By Emadeddin Badi
Both de jure and de facto, authorities in Libya will have to cope with the pandemic threat posed by COVID-19.
The narrative of securitization that has characterized the public health response worldwide – particularly in the MENA region – is already being used by Libya’s competing dysfunctional governments.
With virtually no traditional military institution that can coordinate with political authorities to implement anti-pandemic policies nationwide, the existing security architecture at the local level will dictate both the shape of the response and its effectiveness.
Of course, the structural deficiencies characterizing Libya’s health sector – which have been compounded by Khalifa Haftar’s attack on Tripoli since April 2019 – hamper the ability of state actors to meaningfully respond to the virus.
However, the deployment of rhetorical tropes of security around the pandemic will provide hybrid actors with the space to weaponize it – effectively making security governance as important as the health sector in responding to the crisis.
Libya’s hybrid actors generally have a tenuous relationship with state authorities – a link designed to afford them the autonomy to operationalize separate economic practices outside of national structures’ purview.
With the capacities of more formal security actors declining both due to the health emergency and the contemporary conflict, resources mobilized to combat the virus are likely to be diverted by hybrid actors.
Already, the pandemic has led the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to move ahead with the allocation of an unmarked budget of over $300 million to fight the disease.
Aside from the fact that a portion of these funds will almost certainly go towards GNA-aligned hybrid actors, the latter will also seek to create new avenues of revenue generation by enforcing curfews and collecting fines in their local areas of control.
The multiplicity of factions aligned with the GNA will likely exacerbate competition and pre-existing rifts between them.
While many armed groups will seek to monopolize medical aid to themselves or for their affiliated communities, others will attempt to profit from the situation through their networks that enmesh political and business elites.
In Eastern Libya, where Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) have effectively quashed civilian authorities, the chief of staff heads the committee established to combat coronavirus.
The pandemic will undoubtedly further exacerbate the LAAF leadership’s domination of the socio-economic spheres in Cyrenaica, with the likelihood that the urgency of anti-pandemic response will be used to grant the LAAF more jurisdictions to predate over revenues and funds.
However, if the public health response is inadequate, a disillusionment in the LAAF’s ability to deal with the crisis could lead to a resurgence of localism amongst communities – and affiliated hybrid actors – aligned under Haftar’s banner.
This may manifest itself as violent tensions between local hybrid actors and the General Command of the LAAF, which would force the latter to make concessions.
This is a scenario all the more likely given the contemporary military setbacks faced by Haftar’s forces in western Libya, as well as the fact that his oil blockade is crippling the country’s economy.
More broadly, the fallout from the pandemic is likely to multi-dimensionally reconfigure hybrid actors’ relationships and interactions.
Being at the centre of emergency plans to respond to COVID-19, hybrid actors will likely be the ones ensuring the enforcement of social distancing measures such as lockdowns and curfews.
This creates a relationship of dependency between them and national-level authorities, a reliance which hybrid actors will be sure to instrumentalize in order to derive formal recognition and compensation for their role.
At the local level, the level of social proximity between communities and hybrid actors will also dictate the degree of coercion (or in certain cases – cooperation) that will be utilized to enforce the social distancing measures.
Some hybrid actors, particularly those heavily reliant on a degree of social legitimacy for their survival or those operating in peripheral areas, will be particularly diligent in their efforts to enforce anti-pandemic measures in their areas in order to appear as “protectors of their community”.
The concurrence of the pandemic with a context of war will exacerbate this dynamic, as hybrid actors will seek to bolster their social legitimacy and leverage their positive relationships with their respective constituencies to portray themselves as legitimate security providers.
The unexplored dimension that the pandemic could affect is the partnership of hybrid actors with international stakeholders. Since the fall of Gaddafi, most states involved in Libya to date have – in one way or another – unilaterally engaged with specific armed groups.
While generally backing Libya’s political process, Western states crafted strategic partnerships with these actors in order to achieve short-term goals, often in the areas of migration or counterterrorism.
The neglected opportunity-cost of this strategy is that it came at the expense of a broader process of nation-building or wider security sector reform.
There is a definite risk that the urgency of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis instigates a similar process, with hybrid actors becoming tools through which the contagion of instability would be managed in Libya.
Such an approach would further entrench localism and hybrid armed actors as defining features of the country’s landscape, de facto ensuring that any government or figure would be beholden to them in the future.
Emadeddin Badi is a researcher and political analyst that focuses on governance, conflict and the political economy of Libya and the Sahel. He has worked with multiple development organizations as a consultant, with a focus on mainstreaming conflict sensitivity within the programming of post-conflict stabilization initiatives in Libya as well as providing analysis regarding local conflict dynamics in the country.