Over the past few weeks, Tripoli has been bracing itself for violence amid persistent rumors and threats of violence during the Feb. 16-17 events. That is not to say the demonstrations were intended to be violent; they were intended to be celebrations and, in the case of eastern cities like Benghazi, an opportunity to continue calls for greater regional political power under a federal framework. But these protests would be easy targets for Gadhafi loyalists and regional transnational jihadist groups, and they could provide cover for attacks against central government installations and energy infrastructure. Tripoli has sought to cooperate with regional power centers including local militias, tribal leaders and leadership councils in cities like Misurata and Benghazi.The protests and celebrations were to be among the largest instances of planned, organized public demonstrations in Libya since Gadhafi's death. The slow pace of political reforms undertaken by the General National Congress coupled with ongoing security concerns in places like Benghazi have led to increased security measures by Tripoli, and the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States have recently issued warnings of threats against Westerners in eastern Libya. Tripoli has responded by twice declaring its borders closed, first in the weeks immediately preceding the French intervention in Mali, and it most recently announced a five-day closure of borders with Tunisia and Egypt ahead of anniversary celebrations of the revolution.
Tripoli lacks the equipment, manpower and national political mandate to effectively close its borders with Tunisia and Egypt. The instability in the latter countries prevents close, effective intergovernmental cooperation to seal the loose desert borders between the three. The European Union and some European countries, such as Italy, have pledged greater security assistance for Libya, with Tripoli asking for and agreeing to cooperate with Western countries whose investment is critical for maintaining Libyan oil output. Italy has also pledged its assistance in helping monitor the borders. Tripoli's outreach can be seen in the context of trying to assuage European and American security concerns and to cooperate with vital sources of foreign direct investment.
A Strategy with Risks
The threat to Libyan stability and security will continue through Feb. 18. There has been persistent localized violence throughout Libya, particularly in Benghazi, since Gadhafi's ouster. Tribal disputes over land and access to government revenues, regional competition and ethnic clashes in southern Libya have challenged Tripoli's ability to project power and manage the state.
But the state has not slipped into total chaos. Through a complicated scheme of revenue distribution and direct cash handouts, Tripoli has been able to incentivize the cooperation of regional leaders and militia groups to protect the nation's vulnerable oil and natural gas infrastructure since Gadhafi's fall. The result has been one of the most secure energy networks in the region, and although peaceful protests have halted exports and production at times, Libya has avoided the violent disruptions seen in places like Yemen, Egypt, Turkey and even Algeria. By restraining its efforts to centralize political power in Tripoli, Libya's central government has also avoided much of the large-scale public uprisings and violent clashes between state security forces and protesters that took place in much of the region in 2012, including Kuwait, Egypt and Tunisia.
Tripoli's strategy is not without risk, however. One risk is its reliance on local leaders and militia groups, some of which have ongoing disputes with one another and with the central government. This management structure also divests a significant amount of authority from Tripoli at the cost of further empowering local leaders. It cannot be assumed that the stability in some areas of Libya will not degrade as it did in Benghazi. Local power centers, however, have a desire to reduce the levels of violence and the risks on increased security action by Tripoli on a national scale, helping to mitigate some of this risk.
Although the risk of isolated violent attacks remains elevated over the weekend, a successful partnership of Libya's central and local security forces could indicate a developing coordination and more cooperative relationship aimed at securing Libyan territory for the sake of maintaining political stability and energy production.