Is There a Center to Hold?
Struggling with Leadership in a Power Vacuum
Libya is finding it increasingly difficult to forge national independence in the face of foreign pressure and in a declining security situation. Armed groups align themselves with external and internal sources of funding, promoting tribal allegiances and vying with one another to secure the support of different elements of the Libyan government.
Reports identify approximately seventeen hundred armed groups that range in size and experience. These include revolutionary groups that fought against Qaddafi during the 2011 uprisings as well as others that broke away from local military councils during and after the civil war. Beyond these recognized brigades, multiple criminal networks and extremist groups also exist, in addition to mercenaries who were once employed as security forces by Qaddafi.
At the same time, there is evidence that many of these armed groups have established relations with foreign governments and private funders. A US defense official noted that ‘‘just because someone is in a militia doesn’t mean they can’t participate’’ in training that meets ‘‘NATO standards.’’ As they grow, armed groups are looking beyond Libya, an orientation that is likely to escalate conflict within the country.
Libya’s patchwork of armed groups represents a multitude of interests. The United States and the European Union (EU) have supported the integration of multiple brigades into Libya’s government forces, while the wealthy Arab Gulf States and the United States have been involved in training Libyan government military recruits.
Evidence points to the secular-leaning National Forces Alliance enjoying the support of Libya’s Defense Ministry. Armed Islamist groups benefit from a closer relationship with private funders on the Arabian Peninsula via Libya’s Interior Ministry, fueling the competition between Gulf and other Arab States in their quest to gain influence in Libya.
Complicating the situation is Operation Dignity, a military campaign launched by renegade general Khalifa Haftar in early 2014 with the stated aims of fighting terrorism and expelling Islamist extremists from the country. This resulted in early battles against Islamist militias in Benghazi, expanding to Tripoli by mid 2014.
GNC government insisted that Haftar had no authority to act, and the United States distanced itself from his actions. There is, however, evidence to indicate covert US support for Haftar, particularly in the form of aerial surveillance.
Haftar, a one-time chief of staff in Libya’s military, fell out of favor with Qaddafi and fled to the United States. Reports indicate that he underwent training with the CIA and acquired United States citizenship; he returned to Libya in 2011 to support the civil war. Forces aligned with Operation Dignity stormed the GNC in May 2014 and pushed for its dissolution.
Haftar has emerged as a military leader with significant support across the country. This backing includes disgruntled units of the Libyan security forces, the powerful Zintani militias from the Nafusa Mountains, councils of elders, and even the founder of the Islamist February 17 Brigade that Haftar’s forces have been fighting in Benghazi.
Given Haftar’s checkered history, he may well be an unacceptable leader to both Libyans and the international community. However, his rise to political visibility raises the question as to whether Libyans, NATO, and their allies will look for a strongman similar to Egypt’s General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi.
Leadership developments in Egypt and their relevance to Libya are part of a contentious debate that begins with the Political Isolation Law (PIL), which prevents Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office until ten years have passed. Fear of the emergence of a Qaddafi-era leader has resulted in multiple postponements of a final decision on the constitutionality of the PIL, which was made law in May 2013.
Critics of the PIL see it as an instrument of partisan national revenge that reduces institutional and administrative capacity while failing to make allowances for Qaddafi-era officials who criticized the regime and contributed to its downfall. In light of the PIL, Haftar’s position as a former member of the regime presents a significant question mark.
Libya’s leadership parallels to Egypt are obvious but should not be exaggerated. Egypt is a key player in the politics of the Middle East. Libya’s influence on regional and global politics is of a different kind. Libya is a gateway to Europe that enables illegal migration across the Mediterranean; former Qaddafi and rebel fighters have been drawn into military conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Sahel; and the country offers an accessible supply of oil.
Further, while President Sisi has significant support through Egypt’s military, corporate, and administrative infrastructure, whoever grabs power in Libya will have to (re)build the state, almost from nothing. Despite the tendency to reject anything Qaddafi esque, there is a realization that his policies—although unequal in application—led to literacy rates of 88 percent, an annual per capita income of US$12,000 (the highest in Africa), relatively good education, and adequate health care.
Qaddafi also provided development and military aid to other African nations; his support for Pan-Africanism resulted in his being seen and treated as a cult hero by many across the continent. All of this, both at home and elsewhere in Africa, was possible because Qaddafi controlled oil revenue and used it to bolster his own agenda at the cost of democratic processes and human rights.
Certain questions emerge in relation to current events: What are those everyday people who benefited from Qaddafi’s favor prepared to do, and whom are they prepared to support, in order to recover those benefits? . Is the war-ravaged public willing to follow any populist leader who has the military and material backing to promise peace?
There is growing support for forces loyal to Haftar, leaders of Zintani militias, and other rebel groups that feed off popular anger regarding the lack of adequate social services while exploiting Libya’s history of entrenched sectarianism.
This paints a dismal picture within the existing power vacuum. While competing militia groups provide a semblance of security for different sections of society in a country that suffers from a chronic absence of law, order, and normalcy, most of these militias are accused of human rights abuses, unlawful detentions, and vigilante justice. Dangerously, this escalates Libya’s civil war.