Avoiding the Risks of Politicisation

By Jalel Harchaoui

This chapter takes as an implicit starting point the security-related initiatives in Libya between 2011 and 2020, none of which was a full success. Against that backdrop, it delineates lessons for future Security Sector Reform (SSR) efforts, the primary goal being to avoid past mistakes.


Idiosyncrasies and Libya-Specific Lessons

One constant theme throughout the post-2011 period is the remarkable commitment by Libyan players to disguising their war-fighting efforts as legitimate SSR initiatives.

Such storytelling often proves capable of mobilising Libyan constituencies and, more importantly, attracting foreign benevolence. This lets the most aggressive factions buy time as their war efforts make headway using indiscriminate violence.

Recent history shows Libyan factions almost always make sure their security work is inextricably intertwined with their civil-war agenda as well as their illicit-business ambitions.

The challenge for planners is to promote dynamics capable of avoiding situations of unconditional foreign support, a recurring trap throughout the post-2011 era.

Avoiding a binary depiction of Libya’s armed-group universe

Given what is stated above, perception is of paramount importance. In hindsight, Libyan elites interested in making advances using military force while benefiting from diplomatic cover from Western states have demonstrated a keen ability to engineer persuasive narratives.

The latter have systematically involved a binary perception of Libya’s armed groups: some of them are on the side deserving international support while the rest are to be weakened or destroyed using brute force.

The main downside associated with this type of worldview is the implication the ultra-complex landscape of post-2011 Libya could possibly be simplified into a basic dichotomy.

This insidious temptation sometimes affects even experienced planners and has played a role in almost all SSR failures of the last 9 years.

To avoid it going forward, new SSR efforts must offer decision-makers and planners the opportunity to visualise the contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in the set of armed groups that populate the country.

Indeed, the universe of armed groups cannot be broken down into two categories: “good” and “bad”. A more evolved system of grading could be one on five gradings. For instance:

  • Discipline & Professionalism (untrained [1] civilians to professionally trained [5])
  • Security Provision Efficiency (poor [1] to high [5 ] security contribution)
  • Commitment to Ideology (pragmatic [1] to rigidly dogmatic [5])
  • Dependence on Direct Foreign Aid (no foreign support [1] to full foreign dependence [5])
  • Illegality of Domestic Revenues (reliant on illicit activities [1] to fully transparent funding [5])

Separating these uncorrelated characteristics clearly and visually makes it easier to navigate the universe of Libyan armed groups.

It helps show tolerating one entire armed coalition and favouring the destruction of another very often comes with adverse consequences for SSR.

Such a policy should therefore be seen as a debatable trade-off to be decided consciously and on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, some armed groups are structured like transparent, professionally-trained brigades.

At the same time, those very brigades, despite their reassuring appearance, lack the robustness or ability to act as effective security providers.

Additionally, some armed groups, which depict themselves as being part of a formal army or police body, are actually detrimental to basic citizen safety.

In these examples, favouring formal armed groups unilaterally triggers a security deterioration.

In order to calibrate such difficult decisions and counterintuitive phenomena, SSR planners must always reason in terms of compromise, which cannot be managed or monitored if their representation of the Libyan scene is influenced in any way by binary narratives peddled by Libyan groups and their partisan foreign sponsors.

The coastal city of Zuwara is an example where a trade-off approach maximises the chances of successful SSR.

As early as 2013, many armed groups in northwest Libya adopted an anti-crime narrative to gain socio-political legitimacy.

One proponent of this trend is “the Masked Men” of Zuwara that distinguished themselves through a positive contribution to local law and order.

The group was launched by an assortment of frustrated citizens, typically between 20 and 35 years of age, and managed to reduce the grip that human smugglers had long held on Zuwara in 2015.

Established and funded by the municipal council, the Masked Men combated smuggling, secured the town’s borders and helped bolster civil and security institutions.

Nowadays, the GNA’s Interior Ministry is more robust than it was a few years ago, both in terms of leadership and ability to project power.

Also political rivalries in the Zuwara area have become less pronounced, which means less contestation between different factions to control the lucrative Ras Jdir border-crossing with Tunisia.

These phenomena combine to make the Masked Men more dispensable today than they were in their heyday. Still, the informal group remains in existence and the state must decide what should become of it.

The vigilante group contains many members of Salafi persuasion, while also clearly belonging to the Amazigh community that inhabits Zuwara.

These characteristics make it inherently an informal group warranting reform. Yet, it also possesses several qualities, including a certain degree of local legitimacy given that it contributed to law and order in a difficult phase of Zuwara’s history.

Therefore, a judicious trade-off here consists in avoiding an abrupt, total dismantlement of the Masked Men, instead pursuing a partial reorientation and re-shuffling of the group’s members (training, return to unarmed life, etc.) while formally hiring a large percentage of them into various ministries.

Geographic pluralism

A second principle worth underscoring here has to do with the importance of geography. Libya is a vast and immutably diverse country, so any SSR endeavour must embrace a pluralistic (or pluriform) approach.

This also applies to programmes articulated over the long haul. As some profound structural differences between localities have been felt over numerous decades, they are likely to persist in the foreseeable future.

Concretely, this means a given SSR plan should accept the security of some areas will tend to be insured by the local population even when the latter happens to be an ethnic or tribal minority nationally.

A tangible example is the Murzuq municipality, where multiple national players, including the LNA, tried to impose security without including the minorities that dominate that swath of territory.

In the example of the LNA in the Fezzan during 2019, relatively stable security became more feasible only when arrangements enabled the LNA to include, work with and lean on local Tebu leaders.

As far as the Ahali community in Murzuq is concerned, it was forced to flee the municipality in August 2019 following reprisals by Tebu armed groups – arguably, another consequence of insufficient inclusiveness in the local security apparatus.


All in all, the few findings, lessons and remarks discussed in this essay point to two strategic implications for future SSR in Libya:

1. Any valid SSR initiative must be part of an inclusive political deal negotiated based on the interests of key elites, including meaningful armed-group leaders. Existing players can be attracted using promises of recognition and state resources.

At the same time, any political deal should contain provisions that require armed groups to accept a gradual process of SSR, including penalties for non-compliance, namely forfeiting payments.

Thus, a credible monitoring and verification procedure combined with sufficient enforcement power will also be needed.

2. Any reconfigured or newly-established security forces will need to be balanced in their geographic and ethnic composition.

The focus of their development should be on the professionalisation of individuals and organisations in terms of their behaviour and performance standards.

This must include the infusion of such forces with public and organisational values that can gradually heal the divisions that have emerged in the Libyan political and security landscape in recent years.

Newly-minted national affiliations and a national identity will be key to organisational success.

3. The limited nature of the internationally-recognised government’s domestic legitimacy throws into doubt the validity of a conventional state-centric approach for rebuilding a formal security apparatus nationwide.

Indeed, such a state-centric approach is likely to reinforce dominance patterns that favour vested interests concentrated in a few privileged cities on the coast.

This would amount yet again to ignoring traditionally-neglected areas such as the Fezzan. To mitigate this risk, SSR plans must always have a sophisticated economic component.


Jalel Harchaoui – is a research fellow with the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute. He has been specializing in Libya and covering particular aspects of the country, such as its security landscape and political economy. He is also a frequent commentator on Libya in the international press, publishing widely in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Middle East Eye, Orient XXI, War on the Rocks and the Small Arms Survey.


Source: CONFLICTS, PANDEMICS AND PEACE BUILDING: New Perspectives on Security Sector Reform in the MENA Region




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