Five Years After the siege of Tripoli

Picture a nation caught in a relentless cycle of turmoil and uncertainty, where the echoes of a historic uprising have given way to a protracted civil war. Libya, once a land of promise, now bears the weighty label of a ‘failed state’ within the global community while international efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation have been met with domestic opposition.

For four decades, the country was ruled by an entrenched regime, but the 2011 uprising brought an end to that era, marking the beginning of a tumultuous period that continues to shape its state of affairs. As we delve into the complexities of Libya’s current standing, we will explore the pressing issues mainly generated by its appalling militia rule and offer recommendations aimed at restoring peace, stability, and democratic governance.

Contextualizing Libya’s Current Crisis

Libya’s post-revolution narrative has been one of perpetual instability. Conflict has become ingrained in its very fabric, with fragmented and polarized institutions confined in a perpetual state of chaos and an obsolete judicial system that has exacerbated the culture of impunity in the country.

The discordant confluence of militias vying for control coupled with the persisting interventions of foreign and opposing actors, all have left a trail of destruction, particularly for its civilian population. Thousands of civilians are constantly the victims of sporadic episodes of violence that have arisen between different armed groups throughout the years.

This month marks the fifth year of the military assault on Tripoli that was initiated by Khalifa Haftar in 2019 to take control of the capital leaving thousands between injured and dead and extensive material destruction. The incidental re-emergence of tribal hostilities, although they have significantly contracted in frequency and severity over the past two years, they only mark the state of insecurity that has plagued the country for more than a decade now, while aspirations to hold fair and transparent elections in the hopes of restoring peace and stability remain feeble.

As it stands, international efforts invested to establish a unified civilian government failed in 2021 with the indefinite postponement of elections and the consolidation of the current state of political cleavages we see today in the North African nation. The country is still divided between two parallel administrations with overlapping structures and functions, each legitimized by an association of foreign actors and supported by opposing paramilitary systems. But how did Libya arrive at this complex juncture?

The Militarization of Society

The NATO-backed overthrow of former leader Moammar Gadhafi has advanced the establishment of the militia rule in Libya. The heavily armed groups with unchecked reach and omnipotence that we know of today are the direct descendants of a multitude of civilian groups who, in their pursuit to fill in the power vacuum left void by the then-toppled regime, they managed to tighten their control and maintain security over their communities through self-weaponization and mass civilian mobilization.

Young men, faced with negligible employment prospects, are the labour force driving these militias. As regional fanaticism started to spread, youth were recruited in scores and trained to serve these statefunded armed groups who now constitute one of the most vital financial reassurance for the thousands of Libyans desperate to secure a stable source of income in midst of years of economic stagnation.

At the onset of the revolution, the number of fighters was put at around 25,000, yet after the establishment of the first transitional government, this number surged dramatically by tenfold to approximately 250,000 fighters just a couple of months later.

Additionally, disturbingly, reports from the US State Department indicate that over 6,000 children were also allegedly recruited by both proregime forces in 2011 and the Special Deterrence Force in 2020, a paramilitary police force operating under the UN-recognized Government.

An Internationally Maintained Internal Schism

More often than not, manpower is derived from within the Libyan society and neighbouring countries, gun power however, rests as an introduced externality. As it stands, countries like France, Italy, Egypt, Russia, Türkiye, and the UAE have all contributed to and even altered the course of the conflict in Libya either through financial and diplomatic support accorded to the warring factions, or through direct military engagement within the national borders of the country rendering the conflict a state of war by proxy.

During the first year of the conflict in 2011, small and heavy arms were dispersed across different channels after they were pillaged by local militia groups from Gaddafi’s armament depots that had been controlled away from the hands of the civilian population for decades. However, the country soon became a ground for foreign military equipment illicitly shipped from abroad in large quantities, reaching in 2016 a staggering 20 million pieces of arms in the North African nation of 6 million people (counting roughly 3 weapons for each person).

The stream of weaponry received for years has been maintained by a plethora of foreign actors who carry out the covert -sometimes even overt- supply of the opposing militias; a practice that comes in defiance of the UN-instituted -now deemed ineffective- arms embargo that was designed in 2011 to stop the proliferation of weapons with the aim of ending the civil war.

Presently, the country remains chronically split between two rival governments who compete for legitimacy: the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) on the west, and the Government of National Stability (GNS) led by the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and loosely affiliated with warlord Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) which is under his command.

Since 2014, the state of parallelism has been an appalling component of Libyan politics that has only been reinforced through foreign intervention. In fact, the contrasting interests of different domestic and international actors conceive an unpredictable arrangement of shifting alliances in the country. Currently, the GNU is backed by UN member states who provide it with diplomatic recognition and material support notably from Turkey and Italy, while the eastern government is backed by Egypt, UAE and Russia.

A precarious balance of power is preserved with both Turkey and Russia establishing military presence in the western and eastern regions respectively since 2019. As per UN estimates, there were roughly 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries, namely from the Wagner Group, Chad, Sudan, and Syria, who were deployed in Libya in 2020 following the UN-brokered ceasefire.

The thwarted attack on Tripoli that was initiated in April 2019 by Khalifa Haftar is just one of the manifestations of Libya’s protracted state of deadlock. The political and military status quo, reflected through Haftar’s defeat and his retreat eastward, was advanced by the engagement of a heterogeneous coalition of international actors, with Turkey’s intervention and military support for the western militias of the GNA being a decisive factor that broke off the 18-month-long civil war in Tripoli.

Consolidating Irregularity: Libya’s Informal Security Architecture

The profound institutional disunity in Libya arises from the lack of a cohesive national army, dedicated solely to the nation and holding exclusive control over the use of force. Various poles of power have subsequently emerged across different territories where the most resourceful armed groups have succeeded to consolidate wealth and influence over the people and the state itself.

These paramilitary networks have become deeply entrenched within the security apparatus of the state, either within units or ‘brigades’ operating under the ministries of the interior and defence, or through more explicit links where former militia leaders are promoted to senior government positions. The recent designation of Imed Al Trabelsi as Minister of Interior of the GNU, who is formerly associated with the “Public Security and Security Positions Apparatus,” is just a case in point of such reputation laundering of those accused of criminal acts in the past.

The security landscape in the country is that of overlapping hierarchies and structural hybridity. As ‘private armies’ have undergone a process of institutionalization, they slowly infiltrated state constituencies and started taking on official law-enforcing responsibilities like arrest and detention, surveillance and intelligence, border security and migrant control.

The professionalization of these armed formations has been conducted through the assistance of foreign security institutions who have operating in the country for years. As of 2024, LAAM Network has reported the presence of at least 12 international security institutions in the country, 8 of them being western European companies, namely France, Ireland, and the UK, while the remaining are from Russia, Türkiye, Canada, and the US.

Now, well-established militias continue to receive considerable amounts of funds to execute such activities that are usually the sole prerogative of the state, while they remain strategically independent from any kind of state control. This conferred formality has only strengthened militia’s political influence and solidified their legitimacy as a more effective source of security especially in light of an increasingly weaker political standing of the current leaders.


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