Uncertainty looms over defense portfolios despite recent positive developments in Libya. The formation of a new Presidency Council and national unity government in Libya represented an important step towards unifying the country and its institutions.
This unity, however, will not be completed until the military establishment alongside all its brigades is united under one command.
On Feb. 5, Libyan delegates elected Mohammad Menfi from the east to head a three-member Presidency Council comprised of Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi representing the west and south regions respectively.
The three represent the supreme commander of the army whose decisions must be taken unanimously as stipulated in the political agreement. This is the first time since 2014 that the country’s three regions — Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan — have agreed on a commander in chief.
Race for key defense positions
Political rivals in the east and west have been competing over the defense ministry, a key position for anyone seeking to control the army.
To pave the way for consultations on the matter, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh has temporarily headed the ministry until the Presidency Council settles on a candidate.
Dbeibeh promised to support the 5+5 joint military committee, which comprises of five representatives from the West and five representatives from the east to ensure the continuation of a cease-fire signed between the government and forces of renegade general Khalifa Haftar on Oct. 23 in Geneva.
One of the prime minister’s tasks is to unify the army soonest possible.
Change in west easier than east
Since the formation of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016 headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, the internationally recognized government has had two defense ministers and four chiefs of staff, the latest being Muhammad al-Haddad who has been the chief of staff since 2020.
In contrast, the situation in eastern Libya has been different with warlord Haftar commanding the army since 2014 with Abdul-Razzaq Al-Nazuri as the chief of staff of his militia.
Herein lies the difficulty of integrating the militias loyal to Haftar, known for their war crimes, into the unified Libyan army compared to the more disciplined brigades in the western region who are used to answering to a civilian authority.
Haftar biggest obstacle
As it stands, Libya’s army in the west has been led by al-Haddad while Haftar’s militias maintain control of the east.
Haftar has frustrated efforts by al-Haddad to build a unified and disciplined army and sought to use force to control the entire country since 2014.
However, Haftar’s militia spokesman Ahmed Al-Mesmari’s recent recognition of the Presidency Council as the supreme commander of the army reflects important progress towards the unification of the army.
Haftar has been forced to make a political retreat following threats of sanctions by the international community and the United Nations if he continues to sabotage the political agreement, as well as his failure in the offensive on Tripoli and fears of prosecution by the Virginia Court in the US.
However, this retreat could be a tactical move by the coup leader as suggested by his behavior in the way he received some of the leaders from the recently formed unity government.
Will Al-Nazuri replace Haftar?
In a meeting held mid-March, the tribes of Burqa in the eastern town of Al-Abyar surprisingly demanded that the new executive authority appoint Al-Nazuri as the chief of staff of the unified army.
Al-Nazuri, who is currently the chief of staff of Haftar’s militia, has the support of Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based Parliament, and hopes that by forming an alliance with Saleh, he will secure the support of some of the largest tribes in the east.
This military-political alliance is trying to form a bloc parallel to Haftar, especially in the event Haftar left the political scene either because of illness or for failure to be appointed to the position of army commander or defense minister in the newly formed national unity government.
With their influence on tribes in the east that extend to the border with Egypt, an alliance between Al-Nazuri and Saleh is likely to isolate Haftar politically, particularly considering that tribes in the east consider Haftar and his entourage who hail from the Al Furjan tribe in the west as intruders.
In this case, if Al-Nazuri is appointed chief of staff, then the defense ministry will be given to a figure from western Libya, and particularly from Misrata since it has the largest military force in the western region. This means Haftar will not play any official role in the transitional phase.
Haftar’s absence from the political scene is likely to accelerate the process of unifying the army. However, his insistence to be the head of the unified military establishment is likely to complicate the whole process.
Libya’s struggle over army chief post
Will Haftar take over or force the appointment of his men?
The task to unify the Libyan army and integrate all the battalions under one command has become the most serious and controversial issue for discussion in light of ongoing efforts to settle the Libyan crisis, amid attempts by the renegade General Khalifa Haftar to impose a loyal candidate.
Haftar’s absence from the scene, under international pressure, will facilitate the process of unifying the Libyan army, but his insistence on heading the unified military establishment will make matters more complicated.
The new Presidential Council, headed by Mohamed Al-Menfi, along with council members Mousa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi, represents the supreme command of the army. However, the decisions emanating from this body can only be taken unanimously, as stipulated in the political agreement supervised by the United Nations’ mission.
This is the first time since 2014 that Libya’s three regions (Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Fezzan) have agreed on a commander in chief, but selecting the field command of the army remains a thorny issue.
The dispute over the leadership of the Libyan army, specifically the authority of the civilian government over the army, stood as a real problem facing settlement efforts prior to the 2019 military operation launched by Haftar on Tripoli, flouting the efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who visited the Libyan capital at that time in preparation for holding the international conference to sign a road map reached by the warring parties.
But when Haftar suddenly launched an attack on Tripoli, these efforts collapsed.
Former head of the Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj agreed in principle to Haftar’s appointment as the army chief – before the attack on Tripoli. He also called for maintaining the sovereign institutions’ unification process and refraining from separating this process from the aspired comprehensive political solution, which Haftar rejected categorically.
Today, after the failure of Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli and despite his growing influence in eastern Libya, the commander of the eastern forces will probably never run for the position of army chief. However, this does not mean the end of his influence and intervention in the plans to unify the Libyan army or the possibility that he will work on hindering the process of selecting a new military commander.
In fact, there is an emerging struggle over the defence minister portfolio in the new Libyan government, as all parties in the east and west want to take over this ministry in order to control the Libyan army.
This prompted the head of the National Unity Government Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh to personally manage the defence ministry temporarily, pending the selection of an appropriate figure for the post, and in consultation with the Presidential Council as stipulated in the political agreement.
Since the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016, the Libyan army has been led by two defence ministers; Al-Mahdi Al-Barghathi (2016-2017) and Salah Al-Namroush (2020-2021), in addition to four chiefs of staff; Abd as-Salam Jaballah Al-Ubaidi (2014-2016), Abdul Rahman Al-Taweel (2017-2019), Mohamed Al-Sharif (2019-2020), and Mohamed Haddad (from 2020 until today).
The aforementioned army leaders were appointed by a civilian authority, represented by Al-Sarraj. Hence, some of them were removed without causing a political crisis.
However, the situation in the Libyan east is different. Since 2014, Haftar has remained commander in chief of the army, along with his militia’s Chief of Staff, Abdul Razzaq Al-Nazouri, and the defence minister. They have ruled the eastern region for about eight years.
This is why the task of integrating the militias loyal to Haftar into the unified Libyan army is challenging.
The crimes committed by Haftar’s militias during their aggression on Tripoli (2019-2020) and the assassinations and kidnappings taking place in Benghazi reflect a state of insecurity and the failure of competent parties to hold the factions accountable legally and judicially.