Like a cad on a one-night stand, NATO and its associates bombed Muammar Gaddafi's regime away, and with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am gave scarcely a thought to the aftermath and the prospect of an aborted state. Initially, the Libyans who succeeded the toppled tyrant were pleased. The state was theirs to fashion with little overt external interference. But as insecurity spreads and allegations of gross financial mismanagement mount, many Libyans are wondering whether they are up to the job.
Part of the problem is the constitutional process. The lack of transparency in the country's highest authority in post-Gaddafi Libya, the National Transitional Council, hampers the council's interaction with its public, and undermines its legitimacy. (It is constantly adding new members--there were 86 at last count, but no one seems to have a list.) The council's appointment of short-term governments ensures that the cabinets are lame ducks as soon as they take office. The current prime minister, Abdulrahim al-Keib, compounded this insecurity by setting a single target for his government--elections--and leaving reconstruction to his successors.
In a country awash with weapons, the lack of momentum has left the center dangerously devoid of tools and authority for establishing itself. Militias formed during the revolution to fight Gaddafi's forces claim ownership of the revolution, and accuse the government composed of technocrats and exiles of stealing its spoils. New militias surfaced in Gaddafi's former garrison towns in the center armed with hundreds of tanks and questionable commitments to the new order. In the absence of a state criminal justice system, these groups rounded up 5,000 prisoners, and held them without trial. The approach of the July 19 election date has hastened the militias' resolve to carve out their prerogatives before an incoming government achieves a mandate based on the ballot box, not their revolutionary zeal.
Critically, the authorities failed to regulate the relationship between the old order and the new. The new government's efforts to avoid the pitfalls of the US invasion of Iraq and its deBaathification program, which stripped the state of its fabric, have come under sustained attack from the rogue militias anxious to press their claim to state jobs and revenues. Government reluctance has been met with violence. Amid allegations of mass fraud, the government severely limited paid medical trips abroad for the war wounded, and cancelled one-off payments to rebels after at least 20 times as many would-be recipients registered as the number of fighters. On May 8, militiamen attempted to storm the prime minister's office by firing mortars at it. A hastily-constructed demobilization program for militiamen has projected the same tensions inside the new security forces.
With the lid of the old regime blown away, a plethora of simmering ethnic and racial tensions suppressed by Gaddafi's policy of Arabization have burst into the open. In southern towns, long-standing tensions between Arab tribes and Black Toubou tribes over control of the smuggling routes into the Sahel degenerated into street fighting at a cost of hundreds of lives. Amazigh, or Berber, revivalists based in the coastal town of Zwara fought Arabs in neighboring Reqdaline for control of the Tunisian border. Graffiti promoting ethnic cleansing scars town walls. The goodwill that sustains support for the NTC in Tripoli has largely evaporated in Benghazi, which has precious little to show for engineering the revolt in February 2011, particularly since the leadership moved to Tripoli and is feeding separatist or anarchic tendencies.
Belatedly, the attacks have stirred the new authorities to assert their presence. Government forces hastily cobbled together constructed a buffer in both the West and South, maintaining ceasefires that have more or less held. But it remains unclear whether the forces' numbers are sufficient to prevent the cultural battles spreading across Libya, or into neighboring states. Rebels without a cause have travelled from the coast to join the fray, heightening tensions. Flush with Libya's weapons, the Tuareg--or desert Amazigh--have already carved out their own homeland, Azawad, in northern Mali. Gun markets have surfaced in southern Tunisia, and Sinai's Bedouin careen along mountain tracks with formerly Libyan anti-aircraft guns mounted on Nissan trucks. Libya's own turmoil could yet acquire continental proportions.
The Libyan government can still celebrate noted successes in comparison to Iraq in the wake of the US invasion. It has wrested most of the country's ports and airports back from the rebels, maintained the civil service and established the rudiments of a security force. It quickly restored utilities and oil flows, opened the airport to international flights, and hosted its first oil conferences. It has so far kept at bay the West's own jihadis, those veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq's private security companies who had come to Libya seeking rich pickings. And elections, if they happen, may yet provide the panacea to win popular backing for the new order and legitimize civilians at the expense of the militiamen, who unfettered will create havoc. But with such riches to distribute amongst such a small population, the vultures are many. Standing up a central authority will require greater resolve, inclusion and transparency than the would-be authorities have displayed to date.