Libya’s troubled and halting progress toward planned presidential elections on December 24th has underscored the recurring affliction of armed groups’ linkages to political elites. Throughout the post-2011 period, national-level elections—most notably the 2012 elections for Libya’s national legislature, the General National Congress—have been seen by international actors as mechanisms for producing the necessary political legitimacy and consensus to jump start the dismantling of armed groups and the reform and unification of the security sector. Yet time and time again, this wishful thinking has been misplaced. Elections — or, rather, the anticipation thereof — have precipitated a reconfiguration of power relations among competing personalities and their loosely aligned armed groups. For both categories of actors, public opinion is at best a means to an end, while the priority is always the capture of institutions. The approach of elections has reallocated political and economic spoils among these players, creating winners and losers that inevitably sparked localized violence and that sometimes escalated to the national level.
The latest iteration of voting — if it happens at all, given its exceedingly weak legal framework — is no different. The alleged bright spots of stability and cooperation among former adversaries that have marked the pre-election period have been largely the result of transactional deal-making by elites and, given their highly personal nature, are fickle and susceptible to adjustment — or unraveling.
A key shortcoming of the latest U.N.-backed political roadmap has been the absence of a viable institutional platform for post-election security sector reform that enjoys a modicum of buy-in from meaningful armed group commanders. International diplomats have attached undue significance to the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (composed of five military officers appointed by the now-defunct Government of National Accord and the commander of the opposing Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), Khalifa Haftar). Originally conceived at the January 2020 Berlin conference as a ceasefire monitoring mechanism for the central Sirte region, the body has engaged in dialogue and cooperation, most notably coordinating prisoner exchanges, issuing a joint communique calling for the departure of the thousands of foreign fighters and mercenaries who arrived in Libya through Turkish, Russian, and Emirati sponsorship during the 2019-2020 war for Tripoli.
Yet beyond these gestures, the Commission is insufficiently equipped to be a vehicle for building a broader security sector architecture, especially past the planned elections, when its mandate will be contested by the winners and losers. Moreover, its composition is marked by a profound asymmetry and deep disagreements about the very nature of the Libyan state. The Libyan officers from the east can be said to represent Khalifa Haftar and his desire to retain supremacy and parallel autonomy there — at least until he is assured a formal position of power in the capital. The commission’s delegates from western Libya, in contrast, do not speak for the fissiparous armed groups which hold sway in Tripoli and its environs. Similarly, a recent meeting in Sirte between the western-based Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army, Lieutenant-General Mohamed al-Haddad and Lieutenant-General ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Naduri, the Chief of Staff of Haftar’s LAAF produced positive statements about military unification, but any follow-through by these figures will confront the same problems of asymmetric and contested clout among armed actors.
Amid this national-level paralysis, armed groups at the local level have engaged in dialogue and substantive engagement and deconfliction, but also violent clashes, attempting to maneuver and gain advantage ahead of the elections. As in the past, these machinations take place beyond the purview of internationally convened conferences and forums. The clearest example of this dynamic are the joint patrols in the southern area of Al-Shwayrif undertaken between the 166 Battalion for Protection and Security, an armed group from the central city of Misrata, which is allied to the powerful Misratan ex-interior minister Fathi Bashagha, and the Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion commanded informally by Haftar’s son, Saddam. Ostensibly undertaken through the initiative of local commanders, the patrols more accurately reflect the converging personal interests and deal-making between Bashagha and Haftar, which was nascently evident in early 2019, before Haftar’s attack on the capital.
The Bashagha-Haftar rapprochement is only one of the key points of contestation in Tripolitania that has antagonized other armed groups and that could erupt in more violent fighting in 2022. Alternatively, the initiative could end up being co-opted by Bashagha’s rival: incumbent Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabaiba, also from Misrata.
Other inter-armed group tensions exist within surrounding cities — most notably Zawiya — and among the militia chieftains who hold sway in Tripoli’s neighborhoods and who have coalesced into umbrella formations that are nominally tied to Libya’s formal state institutions. A key flashpoint concerns the Stabilization Support Apparatus, a Tripoli-based militia coalition formed by the former Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord as a means to counter-balance armed groups aligned with Bashagha. Complicating matters further is the role of Turkey, which had backed Bashagha’s efforts to dismantle the capital’s more predatory armed groups, most notably the Nawasi Battalion, under the ministry of interior, and the now-weakened Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Battalion or TRB. Given these fault lines and the contested geography of the capital, the immediate post-election period – or the likely aftermath of election failure – could be marked by armed groups using force or the threat of force to blockade or hold at risk government buildings or intimidate key officials, replaying previous electoral and political dramas, like the 2013 passage of the Political Isolation Law or the early 2016 arrival of the Presidency Council to Tripoli.
Taken in sum, the power of the Tripoli-based armed groups and the personality- and foreign-based patronage imperatives that shape their behavior will likely endure completely outside the high-minded frameworks devised at multilateral international fora, like the 5+5 Joint Military Commission. Similarly, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces — increasingly, a Haftar family-run, profit-making conglomerate that is still erroneously seen by some foreign diplomats as the nucleus of a Libyan army — will entrench itself and persist well beyond the milestone of elections, if they do take place. These realities underscore the need for more realistic expectations among the international community and a more finely tuned approach that accounts for —and adapts to — facts on the ground.
Instead of holding out hopes that elections might set the stage for a sweeping security sector reunification, foreigners and Libyans need to redefine security sector reform to focus on more manageable stabilization and confidence building measures. This is especially important at the local level, where hybridized security arrangements — formal and informal actors working side-by-side — have in some cases provided a modicum of human security, especially where armed groups exhibit embeddedness and social ties to communities.
Though far from perfect, and fraught with potential biases toward or against local communal groups, hybrid policing presents a realistic starting point and entrée for discrete international engagement. Questions certainly remain about whether these formations can be “scaled up” or tethered to a national command structure, but opportunities exist for regulating their behavior and ensuring accountability and rule of law, especially through the input of civil society and social influencers like women or tribal notables. At the very least, this local and granular focus, in tandem with more concerted efforts to address the political economy of militia power through financial reforms, will avoid repeating past mistakes in security sector reform — especially the grandiose and ill-advised train-and-equip initiatives that, more often than not, empowered armed groups or further stoked conflict.