Might of militias challenge Libya's fragile government

Libyan PM Ali Zeidan (centre) following his release by militiamen in Tripoli on 10 October 2013
Image caption Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was released by his militia kidnappers after a few hours

This week, two men were "abducted" in Libya. That, in itself, would be nothing unusual. Except that one was the country's leader, and the other was a suspected terrorist leader.

The kidnapping of Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan - "to an unknown place for unknown reasons", the government's website initially stated - was a louder and miserable echo of Saturday's seizure of al-Qaeda suspect Anas al-Liby by American forces in Tripoli; even if Zeidan was eventually released while al-Liby languishes on a navy ship.

Both events caused consternation in Libya, but the Americans made things immeasurably worse with their announcement that Libya had "tacitly approved" their raid.

Both seizures occurred with apparently minimal violence, with the country's security forces powerless to stop armed groups operating on a whim in the heart of the capital city.

And both are symptoms of the same problem.

Libya's enfeebled post-revolutionary state is in competition with the very same rebel groups that helped it come into being. So the basic work of running a country - capturing and trying suspects, protecting the prime minister, making laws, and preventing arms from washing across Libya's long and porous borders - has become a process of negotiation.

The early reports suggested that the prime minister's captors were angry not just at his acquiescence in Saturday's US raid, which was condemned by Libya's parliament, but also at alleged corruption.

Fraying political order

But the list of grievances is as long as the number of Libyan militias.

Over the summer, members of Libya's Berber community stormed parliament to demand recognition in the constitution.

Militias laid siege to the ministries of justice and foreign affairs, effectively coercing parliament into passing a law that banned Gaddafi-era officials from serving.

The speaker of parliament was forced to resign as a result, but he himself had defended some militias in the aftermath of the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last year.

The government's powerlessness in that case - either to stop the attack or arrest its perpetrators - explains why the US decided to step in unilaterally this week; it simply could not trust the Libyans to do so.

Image caption Al-Qaeda suspect Anas al-Liby is being questioned on this US navy ship

Two years after the ostensibly successful revolution, Libya has failed to build up its police forces and army to the point where they can rebuff these challenges to the basic authority of the state.

Worse still, the state has given up in some cases - relying on the militias for local security and thus enabling them to get stronger still. Indeed, the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room, which kidnapped the prime minister, is one such example of a government-allied group.

The militia challenge overlaps with and worsens several others.

Oil exports have plummeted to a fifth of their Gaddafi-era peak, after guards at eastern oil facilities and ports went on strike. That dispute was partly over a demand that Libya return to a federal system of government, in which eastern Libya would be given more autonomy and power.

The Italian consulate in Benghazi was attacked in January; the French embassy in Tripoli in April; the EU ambassador's convoy in August; and Russia's embassy last week, prompting Moscow to evacuate its diplomats.

Libyan weaponry from Gaddafi's looted arsenals has also been smuggled across the country's relatively unsecured borders to conflict zones in Mali, the Sinai, Gaza and even Syria.

The Sunday Times reports that one intelligence estimate is that the Libyan government controls only 20 out of 400 arms depots, and that around 3,000 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles - capable of bringing down civilian airliners - remain missing despite intensive Western efforts to track them down.

Ironically, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan had pleaded for international help on weapons proliferation only days before his kidnapping.

But this week's events also suggest that Western powers have to strike a careful balance in providing any such help, lest it provide further ammunition to nationalist and Islamist groups.

Militias have already learnt that they can produce laws at the barrel of a gun.

If Zeidan now quits, militias may draw from this week the lesson that the head of government is himself a bargaining chip, that the state is up for grabs.

Libya's fraying political order would then begin to unravel more quickly.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence think-tank, and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University.