I get a lot of news about Libya from the Libya Herald, a plucky English-language newspaper which started up earlier this year. One of my favorite leads, from the midst of the elections last week, read, "Though deploring the abduction of Libya's Olympic committee president, the British foreign secretary William Hague has hailed the progress that Libya has made since the revolution as ‘inspiring.'"
That's Libya in a nutshell: Baby steps towards democracy against a backdrop of vigilante justice. Both those who advocated the NATO bombing campaign which led to the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and those who opposed it, can now find grounds for vindication. It's early days, and no one can foretell Libya's future. But the surprisingly solid victory last week of a coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate, American-educated businessman, has been enthralling for Libyans, and deeply encouraging to the anxious Westerners who have been monitoring the process.
The common refrain among critics of the NATO campaign was, "We don't know who they are." Islamists figured prominently in the Libyan militias; Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, led rebel forces in Tripoli. But now we do know who they are. Jibril's National Forces Alliance roundly defeated the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, taking almost six times as many votes, for example, in Benghazi, a Brotherhood stronghold. Belhaj's al-Watan Party was routed in Tripoli. (The outcome may change as independent candidates choose to affiliate themselves with various parties.)
There are many explanations for the Islamists' poor performance. The National Democratic Institute, a democracy promotion group, conducted focus groups in Libya this spring in which, according to Carlo Binda, the country director, "people almost universally said that anyone using Islam as a political device can't be trusted" -- because all Libyans profess Islam. Diederick Vandewalle, a Libya scholar who has been in the country during the elections, says that "the last thing anyone wants is a powerful leader who is going to be a reincarnation of Qaddafi." Libyans, that is, have had it with ideology. After 42 years of planned chaos, Libyans just want a normal country.
A secondary fear among critics of the air campaign was that Libya, long held together by authoritarian rule, will break up along the east-west axis that defined the rebellion against Qaddafi. A group called the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC), based in Benghazi, had been demanding autonomy for the east. But after the election, Jibril pointedly praised the federalists as "patriots," and invited them to join the coalition he is seeking to assemble. The CTC's leaders have responded warmly, and have spoken of dissolving their organization. The group may also have noticed that its demonstrations provoked yet larger counter-demonstrations in Benghazi and Tripoli. Libyans, it seems, want to be Libyans.
But if the election constituted a rebuke to Islamists and separatists, it had no such effect on the hundreds of militias which have operated with impunity since they overthrew Qaddafi. In the midst of the balloting, two journalists from the western town of Misrata were foolhardy enough to visit Bani Walid, a southern city where Qaddafi forces made their last stand. They were kidnapped and held for trial. Several hundred members of the feared Misrata militia advanced towards Bani Walid with their heavy artillery in tow. The issue was only resolved when the Misrata forces agreed to give up some Qaddafi loyalists whom they had imprisoned -- which perhaps was the kidnapper's goal.
If, as Max Weber said, a state is defined by its monopoly of violence, Libya is very far from being a state. A recent report by Amnesty International estimates that militias hold about 7,000 prisoners in informal jails. The militias continue to fight one another, to exact revenge on real or imagined Qaddafi sympathizers, to torture innocent civilians, and to contemptuously disregard the authority of the state. "Unless urgent action is taken to establish the rule of law and respect for human rights," the report concludes, "there is a very real risk that the patterns of abuse that inspired the ‘17 February Revolution' will be reproduced and entrenched."