Libya at a crossroads

Clashes between Libyan troops and an armed group in the eastern city of Benghazi this week have shed further doubts on the North African country’s future.

Clashes between Libyan troops and an armed group in the eastern city of Benghazi this week have shed further doubts on the North African country's future.

On Monday, the official Libyan army declared "a state of alert" in Benghazi and summoned all troops to report for duty after the battle with Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia erupted.

The clashes, which left at least nine people dead and at least 49 wounded, followed a series of battles in one of Libya's most volatile areas, where the uprising against Gaddafi began in February 2011.

The Salafist group, which advocates the implementation of Sharia law in Libya, was formed during the 2011 conflict which led to the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi and is widely thought to be behind the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012 in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other officials were killed.

The clashes followed the meeting held between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the British Foreign Secretary William Hague with Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in London.

Without going into detail, Kerry said that the US and the UK would continue to support Libya, following weeks of violence in the country.

"We talked to the prime minister today about the things we can do together, the United Kingdom and the United States and its other friends, in order to help Libya to achieve the stability that it needs," Kerry said.

Zeidan's armed forces have struggled to control militias, Islamist militants and other former fighters who refuse to surrender their arms after helping to oust Gaddafi in a NATO-backed revolt.

Although it is not clear how many weapons are held by non-government forces, arms-smuggling has skyrocketed since Gaddafi was toppled, with weapons easily available on the black market.

Libya has sought to bring the militias under control by putting them on the government payroll and assigning them to protect government offices, however after the end of the armed conflict which left more than 50,000 fighters dead, rebels banded into militias carving their own fiefdoms, each with its own ideology and regional allegiance.

The Libyan army is slowly beginning to emerge as a viable, if not yet effective force. This year, the 35,000-strong army has been training new recruits and following the recent withdrawal of troops from Tripoli, it has been deployed to provide regular security on the streets of the capital for the first time.

The Libyan army's main problem lays in the lack of experienced fighters and commanders. Many of those who served in the army under Gaddafi and survived the war have chosen not to return, despite repeated pleas by successive post-war governments for them to go back to their posts.

Libya's government announced plans last week to remove militias from the capital and eventually integrate them into the security forces, after deadly clashes between fighters and residents.

Hundreds of Tripoli residents called on Libyan armed groups to follow suit and withdraw from the capital.

In his meeting with the US and the UK, Zeidan stressed that the country had lately "done a lot to get rid of the militias" and praised the work of allies who had committed to help Libya. As a result, he predicted that Libya would become "an active contributor on the world arena".

Zeidan, who was briefly kidnapped by the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group - which was officially tasked with protecting the capital - has so far failed to create a unitary military force.

Although Western countries such as Italy and France have provided training for government forces, non-government militias still control vast areas of the country.

Although these militia groups provide security across much of the country and protect the borders, they have been accused of human rights abuses, unlawful detention and of taking the law into their own hands. Moreover, these groups often take government officials hostage in an attempt to wield their authority and snatch power, land and oil fields.

The ever-growing fear that the country could implode and split into separate regions highlights the need for the central government to impose the rule of law, guarantee security and disarm militia groups.

Driving the militias out of capital is a temporary solution. Stability can only be achieved if the armed groups are disbanded and absorbed by the official army.

On a political level, the central government needs to fast-track the introduction of a Constitution and hold free elections which should ensure the participation of regional and tribal leaders.

However, Ziedan's transitional government faces an uphill struggle, as during its 42-year reign, the Gaddafi regime wiped out civil society, eradicated institutions and suppressed all political activity.

The eternal rivalry between the regions of Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east, tribal conflicts and the rise of Islamist groups, linked to Al Qaeda in the east all pose overwhelming challenges to a country which only became acquainted to freedom and democracy a mere two years ago.

The US and its allies, which played a vital role in the downfall of Gaddafi must however go beyond expressing vague messages of support and provide Libya with tangible logistical assistance to ensure that Libya really transforms itself into the political and economic force Zeidan envisages.