By Wolfram Lacher & Peter Cole
This paper examines the rise and fall of hybrid security sector institutions in Libya, and the political interests at stake in security sector reform.
Ill-fated reform attempts
In view of the conflicting interests at work in the highest levels of government, the authorities’ inability to conceive any coherent strategy for the establishment of new security sector institutions has been unsurprising.
The factionalization of the security sector has overwhelmed successive governments, eliminating their ability to develop plans for security sector reform as they are constantly forced to react to events on the ground.
Three years after the revolution, no plans exist for security sector reform, nor has there been any work on building the political consensus required to begin the process.
Since the state institutions were torn apart in mid-2014, two rival visions have emerged, reflecting competing claims to control over the security sector.
On the one hand, an alliance of military officers from Cyrenaica and the Zintani leadership of hybrid units, backed by the rump parliament in Tobruk, has been mobilizing support from Egypt to gain the upper hand and establish an army under its authority.
The rump parliament has issued a decision dissolving all ‘irregular armed entities’, without specifying how those would be identified. On the other hand, the Libya Dawn coalition, an alliance of hybrid units aligned with the ‘revolutionary camp’, contests the legitimacy of the rump HoR and its chief of general staff.
The Dawn coalition denounces the Tobruk-based alliance as harbouring a counter-revolutionary agenda and is promoting the establishment of a new security sector with the former revolutionary battalions at its core.
Prior to the crisis of mid-2014, reform attempts had been undertaken piecemeal, generally provoking tensions rather than attenuating them.
Among Abu Sahmain’s first actions as ‘supreme commander’ was the establishment of an Integrity and Reform Commission for the armed forces, in late June 2013.
The Commission primarily focused on excluding officers who had participated in Qaddafi’s counter revolutionary war effort, although it also aimed (more generally) to retire senior officers to make space for ‘fresh blood’.
The initiative also sought to improve the prospects for integration of thuwwar, who often held out against joining the army on the grounds that it was an unreformed institution of the former regime.
The Commission’s efforts fuelled discontent within the army and contributed to the formation of dissident groups, including the faction now led by Maj. Gen. Haftar.
At the time of writing, the majority in the rump HoR was planning to enable retired officers to be reinstated.
The HoR’s attempt to reverse earlier decisions was not the first time that efforts to carry out security sector reform fell victim to power struggles and rapid shifts in the public mood after key events.
The Zeidan government’s attempt to establish a so-called National Guard in 2013 is a case in point. During early 2013, a high-level committee appointed by Prime Minister Zeidan led efforts to establish the new organization, which was intended to protect interim government institutions.
The unit was to exist only until the constitutional process and reform of old security structures had laid the basis for a new security sector. The National Guard would be recruited primarily from the LSF and other thuwwar factions, individually rather than by unit.
Once the security sector was reformed, the National Guard was to become a reserve force.
The idea fell prey to the political struggles that paralysed the GNC throughout 2013, pitting the ‘revolutionary camp’ against their political opponents in the National Forces Alliance.
The Alliance opposed the project, not least because the Guard was intended to report to the GNC president, who, at the time, was the revolutionary camp’s figurehead. The project was abandoned in early July 2013.
By June, when protests in front of a Benghazi LSF base turned into clashes in which several dozen people were killed, the government had already embarked on a revision of its plans to integrate thuwwar units into government forces.
Instead of establishing new interim forces, the prime minister set up another committee to plan for the integration of thuwwar into the existing structures of the army and police.
In October 2013, following the temporary abduction of Ali Zeidan, the government sought to speed up the integration process by handing responsibility to the Ministry of Defence and granting military ranks to thuwwar.
A plan to integrate around 300 thuwwar leaders as military officers was shelved, however, after Zeidan’s dismissal in March 2014.
If the integration of the thuwwar into government structures has proved elusive, efforts to establish new, depoliticized units from scratch have fared no better.
The training programmes designed to set up such units have also been subject to the political uncertainty and institutional paralysis of
the Libyan government. Under an agreement with former prime minister Zeidan’s Ministry of Defence, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States agreed to train some 15,000 recruits abroad.
A further 15,000 were to be trained in Libya by Egyptian, Jordanian, and Sudanese instructors. British, Italian, and US officials publicly described this effort as the basis for the creation of a ‘general-purpose force’.
In private, however, these officials admitted that a scheme based on a request by an interim prime minister was inherently shaky.
Libyan officials seemed even less convinced, describing the scheme as a training programme—with no evidence of plans to create cohesive units of new recruits, let alone support for such a new force from Libya’s fragmented defence sector.
The former affiliations of the recruits themselves was also unclear; while recruits came through one of eight national recruitment centres, neither foreign officials involved in the programme nor officers at the Libyan Defence Ministry possessed information concerning their past engagements.
In one case, the Ministry of Defence lost track of one designated list of trainees, necessitating the creation of further vetting committees within partner and training institutions.
Although the recruiting process was open, most recruits were probably drawn from hybrid institutions.
Given the uncertainty surrounding who is being trained and what will become of them after the training is completed, it is unclear what impact—if any—the programme would have on current hybrid units and institutions, and on the political interests those units represent.
The problems associated with training members of an
army that has fragmented into political factions are obvious; in July 2014, for example, a unit that was being trained in the United Kingdom announced its support for Haftar’s campaign, despite the fact that Haftar was acting in open rebellion against the chief of general staff.
In sum, there has been no evidence of any coherent strategy to establish integrated, depoliticized units recruited from the pool of thuwwar and regular soldiers.
As the case studies below demonstrate, revolutionary and Small Arms Survey Working Paper post-revolutionary battalions have been left largely intact, even after their ‘integration’ into the army or their incorporation into new hybrid institutions.
Such integration is better understood as the work of individual political or regional factions within the security apparatus, rather than the government as a whole.
As long as political rivalries over and within the security sector persist, armed groups and their backers in the security institutions are unlikely to transform into depoliticized units.
Indeed, dissolving these units into an integrated whole can happen only once power relations within the institutions themselves are settled.
This process of consolidation has not yet started, and the emergence of two rival power centres in mid-2014 will delay it further. In this context, the rump HoR’s plan to dissolve ‘irregular armed entities’ implies that the Tobruk-based leadership considers certain units to be regular forces loyal to the state, while it sees the others as unlawful.
This approach contradicts realities on the ground. As demonstrated throughout the case studies in this paper, the ‘regular’ Libyan army ceased to exist with the revolution.
The boundaries between formal and hybrid units, as well as between the army and the thuwwar, have blurred, and the entire security sector has become defined by political factionalism.
Intense contests over legitimacy have produced a bifurcation of state institutions that renders the notion of loyalty to the state meaningless.
This assessment has direct implications for external attempts to support the establishment of a state security sector. Even before the open bifurcation of mid-2014, training of new recruits and the formation of new units were unlikely to alter the government’s inability to act.
In the best-case scenario, such efforts will have prepared the ground for units that can be at the disposal of future governments, once the post-revolutionary balance of power has become clearer. In the worst-case scenario, those efforts will have exacerbated existing tensions.
The rift that has split Libya’s armed forces in two since May 2014 means that training programmes are no longer a viable means of support; they would merely serve to back one alliance of forces over another, thereby fuelling the conflicts between them.
Wolfram Lacher is a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahel and Sahara region.
Peter Cole is an independent non-governmental Middle East and North Africa expert with experience in conflict and post-conflict dynamics, political risk, and state–society relations.