Criminal political and military elites with mafia-style fiefdoms now rule Libya. They have entrenched themselves in the state apparatus and even in the UN-sponsored peace talks. Only bold initiatives by the international community can change the status quo.

Three years on after the end of its latest civil war, Libya’s political elites have once again led the country down a path of executive bifurcation. This is fuelling instability and violence. Last summer, young Libyans took to the streets cross-country in a show of raw popular frustration. In a country with two governments no one really governs it. 

Libya has stumbled into another year with no prospect of elections in sight. Libya’s political and security elites, and their foreign backers continue to benefit from the country’s deep divides. They have entrenched themselves in their positions of power. They are using their financial and political resources to prevent any change to the status quo and any process of democratic transition. They are functioning as per a mafia ethos that has been seen in many places in the world where criminal syndicates rule their communities.

Armed  Groups and their Fiefdoms

In Libya, “those who shall not be named’ now rule the land and their criminal ways are now a political reality. Any discussion of Libya’s future must recognize these mafia powers and deal with them. 

Since the revolution that led to the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, armed groups have taken over what’s left of the Libyan state. They exercise traditionally Weberian sovereignty over their fiefdoms. Most key armed groups commanders have since taken up positions within the state apparatus, progressively deriving political legitimacy from their institutional affiliations and securing roles for their rank and file. With institutional affiliations and state salaries came an increase in warlords’ individual influence, making it difficult for weak state structures to oversee, control and hold them accountable. 

As per some estimates, almost one in five Libyans is now drawing a salary from the state, including in their capacity as members of an armed group. However, the state has often been unable to pay salaries for months at a time. This has drawn people away from the golden standard of state employment towards the star-glazed life of the militiaman. This vicious cycle of rushing towards gold is very emblematic of armed groups’ elite commanders who are more focused on mobilizing financial resources than on fighting.

As armed groups increasingly infiltrate the political and military tracks of the UN-led peace process, it seems that, in the future, Libya will be a mafia-run state. 

What lies ahead?

There is a chance that political legitimacy could cause the downfall of armed groups as organized criminal networks. As they increasingly draw legitimacy and resources from the state, their social legitimacy could decline. The Libyan population is increasingly disenchanted with the entire political class. 

The time has come for the international community to step in and find a framework for the expression of Libyan people’s democratic yearnings. This might involve more of a policing approach instead of accepting the inclusion of armed groups in peace negotiations. Libya needs a new paradigm, not more sticking plaster to paper over the cracks.

Sadly, we cannot expect this paradigm shift in the short term. The appointment of UN Envoy Abdoulaye Bathily is a moment of opportunity for Libya. Yet the roadmap presented at the UN Security Council in February 2023 centered around creating a body to hold elections and failed to address deeper issues. Bathily is burdened by legacies of conflicts that were undealt with.

The UN process paid little heed to justice, restitution and the broader Libyan public. Now the public is growing impoverished, fatigued and apathetic, and has come to distrust the UN mission. 

For now, criminal networks are protecting their positions of power. They are also leveraging the shadow economy to enrich themselves. In Libya, the social contract still fundamentally comes down to economic interest. So, a corruption-prone government spends billions of Libyan dinars with no clear process, checks or balances. 

Libya has the potential to be an economic hub for the whole of North Africa and a bridge to Europe, notably during a global energy crisis. Yet, there is little governance of the disbursement of state funds with over 40 billion Libyan dinars in cash moving around the country unchecked. In the east, an Egyptian style of military involvement in the economy, notably through the Military Investment and Public Works Committee, creates dangerous precedents for the worsening of an already precarious economic governance system. 

More dangerously, in the medium to long term, criminal networks are eyeing funds of the National Oil Corporation, which should be used for infrastructure development instead. The UN’s narrative of “Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration” (DDR) has degenerated into a trope used only by the security assistance industry. It has no prospects of success against the militias’ “core” management structure that yields such wealth and power that even key private sector positions wouldn’t be attractive enough to trigger a willing change in their path.

This bleak picture is but the tip of the iceberg. Organized crime of this scale now scuppers prospects for development in Libya. Ethical questions should be at the front and center of this discussion about the international community’s modus operandi: What does it mean to have normalized having an armed 13-year-old boy manning a checkpoint? Why are Libya’s young boys so drawn to weapons and money? 

Substance abuse is now rampant in the country. Given the long-term psychological effects of war and death, forced recruitments into security forces from a young age, and no perspectives for one’s future in any other field, is that surprising? 

As of now, no end is in sight. Self-interest of criminal militia leaders is still the driving force for the maintenance of the status quo. They are key spoilers who block any political solution that would make them lose power, privilege, influence and wealth.

There are still some avenues for hope, still. The top management of criminal militias do not have incentives to change. However, their rank and file could be tempted to change tack if they had other opportunities. Investments in education and developing a private sector would be a good starting point. If Libya could emerge as an energy hub, then militia foot soldiers might move to lower risk careers.

A UN-led focus on justice, reconciliation and accountability would help as well. So, would better oversight as well as checks and balances on government spending. Cracking down on corruption and financial mismanagement would give the Libyan government more money to invest on education and infrastructure. Finally, the public’s disenchantment with the UN process, political elites and self-interested militia commanders could be a great opportunity for the country. The Libyan people could come together to draft a new social contract inspired by their values that fulfills their quest for justice and accountability.[Arab Digest first published this piece.]


[Arab Digest thanks

Roberta Maggi, the North Africa project officer at the Middle East and North Africa Division of the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF),

Andrea Cellino DCAF’s Head of the North Africa Desk and

Karim Mezran director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Councile.]

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