A fighter prepares to use his RPG during clashes between rival militias in the southern Libyan city of Sabha March 28, 2012. Picture taken March 28, 2012. REUTERS/Ibrahim Azagaa (LIBYA – Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

Libyans face a thorny security dilemma: The absence of strong state institutions creates the need, opportunities and support for militias to provide security and play a role in the transition, but these groups undermine security and the development of strong state institutions. Libyans are well aware of the problem, but both citizens and elites are caught in the cycle. To exit the cycle to a better outcome, it is necessary to understand how citizens perceive the situation and the choices they make.

In Libya, many citizens live in daily fear. They feel unsafe in public and even in their own homes. More than one-third of Libyans report feeling unsafe going to the market, school or work, according to three nationally representative surveys, each of 1,200 Libyans. (We conducted these in May, September and November 2013 with the National Democratic Institute and JMW Consulting in collaboration with Diwan Market Research and funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.) One in five people feel somewhat or very unsafe at home or in their neighborhood. The situation is particularly troubling for women; 40 percent of women feel unsafe going out. And, it is worse in rural areas and in the southern region of Fezzan, where half of residents feel unsafe going to school or work. Not surprisingly, security concerns top the national agenda for two-thirds of the population.

Libyans value democratic institutions, but they do not trust them to deliver security and welfare. More than 80 percent of Libyans agree or strongly agree that “Democracy may have its problems, but it is the best form of government,” and more than 80 percent view democracy in terms of political processes and human rights. Yet, only 34 percent of respondents in November 2013 expressed average to very high trust in the General National Congress (GNC), which represented a decline from 67 percent in May. Only 17 percent trusted political parties in November, down from 42 percent in May. For many, political parties and institutions do not appear to be the most effective route to protection.

Thus, Libyans turn to arms, and many carry guns. During the poll we conducted in November, we found that nearly 30 percent of Libyan homes have firearms, but most would happily give up their arms in an environment of a well functioning military and police and with an improvement in general security. Libyans also turn to militias, with nearly half viewing at least one of nine most influential militias positively. Libyans who do not trust political institutions and those who are less affluent are more likely to view militias positively, a finding that underscores the role that militias play in helping the disadvantaged satisfy economic and security interests in the absence of a strong state.

Desiring strong state institutions as well as security, citizens tend to favor militias that they perceive as operating under state authority, particularly those formed during the revolution. Sixty percent hold a favorable view of armed groups formed during the revolution that cooperate with the government, compared to 38 percent who have a positive perception of militias cooperating with the state that were formed after the revolution. Support for militias is driven by a desire for security, not hostility toward the state or predilection for lawlessness.

Political elites also reflect the tension between a demand for strong democratic institutions, on the one hand, and support for militias that undermine democracy, on the other. Many political elites recognize the value of strong institutions and proclaim commitment to democracy. Yet, weak state institutions coupled with the proliferation of arms prompt elites to hedge their bets, keeping or cooperating with a militia even as they found political parties and engage in the GNC. As one political leader explained during a political party workshop held in early 2013, today they were playing on the party field, but it didn’t mean they were getting rid of their militia.

Indeed, militias come to be tied to constituencies, mirroring political parties. It is well recognized that militias have strong ties with, and represent, citizens in different geographic areas. For example, Ansar al-Sharia commands higher support in the east and Benghazi, while Libya Shield Brigade commands higher support in Misurata and the west. However, our surveys reflect that the relationship between income level and support varies across militias, suggesting that some militias represent the interests of more affluent citizens, while others are linked to the poor. They are also linked to political attitudes. Some militias find greater support from those who are more skeptical toward democracy and evaluate the GNC as performing poorly, while others find support among pro-democratic and pro-government Libyans. In brief, elites can use militias as a tool not only for maintaining security, but also for representing constituents with identifiable political, social, and economic demands. Militias are important players in Libya’s transition process and this presents challenges that must be addressed for nation- and state-building to move forward.

Certainly, there have been ample times in Libya’s transition when arms on the street, not arguments in parliament, have decided political outcomes. To name but a few: the political exclusion law passed after militias surrounded key ministries; a militia’s abduction of then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan; and the seizing of oil facilities effectively determining the state budget and economic policies. It is difficult — if not nearly impossible — for individual contenders to imagine unilaterally giving up their militias when bullets, not ballots, determine so many political outcomes.

The dilemma is clear. When citizens desperately need security and welfare and have nowhere else to turn, they will support militias. So, too, when political elites recognize that decision-making in weak state institutions can be trumped by arms on the street, they will be loath to get rid of their weapons and those of their allies. Both citizens and elites make these choices, even when the choices undermine a better future. All are stuck in a suboptimal equilibrium, and no one wants to be the first mover out of it.

The outcome is difficult to predict. Will Libya find a way out as Colombia has, rather than devolve into further conflict as in Somalia’s nightmare? One potential pathway for the international community and the central government is to focus on providing security and welfare to citizens at the local level by helping to bolster military and police capabilities and local conflict resolution mechanisms. This peels away support for militias but is also risky because supporting one group may inadvertently strengthen some actors at the expense of others. Third-party support for negotiated solutions also presents possibilities but runs the risk of supporting one side versus another, possibly helping it establish a new regime captured by a few. In the end, support for democratic processes and institutions, including electoral processes, may offer the greatest possibility for helping Libyans advance an inclusive process for negotiating agreements that give multiple sets of elites a say in the bargains that will diminish the power of militias and strengthen state institutions.

Lindsay Benstead is an assistant professor of political science in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. Ellen Lust is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy. Jakob Wichmann and Alexander Kjærum are consultants at JMW Consulting. This piece is based on polls conducted by the authors in May, September, and November 2013 in collaboration with the National Democratic Institute, JMW Consulting, and Diwan Market Research and funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.