The Libyan revolution had all the ingredients of a success story: civic courage, far-reaching international support and widespread popular desire for political freedom, human rights and democracy. Yet it remains far from realising the peaceful transition to democracy many hoped would occur.
The aftermath of war and regime change
Libya’s new era formally began on 23 October 2011, when NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil declared its liberation from the previous regime.
NATO ended Operation Unified Protector, an air and naval mission, a week later, and the NTC rejected the presence of any United Nations troops outright. Libya therefore embarked on a very difficult transition without major outside support.
The conditions often found in a post-conflict state and the fallout of regime change combined to create an extremely complex situation in the country. Regime change – whether by revolution, coup or conquest by another state – is usually accompanied by a certain degree of institutional breakdown, following changes in personnel.
Depending on the scale of such changes and pre-existing institutional resilience and memory, this results in loss of knowledge and expertise, and sometimes the disappearance of whole organisations. The provision of services, ranging from security to electricity and water, therefore slows or halts altogether.
In Libya, although most services continued to operate, or were interrupted only briefly, during the war and its immediate aftermath, they began to severely break down when staff failed to show up for work, fearing reprisals.
This dynamic particularly affected the police, whose stations were ransacked in acts of revenge. Even in its mildest form, the rupture in the management of a state caused by regime change always leads to a certain amount of structural, and even social, dislocation.
If war precedes regime change, a second dimension of complexity is added to an already intricate situation. While regime change primarily affects the upper echelon of government, conflict, particularly civil war, has an impact on society as a whole.
Not only do civil wars lead to extremely high levels of inter-communal violence and civilian casualties – in Libya’s conflict, 30,000 Libyans died, 50,000 were wounded and 4,000 are still missing, among a population of around six million – they also have a significant economic cost.
During civil conflicts, governments divert their resources to the military and many civilian activities are suspended or severely curtailed; Libya’s war is estimated to have cut its 2011 GDP by 60%.
Once a conflict is over, military spending usually remains above pre-war levels and continues to burden the national budget. Libya’s 2009 defence expenditure was $1.71 billion, whereas the country has spent $4.86bn in the two years since the conflict ended.
The way in which civil wars end also determines their aftermath: a negotiated settlement will often create an environment in which there is no victor and no vanquished, whereas a decisive military victory usually results in one side’s dominance of the country. Libya’s conflict ended in the latter way, as do 70% of all civil wars.
In scenarios of this kind, the already complex repercussions of regime change are exacerbated by post-conflict dynamics, such as the destruction of organisations and their associated expertise, and revenge policies which run counter to overall state efficiency.
Most importantly, countries in which a war has recently ended have a high chance of relapsing into conflict. Libya’s transition is therefore particularly difficult to manage. Its inefficient institutions and decision-making processes have long been incapable of carrying out certain tasks, but flawed decisions made since October 2011 are primarily responsible for adding an unnecessary third dimension of complexity.
A self-regulated security sector
After the fall of Gadhafi’s regime, the NTC formed a transitional government which, as mandated by the Constitutional Declaration of 2011, had two main tasks: to create the conditions for elections and to manage state affairs.
It succeeded in the former task, passing an appropriate law and establishing an electoral commission, before holding elections in July 2012. The transitional government failed, however, to lay the groundwork for transitional justice and prioritise other areas of state management, most notably security, which is not mentioned in the declaration.
Libya’s security predicament therefore has three dimensions: a post-conflict environment that has been extremely unstable from the start, provisional institutions that have worsened this instability and severe delays in the reconstruction of the police and armed forces.
The country began its new era without any security forces, aside from the revolutionary brigades that had formed spontaneously during and after the conflict. Although accurate information on them is difficult to obtain, it has been estimated that there are as many as 300 such groups. Made up of civilians, they differ in size, training, cohesion, capabilities and discipline, but share two attributes: very limited military experience and a lack of expertise in the provision of civilian security.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, security roles blurred into one another: alongside standard security work – such as border control, law enforcement, crime prevention and the management of prisons – the brigades also carried out a range of tasks common to post-war environments. These latter activities included revenge attacks; securing weapons and ammunition to prevent their proliferation; and the protection of infrastructure, such as oil-production facilities and airports.
As the NTC had refused outside help but could not rely on the armed forces or the police, both of which had largely melted away during the conflict, in October 2011 it created the Supreme Security Committee (SSC).
The body was formally attached to the interior ministry and recruited its 100,000 troops entirely from militias. Established in Tripoli and, subsequently, other cities, the organisation employed large numbers of men who had been neither trained nor vetted, and soon gained a reputation for having been infiltrated by Islamists. Its members were reportedly involved in the destruction of Sufi shrines in 2012, the siege of government ministries in March 2013, violent clashes with civilians, arbitrary arrests, torture and attacks on Western embassies.
Although the committee’s disbandment, originally planned for the end of 2012, has been postponed several times, its size has been reduced; having originally had 49 units based in Tripoli, it now has only seven. Provisionally created to provide security, the body has been recognised as a threat in its own right.
A similar security organisation emerged in March 2012 with Libya Shield, which drew from militias attached to the country’s armed forces. Several revolutionary brigades combined to form what was essentially a parallel armed-force-in-waiting, having been frustrated by insufficient progress in the reform of a Libyan military seen as loyal to the former regime.
Nominally part of the country’s armed forces because its four divisions initially reported to the army’s chief of staff, the force is almost entirely made up of revolutionary brigades that have had virtually no formal training, and is said to have been behind Prime Minister Zeidan’s kidnapping.
Other militias also began to carry out tasks usually reserved for government-controlled forces. The Zintan militia was in charge of security at Tripoli airport until April 2012, carried out border-control exercises and ran the prison where Saif al-Gadhafi, son of the former leader, was incarcerated while on trial for crimes against humanity. Aware of its own clout, the militia has also begun to seize government property and mimic a security agency independent of the state rather than a spontaneously formed militia.
The militias have helped to create a culture of impunity, making one-off, uncoordinated payments to the thuwar (revolutionaries) of around $3,220 for married, and around $1,930 for unmarried, fighters, without requiring them to relinquish their weapons or ammunition. Minister of Finance Hasan Zaglam warned the Libyan cabinet about the financial implications of the initiative, and the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ghariani, issued a fatwa stating that it was illegal for those who had not fought in the revolution to take these payments.
In response, angry demonstrators set up roadblocks and demanded to be paid. This culture of impunity has been worsened by Law 38, which the NTC passed in May 2012. It granted immunity to former rebel fighters for acts committed during the civil war, covering ‘military, security or civilian acts undertaken by revolutionaries with the aim of ensuring the revolution’s success’. This included the murder, forced displacement, seizure, detention and interrogation of suspects, outside of any legal framework.
The state’s unwillingness, or inability, to investigate crimes committed during and after the war only enhances the militias’ sense that they are above the law. In the first quarter of 2012, as Libya’s security situation worsened and inter-communal clashes began to erupt, the militias altered their organisational structures.
This was done primarily through the creation of military coalitions, such as the Revolutionary Brigades Coalition, the Misratan Union of Revolutionaries and the western military council. The more organised the militias became, the more forcefully they were able to voice their political interests, which quickly began to take precedence over their security goals.
In spring 2013, this process culminated in the siege of several government ministries, undertaken to coerce the GNC into passing a law that banned from office those associated with the former regime. Although initially celebrated by the population, the militias became the target of protests calling for their disbandment as early as December 2011.
In June 2013, violent confrontations between Libya Shield units and civilians in Benghazi resulted in 35 deaths and the resignation of Yousef al-Mangoush, the Libyan army’s chief of staff. The government also repeatedly called for the disbandment and disarmament of the militias, but to no avail. Lacking the capability to compel the militias to do so, the government was unable to deal with their increasingly assertive, if not politically cohesive, behaviour.
Zeidan’s June 2013 announcement that they would be disarmed by force, if necessary, therefore rang hollow. The statement resulted in several militias calling for his resignation, and his subsequent kidnapping.
Florence Gaub is a Senior Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, where she covers security and strategy in the Arab world.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies