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Unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, it took a civil war to ultimately bring leadership change in Libya. In the post-war environment, the question of security has been at the top of the agenda for Libya’s new leaders and, in the aftermath of the 11 September attack on US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, a primary concern for the international community.
The United Nations in March resolved to assist Libyans in developing their country after 42 years of autocratic rule. Michael Smith, who has prior experience in East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Kashmir and Cambodia, is the security sector adviser for the UN Support Mission in Libya. Smith met with Egypt Independent last month in Tripoli to discuss Libya’s post-conflict security situation.
Egypt Independent: How important is it to take weapons off the streets and out of unofficial hands?
Michael Smith: The issue is not so much the weapons that exist. It’s actually the armed groups that exist. The key issue is: The revolution was actually done by armed groups of Libyan citizens.
These people in the groups still exist. They exist because the state does not yet have a new army or a new police force. It has remnants of the old.
I have spoken to quite a number of commanders of these different brigades. They are the ones that are called on to help maintain security. In some situations, these are the ones that are actually contracted by the state for specific operations.
EI: Is this model of the state contracting militias sustainable?
Smith: That is not the intention of the government. The intention of the government is to have security forces under state control. So this is a phase.
There is certainly an option to take the ones that they’re contracting and bring them into the army as a special part of the army. For example, in many countries they have an army reserve. In [the US], they have a National Guard. So there are different possible options.
EI: Does Libya have a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) plan for former fighters?
Smith: Under the first transitional government, the [National Transitional Council], there was quite a lot of planning done by an organization called the Warriors’ Affairs Commission for the whole DDR program. They did a lot of good work in terms of recording the numbers of thowar [revolutionaries] that needed to be integrated.
They had plans: basically, a process for those that wanted to go into the military or the police to be vetted. They did a lot of baseline work that hasn’t been implemented.
Some of the issues have been implemented, but as [for] a comprehensive overall DDR strategy and plan, there hasn’t been one. This is obviously a key priority for the incoming government now to address.
EI: What about people who fought for the other side?
Smith: The pro-Qadhafi militias don’t really exist as such now. Or if they do, they have gone underground.
So I wouldn’t put them in the same category as the recognized thowar. If they’ve gone underground, they’re basically illegal groups. I don’t think they are a big category, by the way.
The concern about pro-Qadhafi people is the revolutionary brigades’ perception of some people still serving in the army that might be pro-Qadhafi.
EI: How does that get dealt with?
Smith: By negotiation and by time. The revolutionaries’ position is very clear: there are three categories of people.
The first category are those who were in the services who defected at the start of the revolution and fought on the side of the revolution. That’s quite clear-cut: They should go back into the army if they want to go back into the army.
There’s this other quite large category of those who didn’t defect, but they didn’t fight for Qadhafi either. They just stayed at home.
Those people, the revolutionary commanders would say, are generally OK. They’re just victims of circumstance. They happened to be in a military unit under Qadhafi. They weren’t pro-Qadhafi. Those people just need to be vetted. Once they’re vetted, they can probably reclaim their status.
And then there’s the third category of those who they believe were senior officers who didn’t necessarily fight for Qadhafi, but they were Qadhafi sympathizers for a long period of time. And you would probably find their names amongst those being knocked off in Benghazi.
EI: That last group, what do you see happening to them?
Smith: It’s hard for me to give a categorical answer on that. There needs to be more done in relation to reconciliation in this country. It’s a huge issue.
EI: Regarding people requesting assistance who didn’t fight, how does one prove who fought and who didn’t fight?
Smith: That’s a good question [related to] some of the katebas [militias] and the Supreme Security Committee, which has been linked with the Ministry of Interior. The idea was that [the SSC] would be people from the katebas who fought.
But actually, a lot of post-revolutionary people have joined it. And even some of the katebas around the country — because of the unemployment situation — have accepted some recruits themselves, basically to keep them off the streets and keep them disciplined and all of that sort of thing.
One area that we haven’t spoken about in terms of the lawlessness situation is the criminal activity. When you get a post-conflict situation, there’s always this window that opens up for criminal activity because state security institutions are weak.
Now these criminal activities, again, not unique to Libya, have definitely started. And something that causes insecurity in the country, you may be aware, is the fact that Qadhafi let out of jail 16,000 people, some of whom were hardcore criminals.
EI: And the organizations most capable of fighting this element would be katebas?
Smith: Yes. Exactly. For the time being.
EI: Thinking about the Benghazi attack on the US consulate, news reports seem to indicate that there is no apparent attempt by the government or militias to hold anyone responsible. How would you assess the will and ability of the government to reign in the violence?
Smith: It’ll take time. The fact that all of this happened around the same time that the transitional government was going out after the elections, the new government was coming in, a new General National Congress formed — all of these things take time to settle.
There have been a number of assassinations of Libyans in Benghazi, and another number of attempted assassinations. And to my knowledge, nobody has been arrested for any of these, which tends to suggest that there are forces at play in the Benghazi community that are quite powerful in one way or another.
It’s the unpredictable nature of what is happening there that is the cautionary tale.
EI: If Libya moves into some type of federal system, will there be differences in the future security structures in terms of east and west?
Smith: They’ve got important questions they need to ask and resolve. There is a regionalism issue here, which has been historic: the east, the west and the south.
A lot of the resentment in the east at the moment — and there is resentment — is because they were neglected for 42 years by the previous regime. Nobody denies that. They’re really hurt.
The revolution began in the east. And people in the east feel that without them the revolution wouldn’t have happened. They have a perception — and I want to stress the word “perception” — that they still haven’t been paid their dues, that Tripoli is [still] the center of the universe in Libya. And that feeds into the federalists’ agenda.
That is what they obviously capitalize on. So the whole issue of a federated system has to be worked out. I think it’s very fair to say that with the elections in the GNC, representation in the GNC, and the new government’s appointment of ministers, there has been a definite recognition that the east and the south are represented.
There will always be differences, just like there are between California and New York. The real question, I think, is: To what extent does everybody want to be a Libyan, or not?
And it’s not just east versus west, or east, west and south. If you then go into each of those areas, you will find there are tribal differences as well. I think the recent conflict in Beni Walid shows that.
You find the same thing down in the south between some of the ethnic minorities.
I’d sum it up by saying the future of Libya is almost solidly going to be determined by the Libyans themselves. There are external influences on them because they border on six countries and they are part of a globalized world.
But fundamentally, the future of the country is in their hands. And for us in the UN, we see it as a great privilege to be asked to assist them where we can — not to tell them, not to do it for them — literally to assist them. But it’s their show, and they want it to be their show.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's print edition.