Community Dynamics and Economic Interests
By Tim Eaton, Abdul Rahman Alageli, Emadeddin Badi, Mohamed Eljarh, and Valerie Stocker
This paper is based on approximately 200 interviews carried out by the authors – in person and remotely – with a wide range of Libyan actors between November 2018 and September 2019. This the paper does not claim to cover all armed groups in the country.
3. Eastern Libya: The Libyan Arab Armed Forces
A series of assassinations and violent local power struggles beset eastern Libya following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. During 2012–14, police and military officers, judges, politicians, journalists and activists in the cities of Benghazi and Derna were targeted.
Hundreds of killings occurred. Few, if any, suspects have been arrested. Many residents of Benghazi as well as authorities in the eastern region blamed the assassinations on extremist Islamist groups – including Ansar al-Sharia – that dominated both cities.
On the back of this insecurity and campaign of assassinations, then-General Khalifa Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ against Islamist and Islamist-leaning militias in the city of Benghazi in May 2014.
Underlining the country’s political fragmentation, in March 2015 the House of Representatives appointed Haftar as general commander of Libya’s armed forces and promoted him to the rank of field marshal.
Since that point, Haftar has referred to his forces as the ‘Libyan Arab Armed Forces’ (LAAF). Haftar secured the support of disgruntled former army officers and soldiers, as well as key eastern tribes, in using Operation Dignity to consolidate his control of the eastern region through the development of the LAAF under his leadership.
What followed, though, was a brutal campaign for control of Benghazi between May 2014 and July 2017, which displaced hundreds of thousands of residents and destroyed significant parts of the city.
Video footage of an LAAF officer summarily executing combatants has led to the issue of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the officer concerned.
The LAAF officer’s actions appear to divide opinion locally, with some believing that such acts are justified against extremist groups while others denounce the behaviour.
Following the establishment of control in Benghazi, an empowered LAAF moved on to Derna, where it launched another bloody campaign against Islamist forces, including groups linked to ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
The campaign concluded in June 2018. The LAAF has since sought to expand its influence in the south of the country, and in April 2019 launched an offensive on Tripoli in the west.
The LAAF’s status is a matter of contestation. To its supporters, it constitutes a formal national army and is referred to simply as al-jaysh – i.e. ‘the army’. To sceptics, the LAAF is no different to other armed groups.
While the LAAF has the distinction of seeking to operate as a national force (which few, if any, rival actors are able to do), in reality it remains an amalgam of formal units of mixed tribal composition – such as Brigade 106 – and some local auxiliary forces.
The tribal influence of some armed and military figures has also represented a threat and a challenge to Haftar’s project and ambitions in eastern Libya. Relying on their tribes and tribal support bases, some armed group and/or military figures – such as Col. Faraj al-Barasi, Col. al-Mahdi al-Barghathi, Col. Muftah Hamza, Faraj Egaim, Salah Boulaghib and Ibrahim Jadhran – have sought on various occasions to challenge Haftar’s authority and growing control over eastern Libya’s military and security forces.
However, using a combination of a wait-and-see approach and a demonstrated ability to navigate tribal relations, Haftar has successfully thwarted those challenges to his authority, sometimes by playing elements of tribes off against one another to reach an accommodation.
At the beginning of Operation Dignity in 2014, the LAAF’s general command had limited control over some of the armed groups under its structures in Benghazi.
An illustration of this can be found in its fluctuating relations with factions of the Awagir tribe in Benghazi. Benghazi is the stronghold of the Awagir tribe and its sub-clans. The city and its environs are considered to be their homeland (watan).
The involvement of Awagir fighters in Operation Dignity in 2014 formally began when the Interim Government appointed Faraj Egaim, an Awagir figure, as the head of a special operations and counterterrorism force.
However, growing disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction among certain Awagir factions with Haftar and his leadership style prompted a rapprochement between Egaim and the GNA in 2016, as the GNA saw Egaim as a figure through which Haftar could be challenged.
In order to head off Egaim’s challenge without causing Awagir factions to break away from the LAAF, Haftar placed Egaim under house arrest.
After the launch of the LAAF offensive on Tripoli on 4 April 2019, however, Haftar released Egaim following intervention and mediation from some key Awagir figures. Egaim was given command of a newly formed armed unit of his own, with a vague mandate to ‘counter negative occurrences’ (which the unit does not appear equipped to fulfil).
These events illustrate the challenges facing the LAAF general command in terms of accommodating and navigating local interests, yet also indicate its flexibility and resourcefulness.
Tribal issues are not the only factor complicating relations within the alliance. In Benghazi tensions can also be observed between the LAAF general command and elements of the Saiqa Special Forces, led by Mahmoud al-Werfalli (the officer subject to the aforementioned ICC arrest warrant).
The unit has a unique composition, amalgamating local young people, former Gaddafi-era commanders and a significant Salafist ideological element.
As with Tripoli’s armed groups, members of both the Awagir tribe and the Saiqa Special Forces’ network have assumed a formal security role, with a degree of autonomy from the LAAF general command.
But that space for autonomy is steadily shrinking as formal LAAF and government institutions continue to consolidate their control. Since 2014, Awagir leaders have leveraged their positions and personal connections to capture elements of Benghazi’s economy (particularly private businesses and the real estate sector), which they consider compensation for their support of the LAAF in 2014.
These tensions highlight the mismatch between, on the one hand, the strategic view of the LAAF’s general command – which is ostensibly nationalist in positioning and directly loyal to Haftar’s national political project – and, on the other, the agendas of localist elements of the alliance less committed to the field marshal’s goals.
The LAAF has proved relatively effective to date at balancing coercion and patronage to manage the tensions between these priorities.
For local groups, such as the Awagir and elements of the Saiqa Special Forces, the LAAF has become a vehicle for the pursuit of local goals, with incorporation into LAAF structures ensuring a degree of stability in the areas under the alliance’s control.
The LAAF general command has also pursued its own narrow interests at times, particularly in terms of increasing its engagement with the private sector.
Conflict has had a significant negative impact on the social fabric in the east, where the relationship between armed groups and local communities broadly mirrors tribal and ideological divides.
The LAAF is ultimately subservient to Haftar himself. A narrow coterie of actors – including, notably, his sons and commanders from Haftar’s own tribe, the Ferjan – undermine the formal chain of command.
For those who support the LAAF as a formal institution of the state, the personalistic rule of Haftar creates an inherent conflict of loyalties. Such considerations must be factored into any analysis of the LAAF’s relationship with communities in the east, where the alliance has co-opted social organizations and used coercion to dominate political and economic decision-making.
For example, in 2014, when the local community in Benghazi suffered serious fissures along clan and tribal lines, armed groups in the city sought to exploit these fault lines in their power struggle against each other.
Some of the key leaders in the city’s Islamist-leaning armed groups belonged to clans and tribes originating in western Libya, especially Misrata.
For example, Ansar al-Sharia and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC) – both of which included brigades that at least initially self-identified as anti-Gaddafi, rather than as Islamist – received consistent military support from Misrata.
The support base for Operation Dignity and the LAAF in Benghazi, on the other hand, originated primarily among the eastern tribes, including the powerful Saadi group of tribes (the Awagir, Magharba, Obaidat and Barasa) and the Murabitin tribes (consisting of the Mnifa, Qahtan and Ferjan); later on, support also came from the Higher Council for the Murabitin and Ashraf.
Nonetheless, the LAAF’s general command takes inclusion of all tribes and regions across Libya in its structures seriously and considers it key to the success of its nationalist positioning.
Armed groups have consequently been viewed as part of local society, albeit with varying degrees of legitimacy. For example, the BRSC and Derna Mujahidin Shura Council would not have been able to secure footholds in Benghazi and Derna respectively, and hold out for years against Operation Dignity, without close links to local communities in their neighbourhoods.
Equally, the LAAF would not have been able to sustain its advances on Benghazi and Derna and consolidate its position without the
support of tribes throughout the eastern region.
Extensive militarization has occurred in eastern Libya. On 19 June 2016, Agila Saleh, the speaker of the House of Representatives, declared a state of emergency in the east.
Through his position as speaker, Saleh appointed the LAAF’s chief of staff, Abdulrazaq al-Nadhouri, as military governor overseeing territory from Bin Jawad in the central ‘oil crescent’ to Derna in the northeast.
Nadhouri subsequently abolished 10 democratically elected municipal councils and controversially replaced them with military governors. Nadhouri also attempted to take over the functions of civilian authorities and influence state institutions in eastern Libya.
His appointment led to the emergency imposition of military law, and a range of temporary decrees affecting civilian/technical institutions in that region.
Operation Dignity steadily gained popular support, allowing the LAAF to consolidate its position as a legitimate and representative security actor in the eyes of a significant proportion of communities in eastern Libya. For some, the LAAF is seen as a vehicle for circumventing tribal divides.
Interviewees from the city referred to the ‘Awagirization of Benghazi’ to describe how members of the tribe are taking key jobs in the public sector. One interviewee from Benghazi emphasized her hope that the LAAF would prevent the dominance of tribal politics in the city.
Regardless of one’s view of the LAAF, residents of Benghazi and Derna (and to a lesser extent Ajdabyia and Kufra) interviewed for this paper view the LAAF as the key power broker and local actor.
The LAAF’s dominance in the east has brought a degree of stability to the region, allowing for a semblance of normality to return in cities such as Benghazi.
This has prompted some business leaders to call for a ‘strongman’ mode of rule in Libya and offer support for the LAAF’s campaign. When asked about the LAAF’s growing role and the lack of transparency over its actions, one prominent pro-LAAF activist in Tobruk remarked that the LAAF is at war, and that this was no time to ask for civilian oversight or transparency.
For those who oppose the LAAF’s activities, or who do not benefit from them, the cost is high. This has particularly been the case since the launch of the April 2019 offensive on Tripoli.
For example, hours after giving an interview criticizing the offensive, Seham Sergiwa, a legislator in the House of Representatives, was abducted, allegedly by the Awliya al-Dam armed group (even though the group had supposedly been disbanded by the LAAF).
‘The army is a red line,’ was reported to have been graffitied on the wall of her property. Sergiwa remained missing at the time of writing.
Nonetheless, there is now an ongoing conversation in eastern Libya about the role that the LAAF should play in public life and politics. Some politicians, activists and civil society groups are trying to push back against the expansion of the LAAF into the public sector and economic sphere.
According to one source in the Interim Government in al-Bayda, the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Finance are currently engaged in an administrative tribunal against the LAAF’s Military Authority for Investment and Public Works (MAIPW).
The dispute is over the collection of labour migrants’ fees and the management of agricultural mega-projects in the Sarir and Kufra regions in the southeast.
In addition, democratically elected mayors and municipal councils have challenged the status of military personnel appointed by Nadhouri during his term as military governor.
For example, in a court case in al-Bayda in 2017, the mayor of al-Marj challenged Nadhouri’s decision to replace him with a military-appointed mayor, while in the same year a group of seven mayors also affected by Nadhouri’s appointments issued a joint statement calling for the reinstatement of democratically elected municipal councils.
After Nadhouri’s post of military governor was abolished by the speaker of the House of Representatives in July 2018, the Interim Government in al-Bayda assumed oversight of the issue and appointed its own civilian caretaker municipal councils.
About the Authors:
Tim Eaton is a senior research fellow with the MENA Programme at Chatham House, where he focuses on the political economy of the Libyan conflict. Tim previously worked for BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, on projects in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and helped to set up and manage its Libya bureau from 2013 to 2014.
Abdul Rahman Alageli is an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme, based in Tripoli, Libya. He is currently an adviser to the GNA Chief-of-General Staff of the Libyan Army. Abdul Rahman previously worked with the stabilization team of the Libyan Prime Minister’s Office in 2011 before becoming the national security file coordinator in the Office of the Libyan Prime Minister and a member of the Libyan government’s National Security Coordination Team until 2015.
Emadeddin Badi is a researcher and political analyst who focuses on governance, conflict and the political economy of Libya. He has worked with multiple international development organizations and business risk firms as a consultant, and his analysis has been published widely.
Mohamed Eljarh is a Libyan affairs specialist who has covered Libya’s developments since 2011. He is the co-founder and CEO of Libya Outlook, and he acts as the regional manager for CRCM North Africa in Libya. Previously, Eljarh worked with the Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy magazine.
Valerie Stocker is a researcher who has studied Libyan politics and society extensively, mostly focusing on the southern region. She has worked with various development organizations since 2013, conducting fieldwork and analysis on conflict dynamics, peace processes, migration and other subjects. Valerie was based in Tripoli for several years starting in 2008, and has previously worked as a freelance journalist and business risk consultant.