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Will the real governor please stand up: Understanding local governance structures in Libya


Because the country has three rivalling governments and ongoing armed conflict, international attention in Libya has turned to the support of local governance and security provision. But for those interested in supporting constructive forms of local governance and inclusive security provision, taking into account the distinctiveness of local power arrangements and the needs and priorities of Libyans is key. These are insights from ongoing research by the Clingendael Conflict Research Unit into local governance and security provision across Libya, as well as the interactive and KMF-supported Alignment for Libya Conference which was held on 11 and 12 February in Tunis. The event brought together a group of Libyan Mayors and Libyan and international CSO representatives.

To understand local governance structures in Libya, it is essential to identify the groups that are involved in providing governance – usually a combination of political, social and armed actors with varying interests. The Clingendael Conflict Research Unit currently employs a survey to collect the experiences of ordinary Libyans and local elites with governance and security structures at municipal level. We find that the provision of governance and security is fragmented in spheres of influence within cities and some municipalities can be best described as ‘city-states’, in the sense that they are governed more or less independently from the central government. In many areas, non-state actors like militias and tribal councils have taken on governance competencies, including the protection of citizens and conflict mediation.

Despite these functions, respondents overwhelmingly say that they feel unsafe in the municipalities that are run by non-state armed actors – even more unsafe than under Qadhafi. They blame their insecurity on the absence or weakness of state institutions and the widespread presence of arms.

The research results show that armed conflict at the local level is a reality, but contrary to what is often thought, it is not driven by national fault lines (the rivalry between the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk and their military affiliates). Local conflict usually takes the form of militia warfare, gang violence and tribal feuds, and is sometimes fought out by the same groups that form local government structures. Hence despite militias’ strength and local power and the fact that many citizens turn to them for protection, respondents say that the same militias are a (potential) threat to their everyday safety and an obstacle to stability and peace. Supporting local governance in Libya, and the power structures that form the reality of it, is therefore no panacea to Libya’s instability. The legitimate alternative the eyes of respondents is strengthening national state institutions and state security forces, how ineffective and weak they may be at present.

The conference in Tunis underscored that no one is better positioned to inform us on the diverse reality of local governance and security provision in Libya than Libyans themselves. Our Libyan partners demonstrated again that they have constructive ideas for policies that would make their municipality and Libya as a whole more stable. Moreover, community-based organizations have the ability to align the understanding of the international community on (in)security in Libya with the perceptions and experience of ordinary Libyans. However some Libyan partners tell us that the international community “does not always listen” and is “out of touch” with the situation on the ground. International programming to support local governance in Libya should therefore take into account Libyan local perspectives and not be developed solely from the outside. In order to be effective and legitimate, international support for local governance structures across Libya should be tailored to local priorities and based on a thorough understanding of what existing governance and security structures look like. 

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