Dr. Watanabe is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the ETH Zurich.
The signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015 and the subsequent establishment in March 2016 of a Government of National Accord (GNA), led by technocrat Fayez al-Sarraj, have raised hopes. Perhaps a two-year conflict that has divided the country between two rival parliaments and governments, each allied with armed actors, will finally be brought to an end and Libya's stalled transition resumed. Thus far, post-Qadhafi Libya has been plagued by the predominance of local interests linked to cities, regions and tribes that have thwarted the creation of a national polity. In principle, the LPA should mean that there is now agreement on new central-governance structures. However, this is far from being the case. The new unity government does not have broad-based support within the country and is increasingly vulnerable to challenges to its legitimacy. This does not bode well, given that the state lacks a monopoly on the use of force, with brigades and renegade units of the army operating autonomously.
The unity government will undoubtedly need the support of the international community to broaden its support base domestically, to continue to downgrade the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the country and to rebuild a professional army. Yet, at the same time, it must avoid appearing to be a pawn of international actors — who must, therefore, ensure that their assistance does not encourage further divisions or undermine the GNA, the best hope at present for reestablishing central political control and stabilizing domestic security. Failure to do so could see the country descend, once again, into civil war over the control of territory and hydrocarbon resources.
LOCAL ELITES AND CENTERS OF POWER
Since Colonel Muammar Qadhafi's rule was brought to an end on October 20, 2011, when he was captured and killed in his hometown of Sirte, multiple centers of power have emerged. This is in part the result of the decentralized nature of the rebellion. Demonstrations that quickly transformed into armed insurrection once the regime unleashed its arsenal on them began in the east, in Benghazi. The eastern tribes were the first to withdraw their support for the regime, along with the Amazigh tribes from the Nafusa Mountains in the northwest. Similarly, the Toubou tribes in the south joined anti-Qadhafi forces. Where tribal affiliations were less strong, organization at the city level was important, with Misrata, Zintan and Zawiya becoming major strongholds during the civil war. This led to the formation of brigades linked to various communities across the country. Some of the brigades that were involved in armed resistance became integrated with local councils established to administer liberated cities; others retained their autonomy. These revolutionary brigades were joined by post-revolutionary brigades set up in localities that had been under regime control until late in the civil war.1 By the time the war came to an end, localities and their associated brigades, as well as tribal communities, had become a politically relevant elite.
This situation emerged not just as the result of the dynamics of the rebellion, but also because of the nature of political and security structures under Qadhafi. His version of a people's democracy, the Jamahiriya, was deliberately designed to avoid political organization at the national level. There were neither political parties nor a parliament; therefore, there was also no tangible national elite. Instead, political organization took place primarily at the local level. People were represented by locally elected popular congresses that would then select members to form popular committees to serve as executives. In reality, these local governance bodies were devoid of genuine political agency. Qadhafi's revolutionary committees ensured that the decisions of popular congresses and committees were in line with the wishes of the regime. In addition, the administrative boundaries of popular congresses intentionally cut across tribes to limit the political influence of tribal leaders, although their affiliations continued to be meaningful socially.2
The Libyan army was also kept institutionally weak. After having come to power through a military coup in 1969, Qadhafi had sought to prevent the formation of a cohesive army with an identity distinct from the regime by keeping it divided and by relying largely on a set of parallel security institutions dedicated to regime protection. Most units of the army were sidelined by the regime and never tasked with regime protection. However, some elite units, mostly those led by Qadhafi's relatives, were well-equipped and enjoyed special privileges. They were closely associated with the regime and its survival.3
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that mobilization against the regime occurred along tribal and local lines. The first tribes to defect were those that had been marginalized and discriminated against under the Qadhafi regime (eastern, Amazigh and Toubou tribes). Armed resistance and the administration of rebel strongholds at the local level were the natural outgrowth of a system that had favored local organization and a local elite. The fragmentation of the Libyan army — with those units that did not identify strongly with the regime joining the rebels and the others defending it to the end — was the result of its lack of professionalization and cohesion.
THE PROBLEM OF A CENTRAL POLITY
As multiple power centers emerged across the country, the National Transitional Council (NTC), the coordinating body of the rebellion, appointed itself Libya's first transitional authority when the civil war came to an end. It set out a road map for the creation of a national polity. The first step in the political transition included holding general elections in July 2012 to form a national assembly, the General National Congress (GNC). In these elections, the National Forces Alliance, which comprised liberals and politicians associated with the Qadhafi regime, won the majority of seats (39 percent). It was followed by the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party (17 percent), with the remainder of the seats being won by smaller parties and independents. The GNC was given 18 months to draft a constitution, after which its mandate would expire and national elections would be held again to form a permanent parliamentary body, the House of Representatives (HoR), from which a government would then be formed.4
While the NTC had set forth a road map for political transition, it lacked one for reforming the security sector and reining in the brigades. What remained of Qadhafi's army was neither disbanded nor completely reformed, though the brigades were eager to see this occur. Some brigades joined the army, while many remained outside formal state structures, retaining their own commands and arsenals. The NTC did attempt to bring such brigades under some sort of state-sponsored umbrella by integrating them into two temporary, semi-formal institutions. In late 2011, a Supreme Security Committee (SSC) was established to undertake policing functions and, early the following year, the Libyan Shield Force (LSF) was created as a reserve armed force. Yet, ultimately, neither institution successfully brought the brigades under state control. The SSC was disbanded when it became apparent that the Ministry of the Interior was unable to control it; while faring slightly better, the LSF fragmented along regional lines. In the meantime, tensions between these semi-official brigades and the Libyan army remained unresolved and would continue to grow.5
At the same time, a rift was forming within the GNC. On one side were those who took a hard line towards former regime associates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, the smaller Salafist parties, former members of the exiled opposition, and politicians from revolutionary strongholds, notably Misrata. On the other side were those who adopted a more lenient approach to former regime figures, notably the National Forces Alliance, politicians connected with the Qadhafi regime, and representatives from parts of the country that had either backed it during the insurrection or remained neutral.6 Polarization between these two emerging camps reached a peak when the 2013 Political Isolation Law, which banned high-ranking former regime officials from holding public office, was forced through the GNC by the Islamist parties and their allies, as armed groups besieged several ministries to exert pressure on members of the assembly.7
The now-renowned rogue Libyan army general, Khalifa Haftar, took advantage of tensions within the GNC, as well as those between the Libyan army and brigades, to launch a military offensive, Operation Libya Dignity, in May 2014 against Islamist militias and brigades aligned with Islamist parties in Benghazi. Against the backdrop of violence raging there, general elections to form the HoR nonetheless went ahead the following month. There were no party lists this time; individual candidates ran as independents. However, when blocs subsequently formed, elected representatives linked to the National Forces Alliance and its allies emerged as the strongest political force. The Islamist parties and their allies had, thus, much to lose from the establishment of the HoR. Brigades and militias aligned with the GNC began a counteroffensive, Operation Libya Dawn, against brigades allied with General Haftar in Tripoli in July 2014. Amidst the fighting in Benghazi and Tripoli, both places where the HoR could have been established under the NTC's road map, a group of newly elected parliamentarians, which did not include the Islamist-aligned bloc, decided to convene the new parliamentary body in Tobruk in eastern Libya.8 Meanwhile, some GNC members, notably those linked to Islamist parties and their allies, refused to accept the legitimacy of the HoR and restored the GNC as a rival legislative body in Tripoli, forming their own government.9
Libya was henceforth divided between two loose political coalitions, each supported by armed actors. The HoR and its internationally recognized government were backed militarily by Libyan National Army (LNA) units loyal to General Haftar, appointed head of the LNA by the HoR government, and allied brigades such as the Petroleum Defense Guards in the east and the Zintan Brigades in the west. The GNC and its government were, in turn, supported by the Misrata-based Libya Shield Force, brigades from Zawiya and the Nafusa Mountains, and Islamist-aligned brigades and Islamist militias.10 Armed actors linked to the rival political authorities fought each other intermittently throughout the remainder of 2014 and early 2015.
Regional powers have added fuel to the fire. Egypt and the UAE have put their weight behind the HoR and General Haftar as part of their aim to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood within the region. According to the UN Panel of Experts, it is likely that the UAE carried out airstrikes from Egyptian bases in support of General Haftar's operations in August 2014. Both Egypt and the UAE are also believed to have supplied military matériel to the armed groups in the Operation Libya Dignity coalition.11 Indeed, General Haftar confirmed in early 2015 that his forces had received military assistance from both countries.12 Turkey and Qatar have supported the GNC and allied forces as part of a bid to increase their influence in North Africa by supporting political Islam in the region. The UN Panel of Experts believes that they, too, have provided military matériel to the protagonists of the Libya Dawn coalition, as has Sudan.13
REBUILDING A COUNTRY
The UN sought to address the fragmentation of political authority in the country by bringing representatives of the two rival political camps together to agree on a road map for the establishment of new central governance structures. In principle, the signing of the LPA should mean that Libya's stalled political transition can be restarted. Above all, the LPA provides the basis for the creation of a sole legitimate government, comprising a nine-person Presidency Council designed to be representative of Libya's political and regional diversity, and a cabinet. Under the agreement, the HoR remains the country's only legislative body, while selected members of the GNC form a State Council tasked with advising the unity government.14
Implementing the LPA is, however, already proving a challenge. While the HoR approved the political agreement, at the time of writing (October 2016) it objects to a clause that would give the Presidency Council the power to appoint the head of a unified Libyan army. Some members of the HoR are against this, as it would throw into uncertainty the future of General Haftar, who still has the support of certain factions in Libya's new parliamentary body. Yet, appointing Haftar to such a position would hardly be a feasible option, since he was a key protagonist in the 2014-15 civil war.15
The HoR has also thus far failed to ratify the GNA, throwing into question the legitimacy of the GNA and the measures it has taken since it was formed. A ratification vote was delayed for several months, because the HoR was not able to assemble the required number of members to convene a session until late August 2016. This was partly due to fears for the security of HoR members in favor of the GNA. When the legislative body was finally able to hold a vote on the unity government, the majority of the assembled members rejected it. They viewed the GNA as too dependent on brigades previously part of the Libyan Dawn coalition, notably the Misratan brigades. The recent successes of the latter, now allied with the GNA, in retaking Sirte from IS undoubtedly heightened such concerns.
Yet, as Libya's legislature, the HoR's support is critical to the GNA's legitimacy,16 and the Presidency Council will need to gain its approval of a cabinet if the LPA is to hold. In addition to its legitimacy problem, the GNA also faces the challenge of bringing armed actors in the country under control. While some brigades are now allied with the GNA, General Haftar and forces loyal to him do not accept the unity government's authority. What is more, they are directly seeking to undermine it. In mid-September 2016, Haftar's forces seized a number of oil fields in Libya's so-called Oil Crescent on the northeastern coast that were under the control of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which is allied with the GNA.17 Although this has not led to further disruptions to oil exports, due to an arrangement between Haftar and the National Oil Corporation (NOC), the takeover has shifted the balance of power in favor of Haftar and his allies among eastern politicians.
In addition, the actions of some Western states are reinforcing General Haftar's position in the east, despite his refusal to recognize the GNA. In February 2016, French special forces were reported to have been supporting Haftar's forces in fighting against IS in Benghazi, operating out of a base at the city's airport.18 This was confirmed by President Hollande in July 2016, following the death of three French special-forces soldiers in a helicopter crash near Benghazi.19 However, Haftar has not only been fighting IS in the city, but also a rival group, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, in a bid to remove his opponents from eastern Libya.20 Reports have emerged that French, as well as British, Italian and American, forces have been helping General Haftar to coordinate airstrikes against the rival armed group.21 Continued support for General Haftar is facilitating his attempt to control more territory in the east and to prevent the GNA from imposing its authority across the country.
Regional actors, too, are currently undercutting the authority of the GNA, as well as violating the 2011 UN arms embargo, through their continued support for the renegade general. In April 2016, one month after the GNA was established, reports emerged of a Saudi Arabian ship delivering military equipment and ammunition to Haftar's forces. The shipment was believed to have been sent from a Gulf country allied with Haftar22 (i.e., the UAE). There were also indications in September 2016 that Egypt and the UAE were continuing to provide military support to Haftar, notably in his clashes with the Petroleum Facilities Guard over control of eastern oil installations.23
Yet another challenge to the UN-backed efforts to establish a unity government emerged in mid-October 2016, when remnants of the GNC, led by the former prime minister of the government in the Libya Dawn coalition, Khalifa al-Ghwell, and backed by a number of militias, seized the premises of the newly established State Council. Al-Ghwell subsequently declared his intension to reclaim executive authority from the GNA, and extended his hand to his rival during the civil war, prime minister of the previously internationally recognized government in the Libya Dignity coalition, Abdullah al-Thinni, in a bid to form a rival unity government to that established under the LPA. While al-Thinni had rejected the offer at the time of writing, the move demonstrated that the GNA lacks support not only in the east, but also in the west. What is more, the challenge that al-Ghwell and his partisans represent could grow if GNA-allied brigades or other powerful armed groups choose to back them, and if regional powers are then tempted to provide them with military matériel in violation of the arms embargo.24
If the GNA fails to establish its legitimacy and broaden its support within the country, there is a palpable risk that Libya could once again descend into civil war, as armed actors allied with various political factions fight each other for control of territory and hydrocarbon resources.25 The international community would be well-advised, therefore, to ensure that its engagement in Libya serves this end.
HOLDING LIBYA TOGETHER
Renewed efforts to mediate a way out of the political deadlock between the HoR and the GNA are urgently needed. Without this, tension between the GNA and dominant factions in the HoR allied with General Haftar could intensify and lead to a resumption of the civil war. The UN secretary general's special representative to Libya, Martin Kobler, has reconvened the political dialogue. However, the UN may not be perceived as a sufficiently neutral third party, since the LPA and its progeny, the GNA, were both pushed through under pressure from the UN. The same is true of the EU. Egypt has also attempted to launch a mediation initiative. Not surprisingly, it has failed to get off the ground. Egypt's support of the HoR and Haftar, as well as its ambiguous commitment to Libyan unity, hardly qualify it as an acceptable mediator.
Another of Libya's neighbors, Algeria, is rumored to be exploring mediation initiatives within the Arab League.26 Algiers has consistently been an advocate of Libyan unity and would certainly be perceived as more impartial than Egypt. However, following the attempted comeback of al-Ghwell and his partisans, the United States was reported to be attempting to bring all of Libya's rival political factions together in Saudi Arabia to broaden support for the GNA. Should such a reconciliation meeting transpire, it could be promising, due to Saudi Arabia's clout with all regional actors involved in the conflict. That said, Saudi Arabia has shared the desire of both Egypt and the UAE to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, and that could compromise its potential as a mediator.27
The diplomatic support of regional powers that have backed rival coalitions is critical to increasing support for the LPA and limiting the impact of potential "spoilers." Diplomatic support alone, however, is not enough. Efforts to ensure that the UN embargo on arms exports to Libya is universally respected are essential, given that violations clearly threaten the GNA's ability to gain control over territory and resources. To this end, the expansion of the mandate of the EU's Operation Sophia to support the implementation of the embargo off the coast of Libya and the recently approved NATO Operation Sea Guardian — which may provide assistance to the EU in this regard — are positive developments.28 However, more needs to be done to convince regional actors implicated in the conflict to stop supplying weapons and equipment to rival armed actors,29 as well as to curtail their military support. Here, again, Saudi Arabia's possible involvement in mediation efforts could be important.
A direct military role on the ground for Western troops in countering IS has not emerged as a viable option; support for the most part continues to be provided by special-forces operations. This does have the advantage of enabling the GNA and forces loyal to it to take the lead on the ground, thereby avoiding a situation in which the GNA's independence is further compromised. However, it has led to the partnering of General Haftar with allied forces; this is not in line with the political commitments of the states involved, such as France, and should cease.
Providing assistance to brigades allied with the GNA is, of course, not without risks. It, too, could fuel rivalries and deepen divisions. It has, as mentioned, undeniably helped to raise the profile of the brigades that have fought against IS under a GNA banner, notably the Misratan brigades, causing unease among political forces in the east, who have yet to endorse the GNA. However, supporting these brigades in their participation in anti-IS operations has indirectly helped to provide perspective to key brigades loyal to the GNA; there now seems to be the possibility that they may be integrated into a reformed Libyan army. This may give them the motivation to submit to a central authority. They lacked this in the past, when integration into only temporary structures, such as the LSF, was on offer. However, at the same time, General Haftar's increased leverage means that a UN-backed unity government will not only need to retain the loyalty of powerful brigades but also win the cooperation, if not the support, of Haftar. Before any attempts to rebuild Libya's army can begin, there is an urgent need to revitalize the security track of the UN Political Dialogue or to launch some other mediation mechanism to facilitate discussions with and between rival armed groups.
Building a professional and unified army will be a long-term undertaking, and a legitimate and functioning government will require international assistance. Security institutions rather than individual countries are best suited to the task. NATO is often thought of as having the greatest depth of experience in this area, particularly as a result of its engagement in Kosovo, where it has helped to stabilize the country through assisting in the creation of a professional, unified and multiethnic force. Whether NATO would be palatable to those associated with the Qadhafi regime is questionable, though. Indeed, the GNA appears to have a preference for working with the EU at present. The EU does, in fact, have experience in training armed forces, as well as providing advice on the structural reform of armed forces, the EU Training Mission in Mali (EUTM) being a prime example. Its role in helping to consolidate the security sector at some future date should, therefore, not be ruled out, even if only as part of a broader, perhaps UN-led, effort.30
Planning for such assistance may, of course, be premature. Whether the LPA will continue to provide the basis for unifying the country and rebuilding central governance and security institutions depends on finding a compromise that will enable the HoR's approval of a GNA. Although conceived without sufficiently broad-based support to underpin it, the LPA is currently the best hope that exists for Libyan unity. As such, the international community should do all it can to ensure that it holds.
1 Brian McQuinn, "After the Fall: Libya's Evolving Armed Groups," Working Paper, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, October 2012, 15-32.
2 Seyed Amir Niakooee, "Contemporary Arab Uprisings: Different Processes and Outcomes," Japanese Journal of Political Science 14, no. 3 (2014): 435; and Lisa Watanabe, "Libya — in the Eye of the Storm," CSS Analyses in Security Policy, no. 193 (June 2016): 2.
3 Derek Lutterbeck, "Arab Uprisings, Armed Forces, and Civil Military Relations," Armed Forces & Society 39, no. 1 (2013): 40.
4 Watanabe, "Libya — in the Eye of the Storm," 1-2.
5 Ibid., p. 2; Wolfram Lacher and Peter Cole, "Politics by Other Means: Conflicting Interests in Libya's Security Sector," Working Paper, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, October 2014, 11, 16, 21, 23, 30, 39, 41-2.
6 "Dismal Democrats," The Economist, June 28, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21605948-few-libya….
7 Wolfram Lacher, "Libya's Local Elites and the Politics of Alliance Building," Mediterranean Politics 21, no. 1 (2016): 71.
8 "Libya-Politics-2014," GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/libya/politics-2014.htm.
9 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, "Libya: Examination of Intervention and Collapse and the UK's Future Policy Options," Third Report of Session 2016-17, September 14, 2016.
10 "Libyan Dawn: Map of Allies and Enemies," Al Arabiya Institute for Studies, August 25, 2014, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/alarabiya-studies/2014/08/2…; Daveed Gartenstein Ross and Nathaniel Barr, "Dignity and Dawn: Libya's Escalating Civil War," ICCT Research Paper, February 2015, 12; and The Soufan Group, "Libya, Extremism, & the Consequences of Collapse," January 2016, 8-10.
11 Letter dated February 23, 2015, from the Panel of Experts established pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council, February 23, 2015, 39, 42.
12 "Libya's Haftar Confirms Military Support for Operation Dignity from Egypt and UAE," Middle East Eye, January 30, 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/libyas-haftar-confirms-support-operat….
13 Letter dated February 23, 2015, from the Panel of Experts established pursuant to Resolution 1973 (2011), 43-5.
14 Ben Fishman, "Libya's Struggle for Stability May Require Greater Western Involvement," Policy Watch 2651, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, July 11, 2016, 2.
15 Mattia Toaldo, "Libya's Political Stalemate," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 3, 2016, 2.
16 Fishman, "Libya's Struggle for Stability," 2; "Libya's Eastern Parliament Votes against UN-backed Government in Tripoli," Reuters, August 22, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-un-idUSKCN10X1DY.
17 "Western Powers Call on Libyan Forces That Seized Ports to Withdraw," Reuters, September 12, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-west-idUSKCN11I2M5.
18 "French Advisers Helping Libyan Forces Fight Islamic State in Benghazi," Reuters, February 25, 2016 http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKCN0VY1E8?pageNumber=2&virtua….
19 "Three French Special Forces Soldiers Die in Libya," The Guardian, July 20, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/20/three-french-special-forc….
20 "Haftar Forces Suffer Losses in Libya Fighting," Al Jazeera, July 28, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/haftar-forces-suffer-losses-libya….
21 "Libya: Leaked Tapes Suggest West Supports Haftar," Al Jazeera, July 9, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/leaked-tapes-expose-western-suppo….
22 "A Huge Number of Vehicles and Ammunition for Haftar's Militias Arrive in Tobruk," Libya Observer, April 24, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/huge-number-vehicles-and-ammunition-ha….
23 "Strong Indications That Egypt and UAE Rescued Haftar's Forces from Losing the Oil Ports," Middle East Observer, September 19, 2016, http://www.middleeastobserver.org/archives/22620.
24 Lisa Watanabe, "Libya's Political Agreement Reaching a Breaking Point," IPI Global Observatory, October 27, 2016, https://theglobalobservatory.org/2016/10/libya-al-ghwell-haftar-governm….
25 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, "Libya: Examination of Intervention and Collapse," 34.
26 Fadel Lamen and Karim Mezran, "Libya and the HoR Vote — What May Come Next," Atlantic Council blog, August 24, 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/libya-and-the-hor-vote-….
27 U.S. to Broker Reconciliation Meeting between Libya's Rival Governments in Saudi Arabia, "Libyan Express," October 26, 2016, http://www.libyanexpress.com/us-to-broker-reconciliation-meeting-betwee….
28 European Council, "EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia Authorized to Start Two Additional Supporting Tasks," Press Release, August 30, 2016, http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/08/30-eunav…; Mattia Toaldo, "After Warsaw: A 3-Point Plan to Manage Migration through Libya," ECFR Commentary, July 12, 2016; and NATO, Joint press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Paolo Gentiloni, foreign affairs minister of Italy, at the NATO Defense College — Secretary General's opening remarks, October, 14, 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_135908.htm.
29 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, "Libya: Examination of Intervention and Collapse," 36.
30 Paolo Quercia, Patrycja Sasnal, Julianne Smith and Kurt Volker, "NATO in Libya: A Long-Term Plan for Stability," PISM Policy Paper 11, no. 152 (2016): 5-6.; European External Action Service," EU Training Mission in Mali," http://www.eeas.europa.eu/csdp/missions-and-operations/eutm-mali/pdf/fa….; Daniel Keohane, "Libyan Lessons for Europe," in Judy Dempsey's Strategic Europe (blog), Carnegie Europe, February 2, 2016, http://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/?fa=62645.