Disbanding militias in Benghazi

Disbanding militias in Benghazi

If you live in a normal country, you are probably not allowed to own a rocket launcher. Last week I read in the Libya Herald that authorities in that country had decided to disband militias in Benghazi. Here is what I think about the issue: First of all, it does not look like the decision of a strong government. Strong governments, by definition, do not have this problem. Second, the decision covers Benghazi only and neglects the rest of the vast country. Third, I still consider this to be a step in the right direction. Keeping in mind the conditions during Gadhafi’s Mickey Mouse state in Libya, this is indeed a step in the right direction. It is just a pity that the decision only came after the rather tragic incident leading to the death of the American ambassador.

At this stage, I mostly consider this to be an opportunity to emphasize the importance of disbanding militias, and consequently, to be the starting point of state building. The Middle East and North African region is a place where institutional development has not been able to keep pace with globalization. When I think of our region, I always think of Trotsky’s opening observations in recounting the Russian Revolution of 1917: “Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road that lay between these two weapons in the past.” I think Trotsky had a point, don’t you think? Just look at the spread of violent demonstrations against a cheap film that was thrown together halfway around the world.

I had that sense of this road untraveled first in Beirut around 1995, then in Gaza in 2005. Let me tell you about the Gaza case. It was before Hamas had taken over the strip. Israel had already withdrawn from Gaza under the strong leadership of Ariel Sharon, who was still well and active at the time. I had been to Ramallah before, but this had not prepared me for the Gaza experience. Every house in Gaza flies a flag, but its color changed from district to district. Green for Hamas, black for Islamic Jihad, red for the Liberation Front, orange for Fatah. The entire place was divided between Palestinian factions. You turned a corner and saw kids in makeshift uniforms demonstrating with their machine guns. Turn another street and you saw another kind of makeshift uniform and some more militias getting their morning workout with bazookas. In Ramallah I was talking to “ministers,” but in Gaza there were armed militias on the ground. I had to learn very quickly that in order to do business, I would have to be on good terms with the militias. That is not the sort of thing that attracts business. Today, there are only Hamas flags in Gaza, but still no sense of security.

During the War of Independence in Turkey, around the 1920s, just before the new Turkish Republic was declared, Kemal Atatürk disbanded all local militias around Asia Minor. Some militias were disarmed by force. That means that nationalists fought nationalist. Why? It was about state building. An Ottoman general, Kemal Atatürk knew the consequences of having more than one army at large. Turkey did this the only way it could be done - in the name of a Parliament accepted as representative, and therefore, legitimate. Parliament then declared the new Republic in 1923, after having led the war for three years.

You need military power as well as political legitimacy in order to form and maintain a country. Just one of those things is not enough. If the objective is to leave Gadhafi’s Mickey Mouse state behind, Libya needs the political legitimacy to disband militias. If they do it through military power only, the old order will continue. I don’t think that is what thousands of Libyans died for last year.