By Frederic Wehrey and Caroline Zullo

On February 15, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held a closed-door workshop on reforming Libya’s security sector with ten Libyan attendees from the western, southern, and eastern parts of the country.

They included senior uniformed officers of the army and police, civil society leaders, and academics. Several international participants from multilateral organizations, Western embassies, and research institutions also attended.

The absence of social justice and rule-of-law has been a pervasive affliction across the Arab world, highlighting the need for security-sector reform.

The workshop was intended to provide a forum for deriving lessons from Libya’s previous attempts at security-sector reform and developing principles for rebuilding institutions moving forward.

The Libyan participants spoke from firsthand experience in dealing with the social, political, and economic roots of security problems in Libya. Nearly all the attendees attributed the source of Libya’s current security problems to its legacy of hollow security institutions under the previous regime.

A Libyan military officer with 28 years of service noted that the neglect and the dysfunction in the security sector under Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi extended to every area, from training to record-keeping to rule of law.

After the uprising in 2011 Libya lacked any foundation to fortify and unify security actors. This led to a proliferation of fragmented and frequently warring armed groups, many affiliated to different organs of the government, themselves controlled by competing political factions.

As a consequence of this, an international participant with long experience in Libya noted, the process of security-sector reform is now incredibly complicated. It requires a “constant cycle of negotiations” because informal security institutions have become deeply embedded at the social, cultural, and even religious levels. Still, all the Libyan attendees agreed on the need for institutions. “Libya should be based on institutions not factions,” said a representative from the east.

Representatives from southern Libya, citing widespread power outages and fuel shortages, added that in the south the institutional challenges are especially stark because of economic and political marginalization. Social divisions and competition over scarce resources complicate institution-building. “The tribal challenges to building an army are quite significant,” one of the participants observed.

Many participants cited the role of international and regional states in exacerbating Libya’s security crisis, through missteps, omissions, or deliberate meddling and support for rival factions.

While Libyan police were in great need of training in forensics, counter-narcotics, and investigations, a policing official pointed to failed or halfhearted attempts at police training by outside states, whether in Libya or abroad.

A southern representative was especially critical of European and United Nations assistance over border control after the uprising. Others from the east and west criticized a general lack of international follow-through: “[T]he international community collects information but never acts,” said one.

International participants observed that political divisions and a lack of institutions hampered Libya’s ability to absorb even well-meaning international assistance. “Libyans don’t speak with one voice,” one observed, while another argued that even though outside states could assist with training small units and individuals, it was a much harder and lengthier endeavor to rebuild national institutional capacity.

Without political unity, there was a danger that international engagement would end up backing one faction against another—or creating that impression. One representative from the east appeared to confirm this when he criticized the efforts of the European Union Border Assistance Mission as being solely focused on security issues and, specifically, countering migration.

All the attendees pointed to a resolution of Libya’s political conflict as a prerequisite for sustainable security-sector reform. An international participant noted that reconciliation could hinge on fourteen or fifteen senior leaders reaching an agreement, while a Libyan activist from the east argued for the importance of a constitution that would formalize a social contract. He further cautioned against framing Libya’s divisions as “liberals versus Islamists” since “we are all moderate Muslims.”

An international participant observed that by 2014 political conflict had “swallowed up the security process,” with the absence of an agreement greatly hampering the administration of security. Given the national-level gridlock, several international attendees asked about local opportunities for engagement. “Should we be looking at the regional or local level instead of what we are currently doing?” asked an EU official. “We must try and delink security from politics, where can we engage on a technical level?” inquired another international attendee. A Libyan attendee pleaded with the international participants to put pressure on Libya’s political leaders to reach an accord.

Moving forward, the Libyan participants were divided over a top-down or bottom-up approach to security-sector reform and the extent to which existing security institutions could be reformed and bolstered or whether new ones could be created.

We can’t start reinventing the wheel,” noted an eastern representative, “as we already have an army and police and just need to refurbish it.” He added, “This is understanding the aspirations of the people.” But an international attendee noted that after the uprising the “army and police refused to reform—they were stuck in their old ways [during the time] of the regime and weren’t apt to change, which at time made it difficult to just work with the existing forces.”

The conference addressed the importance of transitional justice and reconciliation as a component of security-sector reform.

A second Libyan representative from the east noted that “people were targeted politically [under Qaddafi] and there are feelings of injustice from the past.” Adding to this, an international participant argued for the importance of the rule of law in underpinning efforts by the state to extend its writ, stating that security institutions could not claim immunity from reform or accountability on the basis of fighting terrorism.

He proposed further considering the possibility of implementing local or provincial-level policing structures such as a national guard that could account for realities on the ground.

An attendee from eastern Libya suggested that the record for such endeavors across the Arab world was not encouraging, pointing to the danger of creating radical states-within-states such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza.

He added that a recent announcement of a national guard in Tripoli was a “cloning” of the post-2011 experience of trying to integrate brigades formed during the uprising. Currently, he stated, there were only two types of militias: those that had been freed from prison and those that are seeking a “cleansing of the old regime.”

A civilian representative from western Libya with long experience in security affairs agreed that after the 2011 Libyan uprising the security-sector reform experience was bottom-up but now it needed to be top-down.

He acknowledged plans for a presidential guard in Tripoli but argued that right now the Government of National Accord could not even control a single building. What was needed, he continued, was the appointment of a commander in chief along with a road map for a military organization based on Libya’s ten military regions, each one headed by a senior officer.

We need to get these officers working together,” he said, “they can be the basis for the army.” Whatever plan emerged had to be agreed upon by “different parties and regions” and we need to “foster a conversation between the older military ranks and the younger classes.”

Regarding the Ministry of Interior, he argued that it didn’t need new officers or even substantive international assistance but rather organizational reform.

Libyan attendees closed the conference on a tone of self-reliance. “We expected the West would provide support, but we need to realize that other parts of the world have their own problems,” said one participant, “so we can’t expect the West to help unless we’re ready.” Added an eastern representative, “We really cannot rely on the U.S., the U.K., or France. The army must reorganize itself.”


Frederic Wehrey – Senior Fellow, Middle East Program. Wehrey’s research focuses on security affairs, civil-military relations, and identity politics in North Africa and the Gulf.

Caroline Zullo – Junior Fellow – Middle East Program


Related Articles

Leave a Reply