Transitions

Libyans to militias: "Get lost."

The people of Benghazi have a clear message to armed militias: "You are no longer welcome in this city."

This weekend, over 31 people died and more than 100 were wounded during clashes in Benghazi between protesters and the militias paid by the government to act as a reserve security force. The militias have assumed a self-appointed role as the country's peacekeepers while wreaking havoc in their own quest for power. This incident will only further incense Libyans who have been forced to endure rule by militias for more than two years while the country's military is being rebuilt.

The unique arrangement came from the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, which led to a security vacuum. In the environment of extreme instability, armed militias were able to operate outside the law and even run their own parallel justice system where citizens could be detained in illegal prisons, tortured, and sometimes even killed. Some members were part of the revolutionary forces fighting Qaddafi, but enlistment surged as unemployed and uneducated young people and ex-criminals started joining ranks.

The government has done little to quell the growing influence of armed groups. Many Libyans have criticized it for providing financial and legal backing while marginalizing the professional standing army and police forces. For reasons many don't pretend to understand, militias are afforded better equipment and higher salaries despite the fact that they don't obey orders, break the law on a daily basis, and are generally considered a prime cause of the lawlessness pervading the country.

After months of growing frustration, hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday outside the headquarters of the Libya Shield militia brigade (one of the most powerful government-sanctioned groups), demanding that it be disbanded and removed from the residential area. As the violence started to intensify and the militias pushed back, Defence Minister Mohammed al-Barghathi ordered the army Special Forces unit to intervene and stabilize the situation. Army chief of staff, Youssef al-Mangoush, who is a frequent target of public ire, resigned the following day.

This is not the first time that militias have fired on anti-militia protesters. In September 2012, protesters stormed a militia compound in the wake of the attack on the U.S. consulate. In response, militias fired back, killing 11 and injuring more than 70. Despite claims by Libya Shield and their backers that these militias are actually a legitimate force sanctioned by the government, the reality is that rarely obey the authorities' orders. Their main loyalty is to their commanders and their political backers, above all the Islamist movements and the Islamist bloc within the General National Congress (GNC).

During a GNC session convened to discuss the killings the day before, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the army chief both stressed that Libya Shield does not always follow the government's instructions. Members of Libya Shield and other affiliated militiamen besieged government ministries in Tripoli for more than two weeks last month to force their will on the national assembly and pressure them to pass the controversial isolation law.

The message from the militias is clear: "We're the only army and police that Libyan government can rely on. Support us or else." But the reality on the ground shows something completely different. The deployment of members of the Special Forces Unit (a 16,000-strong professional army unit) in Benghazi to improve security has been welcomed by the people of the city. As expected, militia leaders aren't happy with the apparent success of the Special Forces Unit.

Any decision on disbanding these pseudo-armies can only be taken by the General National Congress (GNC). Unfortunately, the political commitment of GNC members is increasingly questionable amid the ongoing political infighting among various narrow-minded interests. This infighting is causing rising frustration among political parties that are accused of working for their own interests and not for those of nation. Many believe that some factions have benefitted from militia violence in order to secure political gains.

Urged on by the growing outcry, the GNC passed a resolution on Sunday urging the government to take "all necessary measures to stop the presence of unauthorized armed groups." It also called for Prime Minister Zeidan and his government to come up with a plan for integrating former rebel fighters into the army.

However, the families of the recent victims in Benghazi criticized the GNC statement. The families called the resolution weak, and demanded that the government and GNC openly name the groups that are hindering efforts to rebuild the national army and police forces. In addition, the families urged the government to stop issuing payments to "legitimate militias" that have, for the second time, killed large numbers of Benghazi residents.

The security situation in Libya and the rebuilding of the army and police have become a political circus between the different political forces in Libya and the national interest has become secondary in this political infighting over control.

Many Libyans like me are frustrated at the fact that the militia card is being used as a political bargaining chip with complete disregard for the national interests of the nation. The lack of a united political will towards the existence of militias by our politicians is the main obstacle in the way of disbanding militias and the rebuilding of proper army and police force. Tension is growing by the day, and frustration is building. Politicians need to pay more attention to the people's demands and stop backing armed groups pursuing narrow-minded political interests.    

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images

Transitions

Five (hundred) kings, one throne: why federalism works

You might not have realized this if you live in a country with a settled political system, but there are many countries where federalism is a pretty hot topic these days. Post-Qaddafi Libyans are still trying to figure out the balance between regional self-determination and the powers of the national government. The powers-that-be in Mali are pushing for ill-defined decentralization while the aid community looks on in horror. Visitors to the multi-ethnic state of Burma find themselves reminiscing about Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. And it's not just transitional states that are still trying to figure out the right combination of central authority and local autonomy. Just take Pakistan, where the long-running separatist revolt in Baluchistan shows that the capital in Islamabad still hasn't convinced all its citizens that it has their interests at heart. 

Enter Ramachandra Guha. The sociologist, historian, and cricket aficionado sees modern India as the "world's most reckless political experiment." Even while expounding on the modern challenges of identity, separatism, economic inequality, and corruption, the author of the book India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy still finds plenty of occasions to praise the nation's founding fathers for unifying such an "unnatural nation" and "unlikely democracy." The key, he says, was decentralization. 

Speaking on Friday at the Center for Global Development in Washington, Guha pointed out that newly independent India faced a formidable array of challenges to its integrity. In the era of Partition, the country's founders had to decide how to safeguard religious pluralism while preventing a Hindu theocracy (which Guha calls the "anti-Pakistan" approach). They had to confront a long-standing culture of exclusion that marginalized women and people from lower castes. And they had to make strategic decisions about whether to embrace democracy in stages (like the United States, which only abolished slavery nearly a century after the Revolutionary War) or all at once. (The Indians ultimately opted for the latter.) 

But perhaps the tallest order of all involved facing up to the country's astonishing political and cultural diversity. At the moment of independence, Guha noted, India consisted of over 500 princely states, whose citizens spoke at least 17 major languages. India, he quipped, anticipated the European Union by 50 years, and may well outlast it by at least 50. Integrating these self-sufficient mini-countries and distinct peoples into a coherent and newly imagined Indian state required a strongly principled approach -- and (in Guha's words) "a little bit of bribery."

Key to imagining India as a single believable entity was the embrace of diversity. India's founders were nothing if not realists. So they encouraged the new states to define themselves according to preexisting cultural and ethnic boundaries. India, argues Guha, could never have become a unified country and a thriving democracy without granting equal status to its many languages and religions.

At a moment when many citizens of the country were still tightly wedded to ethnic identities and skeptical about the viability of an overarching nation-state, pursuing federalism wasn't a sign of weakness. It was, instead, an acknowledgment that people shouldn't be expected to sacrifice the sense of belonging that defines their political reality.

Though Guha is alluding to events that happened more than half a century ago, his conclusions still hold true. When polities are trying to make the transition from authoritarianism (or anarchy) to democracy, notions of national identity aren't strictly defined and can't be taken for granted. Some groups within society may push for wide-ranging regional autonomy; others may insist on the concentration of power within the national capital. The trick lies in finding compromises that offer maximum respect to local aspirations while allowing for efficient government. 

The key thing to remember is that there is no one-size fits-all solution to the balance of central and regional power. In Guha's telling, India's founders had the patience to let their country -- and its constituent states -- figure it out as they went along. There are some issues being sorted out even today, but there is no denying that for this "unlikely nation," federalism has definitely worked. 

Neha Paliwal is the Assistant Editor for Democracy Lab. 

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images