2022 marked the beginning of a new phase of political manoeuvring in Libya. Capitalising on the political power vacuum left by the 2021 elections’ indefinite postponement, a coalition of parliamentarians aligned with the Speaker of the House, Agila Saleh, appointed Fathi Bashagha as Prime Minister in a vote that was mired in legal irregularities. Bashagha has since repeatedly attempted to establish his government in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, to no avail. Meanwhile, the Government of National Unity’s Prime Minister, Abdelhamid Dbeibah, has vowed to remain in his post until he will have to hand over power to an elected government.
Left unresolved, this new phase of executive bifurcation threatens to reignite the conflict. But the political tussle is no more than a sideshow when compared to the real tectonic shift that has shaken up the Libyan security sector in the past year.
Direct control of state institutions
Libyan armed groups and their leaders took over the role once held by venal political elites and entrepreneurs, becoming instrumental for any development in the country. Now more than ever, their whims are the main determinant in the trajectory of the democratic transition. The disproportionate political clout armed group leaders have garnered will have far-reaching effects for Libya, as they are now poised to retain this newfound influence in the long run.
The emergence of armed group leaders as political stakeholders is not only anchored in domestic manoeuvrings and politico-military developments, but also the by-product of foreign-sponsored flawed mediation blueprints, half-hearted attempts at conflict resolution, and a deprioritization of meaningful and holistic security sector reform efforts. The international rule-based order buckling under the weight of regional powers encroaching on Libyan sovereignty by bolstering hybrid armed groups has only compounded these failures.
These dynamics manufactured an ecosystem where individuals capable of wielding violence with impunity and opportunism were endowed with political legitimacy. While armed groups and their commanders adopted differing strategies in adapting to this new status quo, the overarching pattern has been one of state influence being overshadowed by armed group leaders’ clout.
For a while, they attempted to infiltrate the bureaucracy of the Libyan state and leveraged their territorial control to extract rents through a pernicious war economy. Now, this trend has reached its apex. Armed group commanders across the country are shedding the mantle of security providers pseudo-aligned under central state authorities, maneuvering instead to directly assume unfettered control over state institutions at the highest levels.
Haftar heirs and Western newcomers
Over the past decade, the pioneer of converting military influence into political sway has undeniably been Khalifa Haftar. His Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) – lavishly supported by a range of foreign powers – are the largest practitioners of hybrid security in the country, and the septuagenarian general’s political prominence has been consolidated on the back of his unbridled proclivity for warlordism. Yet, the prospect of Haftar’s inevitable demise has long loomed large over the future of the LAAF. However, since the failure of his offensive against Tripoli in 2020, an undeclared LAAF legacy planning initiative has been underway, one which has seen several of the LAAF’s “loose ends” done away with under obscure circumstances.
His sons Saddam and Belqasem spearheaded this effort to enable the LAAF to survive their father, emerging as key interfaces for negotiations with both Bashagha and Dbeibah, as well as foreign governments. Even if the risks of intra-fragmentation cannot be ruled out, the family has reconsolidated its grip over the LAAF and garnered influence in the political realm, as their involvement in all formal and informal tracks addressing the political impasse testifies.
In a similar vein, armed group leaders in Western Libya have also positioned themselves as the main interlocutors for the competing Prime Ministers and their networks – seeing as territorial control in the Libyan capital of Tripoli is one of the main determinants for an executive’s international legitimacy.
In attempting to secure a footprint in Tripoli, Bashagha kowtowed to a network of armed groups he once vowed to dismantle, appointing several relatives of these factions’ commanders as ministers within his cabinet. On the other hand, Dbeibah’s ability to ensconce himself in Tripoli is, in many ways, a by-product of temporary circumstances rather than an expression of meaningful social or military support behind his persona.
Against this backdrop of political deadlock, international organizations and foreign capitals have scrambled, trying to involve Western armed groups’ leaders in political negotiations. Most of the proposed “solutions” would catapult these armed group leaders into positions of even further political prominence, with Saddam and Belqasem as their counterparts in the bargaining. Together, they would cut out the middleman – ironically in this case, the self-serving politicians competing for their support – and replace them by dividing the spoils of state appointments between one another.
The mafia-ization of the Libyan state?
All in all, in entertaining the timeworn game of political elites’ jockeying in Libya, a far more detrimental dynamic is now both ignored and enabled. Armed groups leaders’ empowerment and their emergence as political stakeholders and kingmakers in the current context will impede any effort to meaningfully unify and reform Libya’s defense and security sectors along democratic lines.
However, the effects will far transcend the military arena. Unless reversed, the current trend will have direct effects on Libya’s long-term governance. It would dilute any prospect for meaningful meritocratic appointments and pave the way for a mafia-ization of the Libyan state. Considering the demographic of the country, generations of disillusioned Libyan youth could also heed the call to join a militia.
These dire consequences could all be avoided if the process to resolve Libya’s crisis simply focused on Libyans’ aspirations, rather than the inclinations of the political or military factions that deny them.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the institutions he is affiliated to.