By Barah Mikail
There is no simple solution to Libya’s problems: institutional divisions prevail within a general context of political void, while the absence of a strong army is fueling the rule of militias.
When the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) tried to take over Tripoli in the spring of 2019, militias reacted strongly. Despite their divergences, they unified against the LNA.
Militias will continue to be reluctant to form a cohesive national military body subordinate to governmental rule; yet there could be some exceptions.
Besides, the UN needs to implement a strategy based on Libya’s most pressing needs, with the help of actors that include Libya’s spoilers.
Eight years after the Arab uprisings, Libya shows no signs of recovering from the plethora of problems in which it became entangled.
With the official fall of Gaddafi in October 2011, despite many difficulties, the country could have still headed towards a better future. But disagreements, rivalries, and struggles for power took over, as exemplified by the early April 2019 battle for Tripoli.
Currently, Libya is experiencing one of the worst crises in its history, ruled by insecurity, underdevelopment, humanitarian crises, trafficking of all sorts (human, drugs, weapons, and goods), political and sociopolitical fragmentation, and the absence of a strong government.
The dire situation in Libya is defined by another serious reality: the rule of militias.
In the field of security, paramilitary actors are the backbone of the country; but because they are not organized as a part of a regular army they have become one of the main sources of disorder and insecurity in Libya.
With recent events, militias from the west did indeed gather under one umbrella with the aim of protecting Tripoli; however, this move does not aim to safeguard governmental institutions and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In reality, militias are acting first and foremost in their own interests (!!).
Is there an efficient way to compel militias to disarm and/or put themselves under the rule of an official governmental army?
In reality, no.
Strategies and efforts to disarm militias or circumscribe their role have all failed up to now. Militias and their leaders are fully aware that the political vacuum and prevailing uncertainties in Libya give them further power and influence; consequently, the end of their rule is not yet foreseeable.
This does not mean that the way forward to achieving stabilization – including through the disarmament of militias – would be out of reach; there is no doubt that stabilization will be achieved one day, and militias disarmed by then.
This article will look at the strategies required to address Libya’s most pressing issues and challenges.
After placing Libya in its regional context, it will discuss the main dynamics prevailing from a security point of view.
The last part will be dedicated to the points that need to be quickly and seriously addressed if Libya is to move forward.
The post-2011 conflictual scene: An overview
The fall of former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 was the obvious starting point of the Arab uprisings. In many cases, Arab states witnessed popular demonstrations based mainly on the people’s demands for better living conditions.
In countries where these popular movements did not occur (Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories…) the reason for their absence was more attributable to intertwining historical and sociological causes rather than a lack of the same grievances driving popular movements in other countries.
Historians do not agree on whether the popular regional wave that followed the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution” was internally-induced or orchestrated by foreign actors.
Regardless, there is little doubt that, at the time, most people in the region were disillusioned by the prevalence of corruption, clientelism, authoritarianism, the lack of respect for their basic rights, and poor socioeconomic conditions; which certainly fueled and intensified the anger and frustration behind the uprisings.
The fact that some Libyans engaged in a revolution of their own, starting from February 2011, is anything but surprising.
Any visitor to Libya before February 2011 could feel the climate of fear and oppression prevailing at that time. Most citizens were frustrated by the limits placed by the ruling regime on society, such as restrictions on social mobility and freedom of expression.
Yet few of them dared to speak out against these restrictions due to fear of reprisals. Rumors about how critics and dissidents were jailed and/or tortured were widespread in Libya.
The most well-known example of these abuses was the notorious 1996 massacre at the Abu Salim prison; another horrific case adding to the thousands of killings, disappearances, and torture cases characteristic of Gaddafi’s long rule.
Gaddafi’s 42 year-rule (1969-2011), combined with the particularities of Libya’s recent history (colonialism, wars, a monarchy prevailing over geographical divisions…), rendered the emergence of a robust and effective Libyan civil society difficult.
This may be a primary cause of Libya’s shift- with the Arab uprisings – from an authoritarian rule to a fragmented political and societal scene.
Under Gaddafi, unity did not prevail in Libya; the Libyan leader had inherited a divisive national landscape from his predecessor.
Besides, the feeling of national belonging within the state was often challenged by tribal allegiances characterizing a large segment of Libyan society.
Gaddafi, as well as King Idriss of Libya (1951-1969) before him, had to take tribal loyalties into consideration when exerting their rule.
Gaddafi took care of tribes loyal to him, fulfilling their needs; while at the same time excluding and/or harshly treating tribes failing to demonstrate a strong allegiance to him.
Gaddafi was able to manipulate tribal allegiances and channel them in way that prevented tribes from forming a unified block that could threaten his rule one day.
This is undoubtedly a significant reason behind the chaos and disorder in Libya starting from February 2011. Anti-Gaddafi protests had no overall coordination, consisting of a variety of actors – united primarily by their opposition to Gaddafi – going out into the streets and confronting actors loyal to Gaddafi.
That said, the defections on Gaddafi’s side were represented by several individuals and movements lacking the potential for unity and working hand in hand against the regime.
This confusion most likely allowed Gaddafi to stay in power for several months, as he wasn’t challenged by any strong and/or coordinated rivals. The fragmentation of Libya’s political scene was already apparent back then.
At the same time, Libya shares many characteristics with its neighbors. While being a wealthy country, Libya has failed to satisfy the needs of its population.
Undoubtedly, the population’s basic needs were met under Gaddafi. Yet people felt that while their leader and his elite were sitting comfortably atop oil revenues, they were unjustly facing political and societal repression.
It may be true that media coverage of Libya’s initial demonstrations was exaggerated, especially by those channels belonging to governments that had an interest in seeing Libya’s leader overthrown.
However, this does not diminish the fact that there was a general feeling of rejection toward Gaddafi’s rule, at least in the country’s most important towns (Benghazi, Misrata, Tripoli…) and among its most important groups.
The long, four-decade rule of Gaddafi enflamed the general frustration felt by Libyans. The country’s youth were born under the rule of a leader who seemed irremovable, which limited their hopes of witnessing social evolution and positive political change.
Gaddafi had a very particular –and restrictive– model of Jamahiriya, his claim that power was exerted by sovereign people. He feigned that he had no influence over the trajectory of executive power in Libya, while it was apparent to the population that he was paving the way for the rule of his son Saif.
This served to nurture popular resentment towards his rule and intensified the conviction that something had to change one day.
In spite of this, Gaddafi was able to prevent the emergence of any meaningful political opposition, while playing to the illusion that the only people fighting against his rule were extremists connected to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Obviously, this would benefit him after 09/11.
While Libya shared many characteristics with its neighbors, there was still something missing crucial for the country’s fate: the existence of a strong army.
While the army significantly shaped transitions in some countries in the region, such as Tunisia and Egypt, the absence of an efficient army in Libya, characterized by strong and powerful elements, resulted in a power vacuum.
In Syria, president Bashar Assad may well owe a part of his political survival to the fact that the army did not turn its back on him. In Libya, military commanders could neither rely on a strong institution nor on the population’s allegiance.
With Gaddafi, all institutions were assimilated under the leader, and this contributed to a popular rejection of all the state’s institutions, army included.
Obviously, had there been a strong army, this could have also meant that Gaddafi would have been defended and protected from overthrow as the population was repressed.
Yet even in this scenario, avoiding the creation of a political vacuum could have altered, in part at least, the country’s destiny.
Despite the destruction and damage in a country such as Syria, it is also true that because institutions were kept intact, the country may avoid further destruction and/or partition as it moves towards a possible end of the war.
In Libya, events did not unfold in the same way. The absence of clearly identified institutions emanating from a strong government is causing the country’s state of fragility and constant uncertainty.
The NATO intervention in 2011 had already highlighted the inexistence of a strong army in Libya; since then, many leaders and organizations managed to create militias in an attempt to gain power and influence.
The Tripoli-based “internationally recognized government” benefitted from a move by Western-based militias to unify and commit to pushing back the LNA, and/or destroying it.
Yet this unity is a military move only, and it does not imply any commitment by these militias to form part of a regular army.
Ironically, the LNA has the advantage of responding to a central command, under the orders of Khalifa Haftar; it is different in western Libya, where military perspectives are not deferential to centralization.
continues in part 2
Barah Mikaïl is an associate professor at Saint Louis University (Madrid Campus) and a senior researcher on geopolitics and security-related issues at the Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue (FRIDE). He previously worked as a senior researcher on Middle East and North Africa and on water issues at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, 2002-2010). Barah has been lecturer at the Collège Interarmées de Défense at the French Ministry of Defence (2005-2007), at the Université Paris-8 Saint-Denis (since 2005) and at Sciences-Po Lille (2004-2005). In 2003, he also worked as an analyst on Middle East issues at the French Ministry of Defence.