With the end imminent, the status of Libya’s armed forces will become a prominent topic of discussion. Following the assassination of Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, talk grew of the future of Libya’s rebel militias. National Transitional Council (NTC) Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil immediately called on them to disband and join the NTC army, and recently, Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the rebel commander in Tripoli, said the disparate forces would be unified.
Despite expected knee-jerk reactions, nothing could be more promising for Libya’s democratic future than official, regional militias (more appropriately referred to as army reserves in modern times) under the authority of provincial governments. More than 200 years ago, America’s Founding Fathers cogently argued that a powerful central leadership and standing armies were a combination destined for tyranny, as such armies are at a despot’s bidding. Modern Arab history has proved them right.
Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, the founder of one of the world’s least democratic regimes, recognized the importance of a powerful internal military for maintaining absolute authority. Not surprisingly, the Saudi National Guard functions as the king’s private army and has crushed every large social-justice uprising since the 1956 Saudi Arabian Oil Co. strike and the 1979 Shia uprising. It has also since aided neighboring autocracies such as Bahrain thwart democracy.
In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki’s centralization of the military thwarted the promises of a democratic federal system championed by Vice President Joseph R. Biden. This despite the fact that Iraq’s most stable region, Kurdistan, has its own independent militia and the Sunni Awakening councils defeated al Qaeda in Iraq. The centralized Iraqi military now faces serious charges of continued abuse.
Then there’s Egypt, an “Arab Spring success.” The world’s 10th-largest military, not the people, governs the country. It’s been made clear that the most fundamental freedom, that of speech, will be highly restricted. Insulting the military is severely punished with prison sentences. Thousands await trial in unaccountable military courts for related and other offenses. If Egypt had a weak, decentralized military, it would not have a junta.
Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 29 proposes that there is only one solution to the problem of standing armies: local militias, under the control of their respective state governments, to be unified only in times of war.
It’s understandable why the idea that local army reserves will preserve Libya’s democracy is met with suspicion. Some militias in Lebanon and Iraq perpetuated civil war, but these also are the most ethnically divided Arab countries. Libya is heterogeneous. Hezbollah and the Mahdi army conduct acts of terror. Libya’s rebels have adopted the Geneva Conventions and received praise from Human Rights Watch for their cooperation. Most important, the aforementioned militias functioned independently of a constitutional system or local governance.
Hamilton anticipated the objection that guns could ultimately be turned against the people: “Where in the name of common sense are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens?” What, beyond all else, separates the rebels from other Arab militias is that they are composed of entire communities of able-bodied men, many of whom have stable careers, not a small, dedicated group of fighters who ultimately terrorize their own communities, like Hamas. In a federal Libya, they will only pick up their arms for required reserve duty like in Switzerland, and the streets will be patrolled by Libya’s increasingly respected local police.
Externally, transitioning countries must consider their international image, and nothing would fast-track Libya’s global standing and commitment to progressive values more than joining Iceland, Costa Rica and Panama, all leading democracies, in forgoing a standing army. Libya has no external enemies, and in the very rare event that some develop, an association with NATO could guarantee their safety. This is a small price for the West to pay in aiding the development of a potentially model Arab democracy.
On June 20, 1948, one month after Israel’s independence, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion ordered the sinking of the Irgun militia’s Altalena, which directly challenged the authority of the nascent Israeli Defense Force. Ben Gurion operated under the modern notion that a democratic state, not the people, must have a monopoly on the use of force. But Mustafa Abdel Jalil is not David Ben Gurion, and Libya is not Israel. By deferring to America’s Founding Fathers, Libya’s future prime minister can help guarantee the creation of the Middle East’s second true democracy and, in doing so, find himself equally as renowned as Ben Gurion.
Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.