West of Libya are peripheral, with the centre's ability to project control and power being limited. As a result, arms supply to Libya is a huge problem, and arms "travel" from Libya to neighbouring countries such as Tunisia in huge and frequent quantities, something that is worrying the authorities there. 

Political division and absence of shared values 

Therefore the militarisation of polity with militias taking the law into their own hands is a very serious threat when bringing the state and institutions back into people's lives. Not even the General National Congress (GNC) has escaped the punishing chaos meted out by some militias. This happened to force certain political views, namely, support for the "exclusion law", for instance. 

The news headlines of the past few weeks in Libya say it all: An aborted attempt to blockade Tripoli; clashes in Warshfana Area; and fighting in Sabha pitting Awlad Sulayman Tribe against the army, causing a number of deaths. 

Of course, without knowing the depth of these crises, it is easy to dismiss these as not being on the scale of the car bomb in Tripoli, which wounded two French guards at France's embassy. There is a reason for this: violence returns to the capital, which has not seen attacks on diplomats like that which killed the US ambassador in Benghazi last year. In one way, this is a reminder of how since the ouster of Gaddafi by Western-backed rebels in late 2011, Tripoli and the rest of the sprawling desert state have been awash with weapons and roving armed bands. The use of cars in the bombing introduces a new element too.  

However, one feature of the chaos in Libya calls for vigilance: not to underestimate the fact that political division impacts hugely on security. The "clashing" forces in the interim GNC, as a Libyan friend puts it, are mirrored in the divisiveness within the security forces that are drenched in ideology. The secularist-Islamist division noticeable in the interim parliament is played out in clashes between the militias, according to Senussi Busairi. A friend from Benghazi agrees, noting some of the Islamist militias were of late considering driving a major secularist force out of power. 

The absence of the transitional justice is a problem: more than 30,000 Libyans were killed and as yet there is no process to address this. This adds to divisiveness. The political exclusion law is explosive: it could derail the whole process - so Libyans are damned if they support it (as it would target currently visible and powerful political groups), and they are damned if they don't, since those responsible for crimes will go un-punished to the detriment of social peace.  

Libya's transition is behind schedule, not really different in this regard from neighbouring Arab Spring states, Egypt and Tunisia. Naturally, the absence of shared values and political rules of engagement aggravates security and prolongs the absence of the state as well is the incapacity of interim institutions to assume full authority. From this perspective, political reconstruction is bound to benefit security. In the same vein, security and democratic deficiency may be part of the same problem. However, that is not saying that "policing" is a pre-requisite, that is, a capacity-building device that helps democracy. 

Car bomb explodes at French embassy in Libya

The surrounding context 

France is both a winner and a loser. France played a major role in leading the NATO air campaign to protect Benghazi-based rebels from Gaddafi's forces. France benefited from that intervention, emerging as a liberator along with the Brits. With the bombing that targeted their embassy, the French have to start worrying that there is no intervention without cost. 

And it may be the intervention and victory in Libya emboldened the French to pursue this policy preference in the rest of Africa. Ironically, the weapons that end up in the hands of Islamist insurgents in Mali who in turn give Paris a headache, originate from Libya - the very same country the French helped to liberate. So recently, by mounting an attack in Mali - its former colony - France set herself up for trouble in North Africa. Only last week the al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) threatened to attack France. The attack came speedily. 

Of course, there is something which is puzzling in all of this in Libya. In the terrorist attack on Amenas natural gas plant in Algeria, not far from the Libyan and Malian borders, the rebels had one chief demand: France should stop its intervention in Mali. The signs were there: Why has Libya not taken measures to protect the French embassy?  

Nonetheless, the attack underscores how every time Western powers expand the territory on which they conduct battles against borderless terrorists, they leave themselves open to attacks on huge stretches of geography at a time when Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Nigeria and Tunisia emerge, at least in the design of Western security-gurus, constructed as united battlefields where radical Islamists must be contained. Apart from posing problems for the Arab Spring, the embattled incumbent polities, not knowing yet how to manage transitions, are being mobilised to fight terrorism.  

The bombing of the French embassy is a veiled message. Partly, it is addressed to the French: it sends a signal of opposition to French and Western intervention in Mali. Also, it partly underscores the extent to which Libya is imploding - with Libyan, AQIM or by other means. 

Democratisation has to be Libya's destination to stem the tide of implosion so that Libyans do not live with more scenes of explosion.   

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of  Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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