In Libya, Focus on the Rule of Law First

Libya and its international supporters should be wary of speeding up the process of holding elections, as Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril suggested a few days ago, until more fundamental issues of state integrity and security are addressed. Holding elections too soon, given the current absence of any electoral institutions along with Libya’s divisions and instability, would risk plunging the country into civil war rather than fostering stable democratic governance.

Since the Libyan rebels took control of Tripoli on August 22 and captured and killed former dictator Muammar Gaddafi last month, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has attempted to establish its control of the country and move toward a transition to democratic governance. Those who backed NATO’s intervention — originally justified as an implementation of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, though many have raised concerns about the true intentions of this move — have declared victory.

In the weeks since, various rebel militias have refused to hand in their weapons. Rivaling militias from Zawiya and Warshefana battled last week, killing at least 13. Meanwhile, rebels have been accused of terrorizing entire towns that “allied” with Gaddafi during the war. Other Libyans report that armed men are taking advantage of the general lawlessness of the country to loot homes, commit carjackings, and generally act extortionately. Migrant Africans continue to be particularly vulnerable to attacks by armed men.

In addition, the NTC faces the problem of establishing its legitimacy as a governing power. This is because of its status as an unelected body, but perhaps moreso because among its members are a number of defected Gaddafi government officials who remain tainted by their one-time association with the dictatorship. The NTC has so far admirably resisted calls to purge Gaddafi regime loyalists, but in doing so has found no other relief valve for the rebels’ need for reprisal and justice. If those who fought to win their freedom from Gaddafi feel that the new government is insufficiently revolutionary, they may turn against it.

The NTC will announce on Sunday an interim government that will rule the country until elections scheduled to take place in seven months, the quick turnaround designed to avoid the type of legitimacy deficit that could easily develop under such circumstances. In the context of the Arab Spring, there will be much attention paid to building the necessary institutions and systems to allow for a democratic form of government in Libya. While this goal is admirable, it will be for naught if the much more urgent goals of disarmament, demobilization, and establishing accountability and the rule of law in Libya are not prioritized over higher-level reforms that have no hope of being implemented in a chaotic environment.

The worst-case scenario in Libya is not that an insufficiently robust transition to democracy occurs; but rather that Libya could descend into civil war or warlordism as differences of opinion about the basis for a new government combine with a heavily armed, geographically and socially fragmented population — with lots of extra weapons lying around — leading to further conflict. Preventing the worst-case scenario should be the top priority in Libya.

Photo credit: Magharebia