Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Eric Knecht is a research fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center.
Over the past few weeks, a series of developments in Libya suggests that the country may be reaching a turning point in its protracted security crisis. Although various leaders have vehemently and repeatedly called for disbanding rebel militias for much of the last year, the Libyan people and its government have lately come together—and not without some unfortunate violence—to strip rogue militias of their legitimacy and jumpstart the building of a credible national army and police force. The process is far from completed, and the Libyan government is in dire need of assistance, but the latest developments offer some encouragement.
On September 21, a demonstration dubbed "Save Benghazi" brought together upwards of 30,000 residents under the banner of disbanding the country's militias and strengthening the army and police forces. The event was a direct response to the recent murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, which was seen by the Libyan people as the final straw in a security crisis that will not end until the country's lingering rebel militias are disbanded.
Shortly after the demonstration, a much smaller contingent of several hundred descended upon the city's Ansar al Sharia headquarters—the group accused of complicity in the embassy attack—and forced its members out. A similar but even more violent scenario played out at the base of another local militia, Rafallah Al-Sahati, a group actually acting on formal government orders to protect a weapons stockpile. After a firefight that left four dead, the government-sanctioned Al-Sahati militia retreated, allowing the mob to storm the compound and seize control of the weapons.
The Al-Sahati incident speaks to the complicated balance militias currently keep in place—some serve crucial roles, others just cause trouble. The challenge for the government moving forward is to discern which militias serve legitimate functions that merit integration into the larger national forces. Past attempts have failed, producing shadow forces that run parallel—and lack a clear command structure and loyalty—to the central government itself.
The government's latest move to disband militias, and coming as an immediate response to the "Save Benghazi" rally, was two-fold: First, the government ordered all armed groups out of Tripoli within 48 hours. Next, the country's top leaders met with commanders of various Benghazi brigades and struck an agreement giving army officers full control of the eastern city's remaining militias.
Like previous attempts to deal with militias, the results were mixed. By imposing a 48 hour deadline it ultimately could not enforce, the government appeared weak. And while some Benghazi militias are now under army control, this has, in some cases, simply meant internal promotion of militia members already affiliated with the army.
Regardless of the partial success of these tactics, however, the sheer surge of street-level support for the moves suggests an opening for the government to do more. This past Saturday, for example, a weapons collection drive in Benghazi and Tripoli drew hundreds of enthusiastic participants.
Ways to move beyond stopgap measures that rely on neither militia nor tribal affiliation has been a matter of debate since the earliest days of the country's transition. More recently, some have proposed rebuilding national security forces from scratch, in part because existing ones have been at least partially infiltrated by members of Salafist groups and other extremists. If these forces were to be rebuilt, a useful model for a new armed corps might be the French Gendarmerie or the Italian Carabinieri, both of which have performed very well in guaranteeing order and stability in their countries and elsewhere.
Regardless of the model used, however, it is clear the Libyan government should ask for international support in training and arming its forces. Assistance from outside—which is overwhelmingly popular among the Libyan people—will guarantee the stability needed to engage in infrastructure construction and development projects. These initiatives are sorely needed to provide jobs and training programs for thousands of restless, unemployed, and frustrated young people who currently fill the ranks of the militias. In this way, disbanding militias is crucial to the economic development that will, in turn, guarantee that militias remain disbanded.
Over the last few weeks the long and seemingly intractable struggle to disband militias has shown signs of letting up. The international community should recognize this as a potential turning point and offer whatever assistance the Libyan government needs. Leaving Libya to suffer its fate alone not only endangers the future of this nascent democracy and thousands of Libyans, but will have consequences far beyond its borders that we can no longer afford to ignore.