Libya - A Clouded Future

George Joffe*


When the Qadhafi regime disappeared in October 2011, Libya appeared to be a tabula rasa on which a new democratic state could be drawn up to replace the baleful perfection of the jamahiriyah – Libya’s ‘stateless state’. Unfortunately, in the euphoria of victory, few realised just how massive the obstacles were going to be. They were to be the result of the way in which the Libyan crisis had unfolded, as a consequence of NATO’s ‘intervention lite’ and decision by France, Britain and Qatar to engage in regime change at one remove.1 One immediate consequence – and one that still bedevils Libya today – was that the main ground fighting forces to confront the colonel’s own army and defeat it were made up of autonomous militias (now estimated at up to 350 in number), spontaneously created on regional, tribal, ethnic and sectarian bases. From that experience was to be borne the security crisis that Libya faces today.

The security dilemma

Allied to that fragmentation in security control – and, indeed, a direct consequence of victory, as the Libyan state effectively lost the army, the instrument through which it could have continued to articulate its monopoly of legitimate violence– was the ‘liberation’ of the vast caches of modern arms held by the regime. Over the past two years, these arms have flowed out of the country, into the Sahel and the various al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups located there and into Syria, encouraged by the weapons-supply programmes for opposition forces organised by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The flows have been stimulated by the absence of any centrally-organised security system, backed by an army under effective central political control.

Of course, in parallel to this collapse in security there has been an intensifying political process, to determine the lineaments of the new state. Elections in July 2012 brought a constituent assembly to power which eventually approved a cabinet led by Ali Zidan and began to approach the process of drafting a new constitution for the country – a process complicated by the need to ensure equal representation for all three of Libya’s provinces and to avoid a federalist split in Cyrenaica which had always resented Tripoli’s dominant position under the previous regime. Unlike the situation elsewhere in North Africa, the assembly was dominated by nationalists and Islamists only played a minor part initially.

However, in part because of the chaotic security situation and in part because of deep-rooted desires to exclude functionaries of the former regime from power, this situation began to change in mid-2013. The Political Isolation Law forced Libya’s first post-Qadhafi premier and leader of the country’s major political party, Mahmoud Jibril, from power, together with the speaker of the assembly, Mohamed Mugharieff, and even threatened the premier.2 Islamist politicians who had been marginalised by the Qadhafi regime were to be the primary beneficiaries! More than that, the law only passed the assembly in the face of an armed demonstration of support for it by militias in Tripoli.

Alongside this process, the inability of the government to rein in the militias entrenched the countrywide lack of security. Although two militia coalitions were, in theory, organised under the aegis of the minister of defence and ministry of the interior – the Libyan Shield, to act as a surrogate army, and the Supreme Security Committee to provide a policing function – in reality both groups maintained their own chains-of-command and objectives outside government control. Government authority and legitimacy was inevitably undermined and, after an incident in Benghazi in which 21 people died and further incidents in Tripoli, the army chief-of-staff, General Mangousch, was forced to resign. There were similar problems with the Oil Protection Force, a third group of militias supposedly protecting oil contractors working in the oil fields of Sirte and Tripolitania.

Quite apart from these problems, other militias which had been delegated responsibility for protecting Libya’s borders and sealing off smuggling routes also followed their own agendas, with the result that smuggling of arms and drugs mushroomed. Tribal clashes, particularly between the Sway and the Tibu in Kufrah, began to escalate out-of-control. There were also tribally-motivated clashes in the Fezzan, at Sebha, which added to the security failures of the South. In addition, some militias simply ignored attempts by central government to bring them within a security environment it controlled. This was particularly the case with the Misurata militia, which persisted in excluding the population of Tawargha because it was alleged to have supported the Qadhafi regime, the Zuwara militia which victimised the Warshafanna tribe for the same reason and the powerful Zintani militia which avenged itself against the Mashashiyya.

As serious as this fragmentation of authority was the arbitrariness with which it was imposed. Major militias had early on established their own detention facilities and meted out their own versions of law and retribution.3 Some of them have resisted all attempts by government to establish its own authority in these domains, thus seriously undermining its effectiveness. The Zintan militia, for instance, has refused to hand Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the former dictator’s second son, over to government custody, thus undermining Libya’s argument to the International Criminal Court that it is competent to try both Saif al-Islam and Abdullah Senussi, Colonel Qadhafi’s old security head. And, of course, there are many others who await trial in places of detention outside government control too!

Wider implications

This security crisis has other, wider implications too, for it has cemented Libya into the centre of the general security crisis that is beginning to afflict the Sahara and the Sahel, not to speak of surrounding countries as well. It is notable, for instance, that the January attack on the gas processing facility at In Amenas in Algeria was partly organised in Libya. Even though the leadership came from Mali, much of the equipment came from Libya and the detailed planning had been carried out on Libyan soil.4 And it was to Libya that the hostage takers there had intended to retreat with their victims, to hold them for ransom, had they escaped successfully.

More immediately serious for Libya’s domestic security has been the emergence of a shadowy network of salafi-jihadi militias under the generic title of Ansar al-Shari’a. The network has nothing to do with Libya’s own jihadists of the 1990s in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, focused solely (and unsuccessfully) on destroying the Qadhafi regime. Instead it seems to be part of a much wider pro-al-Qa’ida movement originating in Lebanon and offering populist good governance rather than the more classical Islamic caliphate born through violence. It first emerged into public view in July 2011 with the assassination of Abdulfattah Yunis, the military commander of anti-Qadhafi forces, who had been accused by extremist members of the National Transitional Council – Libya’s first interim government – of betraying the Revolution.

In September 2012, however, it made a far more spectacular mark on the public consciousness when it was directly implicated in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in which the American ambassador and three other diplomats died. The movement has also been suspected on a series of attacks and assassinations on foreign delegations in Libya and on prominent members of the security forces, particularly in Benghazi.5 Despite being forced out from its base there at the time of the consulate attack, it has since reappeared and, to American frustration, appears to be impervious to threats of government retribution. The movement is today widely spread throughout Libya and has been implicated in salafi attacks on Libya’s robust sufi movements.

Economy and society

In the face of such widespread security challenges which the government cannot as yet surmount, it might be argued that Libya is becoming a failing state, a state whose failure, furthermore, carries profound and sinister implications for the surrounding region. Yet, in fact, such a judgement might well be premature. Libyans themselves are increasingly frustrated by the security crisis through which they live and are increasingly making it clear to those responsible that the situation is untenable. The government has tried to capitalise on these sentiments, with some success, to isolate militias and to persuade them to integrate into the new Libyan armed and police forces that are being formed. The major militias might still be outside this initiative but pressure is mounting on them, too, to accommodate to the new realities. The salafi-jihadi movements may have enjoyed recent successes but they, too, face a growing tide of popular distrust and, as has happened, for instance, in neighbouring Tunisia, may soon find that the government has more coercive force available to it than they might have supposed.

Beyond that, too, day-to-day life for the majority of Libyans has continued without too much disruption, now that the oil industry has been revived. Oil production, despite a recent hiatus in Tripolitania, is back to the pre-war level of 1.4 million b/d and Libya has regained control of all the assets frozen in 2011. Gas continues to flow to Italy and Libya has ambitious plans for an expansion of oil production. The new government has even been able to offer support to energy-strapped Tunisia next door, whilst ensuring that it can pay for its essential imports – Libya, as the archetypal rentier state, depends on a constant flow of consumer imports and foodstuffs for its population to survive. Geography, of course, helps, for 70 per cent of the population lives in the urban conurbations around Tripoli and Benghazi but distribution has been maintained to the more isolated communities of the interior, despite the precarious security situation.

Beyond this, Libyans are acutely aware of what they achieved in 2011 and there is a very strong feeling that they are not prepared to see those gains lost through fragmentation and chaos. There are real problems, it is true, in the nature of the contemporary Libyan state – how do minorities, such as the Amazigh, fit in to a population that has repeatedly been told that it is homogenous and Arab? How are regional jealousies, some of which long predate the Qadhafi regime, to be accommodated and resolved? The government is aware of these problems and makes constant attempts to resolve them; major industrial headquarters in the oil sector have moved from Tripoli to Benghazi, for instance and provincial equality in the forthcoming elections for the constitutional drafting committee have been agreed.

In addition, there is a general determination for Libya to achieve a collective future which avoids the fragmentation implied the current security chaos. Even though deep social wounds persist in the wake of the 2011 civil war – between regime diehards in Sirte and Bani Walid, for instance, and the wider population – the kinds of collective vengeance seen elsewhere in such circumstances has been avoided. Even though separatist sentiments in Cyrenaica, looking back to the post World War II Sanusi monarchy, have revived, there has not been a significant demand for a redefinition of the state. In such circumstances, despite the apparently intractable security situation, grounds remain to believe that Libya can surmount its problems and become the state its people wanted it to be.6

*George Joffe, Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge.

  • 1. Under United Nations Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973of March 2011, an arms embargo had been applied and NATO was given authority to protect civilian populations but there was to be no direct intervention on the ground. French, British and Qatari ground support, therefore, took place quite outside the authority of both NATO and the United Nations
  • 2. Mezran K., “Libya’s choice: national reconciliation or chaos,” Atlantic Council (August 20, 2012)
  • 3. Saleh H. (2013), “Misurata casts shadow over hopes for normality,” Financial Times (May 10, 2013)
  • 4. El Watan (June 28, 2013)
  • 5. Schell B., “Instability reigns in post-Gaddafi Libya – Analysis,” Eurasia Review (August 17, 2012)
  • 6. Ghwell H (2013), “My Libya, it’s all about human rights,” Libya Herald (July 2, 2013)
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