This paper aims to analyse the main factors that have contributed to destabilising the fragile balance in Sirte under the rule of the LAAF.
The Negative Impact of the Presence of Foreign Mercenaries
Over the course of 2020, the LAAF came to significantly depend on foreign mercenaries, such as the Wagner Group and the so-called ‘Janjaweed’ Sudanese forces. However, the latter’s appearance in Sirte may contribute to a drop in social support for the LAAF.
The tribes of the city and its sprawling suburbs do not believe in international alliances and deem the presence of any foreign forces on their land a source of shame.
Furthermore, religious beliefs and Libyan nationalist principles play an important role in inhibiting any tribal dealings with or assistance to these forces, which they consider to be occupying their land.
The hostile policies of mercenaries have contributed to tensions in the city.
When it was proven that Wagner Group mercenaries were responsible for the bombing of Wadi Jarf on 7 June – with a view to clearing it of its civilian population – leading to the deaths of several civilians and the displacement of hundreds of families, the public reconsidered the reality of the LAAF’s control over these foreign powers.
Despite the fact that a number of civilians headed to the LAAF’s Sirte Military Operations Command to protest, the latter seemed unable to halt this bombing, which continued for two days until the families evacuated the village and fled to the city of Sirte.
For this reason, the local community has hopes for the military talks led by the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), which was created in February 2020 and later tasked with negotiating the details of a monitoring mechanism to strengthen the ceasefire concluded in summer 2020.
One of the declared objectives of the 5+5 JMC is to evacuate Libyan armed groups and foreign mercenaries to make the city a demilitarised zone. There is relative optimism in the city that these efforts may lead
to a phase of stability and avoid a new war that would pose a threat to its 170,000 inhabitants.
LAAF policies in Sirte have significantly contributed to undermining the fragile stability in the city, which has witnessed a remarkable deterioration in security, administrative and economic terms since the LAAF’s takeover in January 2020.
Among the factors that have adversely impacted services and security in the city are an escalation of rivalries, an intensification of the conflict between families jostling over control of fragile city institutions, a spread of foreign and local forces not fully controlled by the LAAF and the closure of the road connecting east and west Libya.
The key security role entrusted to the Criminal Investigation and Homeland Security units of Benghazi and the Internal Security Agency has deepened divisions within local communities and has had a very negative impact on citizens’ perceptions of the LAAF.
The militarisation of governance has also impeded any reconciliation initiatives at the local level.
Political divisions at the national level have had a direct negative impact on local governance and the provision of basic services by local authorities.
The Steering Committee appointed by the Interim Government lacks minimum standards of competence and depends mainly on tribal and political loyalties.
Increased insecurity and the closure of the coastal road linking Sirte with Tripoli and Libya’s western region also had a major impact on trade and entrepreneurship in the city.
The social and political support bases of the LAAF in Sirte, consisting mainly of the Firjan tribe and certain supporters of the former regime, have been key for the LAAF to establish its control and contain the threat posed by GNA supporters inside the city.
However, the coalition of forces that the LAAF has relied on appears heterogenous and fragile.
The influence of Salafist armed groups has grown significantly, contributing to tarnishing the image of the institution among local communities as Salafists became synonymous with extremism, tyranny and violence.
The supporters of the former regime have grown increasingly dissatisfied with political decisions in the context of renewed diplomatic initiatives.
The behaviour of the foreign mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner and the Sudanese so-called ‘Janjaweed’ forces has contributed to heightening tensions with local communities.
However, they have also played a key role in the capacity of the LAAF to maintain control over Sirte and the region.
This raises serious questions about the evolution of the situation on the ground in the case that diplomatic and military talks lead to a withdrawal of the foreign mercenaries.
The 5+5 JMC talks are continuing regarding evacuation of Sirte and the surrounding areas by foreign mercenaries, opening of the road linking the east with the west and the establishment of a demilitarised zone, so far without significant results.
Given the local and national dynamics, the best way to support the establishment of a demilitarised zone in Sirte and the neighbouring areas would be to implement policies that can create a balance between security, social and religious factors.
Among the mechanisms that could be utilised to improve security are the creation of joint security forces consisting of members from security directorates from cities that are geographically and tribally distant from the conflict in Sirte.
This could prove an important factor for the impartial enforcement of law and to maintain distance between the security forces and local actors.
While the suggested security mechanisms would contribute to achieving a kind of social-security balance, they may not be sufficient, as a power struggle among local tribes is to be expected. However, the organisation of municipal elections according to a new electoral system could contribute to making tribal competition less intense.
The possibility of a new electoral system for municipal councils based on lists is expected to discourage tribal parties and ensure that no single tribe dominates the municipal council, therefore contributing to social and cultural diversity.
As for the religious dimension, it requires policies in the security and social realms that would address the influence that Salafist groups have gained over the city in the past nine years through their control over weapons and political power.
This can be done through the establishment of joint security forces, as mentioned earlier. Members of the security directorates from the cities of Tripoli, al-Bayda and Zuwara, for example, or from the Nafusa Mountains, which are not linked to the major tribes of Sirte or to the Salafist movement, could be mobilised.
Policies aimed at balancing the security, social and religious elements in parallel with support for new municipal elections would certainly provide a solid base for the city’s potential role as a zone for disengagement and a restoration of security, societal and perhaps economic links too.
Despite what the city of Sirte has experienced over the past decade, social ties and a commitment to peaceful coexistence remain very strong in the city.
Such policies may therefore contribute to creating opportunities for administrative and economic reforms that will facilitate the transformation of the city from a conflict area to a destination for work, investment and sustainable development.