Mattia Toaldo

This brief sets out a new agenda for European support for Libya’s transition, starting with the idea that the current focus on the training of the Libyan armed forces should be broadened.



Libya has not come far since overthrowing Gaddafi. Political institutions lack legitimacy and are riven by factional discord.

Tensions between the centre and periphery show no sign of lessening, and a protracted blockade of oil ports spells dire economic consequences.

Indeed, three years after the revolution, Libya has reached a critical juncture, with deadlines for key steps, including elections and a new constitution, looming and unlikely to be met.

Though Libya’s situation may be direr than its North African neighbours, Europe should not be disheartened.

EU policymakers have more leverage and possibilities for influence in Libya than may be immediately apparent – provided Europe makes an honest assessment of their potential.

Past focus on the training of the Libyan army and police should be broadened to include areas that profoundly affect the context in which violence and chaos prosper, such as the lack of genuine political dialogue and the weakness of both Libyan institutions and civil society.

This broader approach is based on five baskets of policy proposals: sustaining the political process, supporting local authorities, taking a comprehensive approach to security, building a post-oil economy, and strengthening international co-ordination.

Ultimately, the efficacy of European support for the transition rests on Libyans’ ability to build an effective and inclusive political process.

Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition is at a critical juncture, with a number of essential transitional steps needing to take place within the next few months.

First, new parliamentary elections are expected at the end of July 2014, just after Ramadan. Though the current parliament has pledged to dissolve itself “as soon as possible”, preparations for these elections are proceeding so laggardly that August is the earliest realistic date for a vote.

Second, the new constitution is supposed to be produced by August, according to the law that created the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA). This should be followed by a constitutional referendum, the laws to govern which will also need to be set.

Third, the UN-supported National Dialogue to support reconciliation is expected to begin at the end of May. Despite the urgency of all these transitional milestones, the likelihood that they could be accomplished within the set transitional time frame is slim.

In the three years since an international coalition under NATO launched Operation Unified Protector (OUP), Libya has made little progress on security, democracy, or economic recovery. Likewise, no headway has been made toward reconciliation between those who fought on opposite sides of the civil war or in achieving unity among the different components of the revolutionary front.

The deep divisions among Libyans, which have been largely responsible for these setbacks, have only worsened over time and further complicated the chances of Western stakeholders to co-ordinate effective action.

In discussing external support for the transition, one must keep in mind that Libya’s lack of decision-making capability has prevented it from moving ahead quickly on any internationally-supported project. If the transition is to carry on, two conditions must be met.

First, the Libyan politicalmilitary elite must commit to pursuing both inclusiveness and efficacy simultaneously: including all “revolutionary” elements and reconciling with former Gaddafi loyalists is the only way to legitimise and implement the changes necessary to emerge from the current crisis.

Second, Europeans, who have the highest stakes in Libya, must deepen their commitments and advance a more ambitious agenda. Ultimately, while Libya’s fate rests in the hands of the Libyans, Europeans have an extensive toolbox that they can, and should, use to protect their interests and pursue their goals.

This brief sets out a new agenda for European support for Libya’s transition, starting with the idea that the current focus on the training of the Libyan armed forces should be broadened.

European efforts need to target the following areas:

(a) the lack of legitimacy for institutions and political actors alike;

(b) reconciliation among former combatants and the absence of national dialogue on Libya’s future; and

(c) the worsening economic conditions, which are linked to the blockade of oil ports.

The static transition

Constitution-making and the crisis of political legitimacy

Western stakeholders welcomed and were encouraged by the elections for the General National Congress (GNC, the Libyan parliament), held on 7 July 2012, which they considered rather successful: polls opened almost everywhere, voter turnout was high, and the resulting legislature was diverse and notably not dominated by Islamists, as in Egypt and to some extent, Tunisia.

But since then, almost everything has gone awry. The executive and the legislative branches have failed to reign in the militias and have, at different times, been held captive by them.

Few of the crucial steps needed for the transition to take place have made much progress: constitution-making, national dialogue, parliamentary elections, and transitional justice are all lagging.

The elections for the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) were held on 20 February 2014 amid widespread apathy and disaffection toward democratic institutions and political parties altogether.

A key indicator of this was voter turnout: less than 15 percent of eligible voters went to the polls that day. This was due in part to the boycott from all three minority groups – Tebu, Amazigh, and Tuareg – which were entitled to six of the 60 seats comprising the CDA but felt under-represented and feared that decisions on crucial issues such as Libya’s official language could be taken against their will.

It was also due to security concerns in many parts of the country causing the closure of a number of polling stations, which discouraged voters from casting their ballots. To date five seats have not yet been assigned, two of which belong to the Amazigh community.

The law – an amendment to Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration – says that the CDA will have only 120 days to draft and approve a new constitution, which would then need to be submitted to a national referendum, with no extension of this deadline – to expire in mid-August – being theoretically possible.

However, the working assumption of most Libyan political actors is that the 120 days timeline can be extended if need be.

Security: militias and “federalists”

Understanding all the elements of the Libyan security puzzle is as crucial as it is difficult.

Any armed group can be called a militia, but this term is too general to accurately reflect the varied factors at play among the different actors in Libya today.

The militias that formed during the revolution against Gaddafi’s regime, for example, generally did so according to the town or city that they originated from.

In Libya’s post-revolutionary, transitional environment, this has exacerbated all kinds of divisions, including political and economic, and increased competition between towns and cities, often defined by the role that each town or city’s militia played or was perceived to have played during the revolution.

Consequently, some of the armed groups that claim to possess revolutionary legitimacy have gained a national role with strong connections in both the executive and legislative branches.

This is especially the case for those from Zintan and Misrata. These armed groups behave (sometimes upon request from the government) as if they were the national army and take on the function of quelling “rebellions” in other parts of the country.

A second component of the security puzzle, not directly linked to the revolution, is the former oil facility guards in Cyrenaica, eastern Libya – known as Barqa in Arabic, under the command of Ibrahim Jathran.

These self-styled “federalists” have set up an independent government, the “Barqa Political Office”, and halted oil production in the east, creating a major economic crisis.

A third component relates to Libya’s three ethnic minorities: Amazighs, Tuaregs, and Tebus have both political grievances and armed groups to further them.

Fourth, Salafi and Jihadi groups are on the rise, both in the east and, more recently, in Tripoli. The return to Libya of many of the fighters who joined some of the most radical Islamist groups in Syria, for example, is cause for concern.

According to journalist and writer Mary Fitzgerald, an expert on Islamism in Libya, they will pose, first of all, a social problem: “These fighters are disconnected from the usual frame of society and proud of it”.

Different estimates put the total number of Libyan fighters in Syria between 4,000 and as much as 15,000. Tribal leaders and networks of kinship are also part of the puzzle, sometimes as stabilisers and sometimes not, although their role in large cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi is less evident.

Another key factor influencing the security situation in Libya is its black market economy. Illicit gains are made from all types of trafficking, including in weapons, with the Sahel and North African neighbours.

Militias play a central role in trafficking and crime.7 Ultimately, apart from the Jihadis and Salafis, most of the relevant actors do not want to destroy the system but rather to profit from it. Moreover, few armed groups are a source of insecurity within the communities that they claim to represent.

Rather, insecurity resulting also from the informal economy stems from clashes outside of these communities or in communities where more than one armed group is present.

In many cities, local security and governance compacts, whether formalised or not, guarantee some kind of internal stability, while connections between civilian and traditional authorities on one side and armed groups on the other side still bear some relevance in most of western Libya.

The hukama, or local “wise men”, also have a role to play and include businessman, former revolutionaries, and professionals. Yet, while sometimes helpful in striking agreements among different factions, compromises seldom address the root causes of conflicts and usually don’t last long for lack of a third-party guarantee – specifically government authority and law enforcement.

Finally, in the eyes of many European decision-makers, Libya’s precarious security situation has a worrying regional dimension, particularly when considering the return of Libyan fighters from Syria.

When we look at the Libyan desert, we see in one place a potential AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) training camp; in another, a potential suicide bomber training camp; and in a third place, a potential missiles training camp”.

Security in Libya is fragmented, connected to political issues and power, and often destabilised by the illegal economy. It is hard to imagine, therefore, how a conventional army, such as the one currently undergoing international training, would have the capacity and know-how to address unconventional problems.

While an army that can protect Libya’s borders would be a significant boon, Libya really needs a depoliticised military police or gendarmerie that is capable of securing cities.


Mattia Toaldo is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations where he works on Libya, the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict and on the European policy in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2011-2013 he was a fellow at the Institute for the Americas in London and a postdoctoral fellow at the British School in Rome and for the Society for Libyan studies where his work focused on Western reactions to the Arab uprisings.






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