Libya’s Divided Security Establishment: Who Commands?

February 20, 2014

It has been three years since Libya’s February 17 2011 Revolution, and the country is still without an effective army and government. These facts however did not stop General Khalifa Hiftar from attempting to use the former to overtake the latter, when he announced on February 14 that the ‘Libyan Republican Alliance’ had suspended the General National Congress (GNC), the government, and the National Transitional Council’s constitutional declaration and roadmap for post-Qadhafi Libya. Hiftar’s announcement, effectively a coup, attempted to capitalize on growing discontent over the GNC’s extension of its own mandate. While coups are not rare occurrences in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa, it is quite bizarre in modern-day Libya where militias outgun the army and the government’s reach is limited, evidenced by the current stand-off between powerful militias allied with al-Zintan and Misratah over the fate of the GNC.

Hiftar failed in his attempt to emulate Libya’s easterly neighbor, but he succeeded in highlighting the country’s divided national security establishment. The press has covered the proliferation of weapons and militias thoroughly, but challenges to state building efforts, political divisions and infighting over the right to lead the armed forces have received less attention.  Yet it is these problems that truly plague the country’s transition and stymie attempts to disarm, demobilize, and rehabilitate Libya’s estimated 225,000 rebels. Addressing these fault lines is the first step towards ensuring that Libya develops an effective state monopoly on violence — a critical defining feature of the modern state.

These tumultuous political dynamics were set into play during the war, with the successful rise of militias over Qadhafi’s centralized state and maligned army. These tensions, which remained unresolved during the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) mandate, are marked by a divided chain of command, the absence of a constitution, and poorly defined commander-in-chief powers. This ill-defined national security environment has led to allegations of interference by political leaders and parties in the rehabilitation of the security sector. For instance, former Interior Minister Mohammed Al Sheikh asked to be dismissed on August 18, 2013, in protest over “interference” from Prime Minister Zidan and the GNC, and Brigadier General Mohammed Abdul Ati Rifai claimed Islamists have long opposed the restructuring of the army.

From the outset of the transition period, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Yusuf al-Manqoush remarked in January 2012 that the next step for the armed forces would be legally defining the powers of the Ministry of Defense and the Chief of Staff. Instead, the NTC flipped these two positions’ respective powers with Law No. 11, which was passed on February 13, 2012. Former Minister of Defense Osama Al Juweili complained that the law subverted his authority to the Chief of Staff, requiring him to sign off on the Chief of Staff’s plans, thereby distorting the chain of command.

There is also a great deal of tension between the Prime Minister and the President of the GNC. This strain first became apparent between current Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and then-President Mohammed Magarief in December 2012, when the GNC unilaterally declared the southern border a closed military zone without consulting Zeidan or the Chief of Staff. This antagonistic relationship deteriorated further when current-GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmain unilaterally assumed unspecified commander-in-chief powers in August 2013. Although the GNC revoked his attempted power grab, in December 2013 it broadly granted him the title “Supreme Commander for the Armed Forces” for a period of one month (although it is not clear if those powers have abated) to stabilize Sabha and address general instability.

Relations between the Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff are also poor and underscore the contested nature of commander-in-chief powers. Zeidan lamented that Manqoush’s replacement, Major General Abdul Salaam Jadallah Al Obeidi, refused to follow his orders to intervene in Sabha in January 2014. He also claimed to have ordered the army to act with force against armed federalist protesters in the Gulf of Sirte who have held oil export terminals for over half a year, crippling exports of Libya’s primary source of revenue. Unsurprisingly, army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi claimed the army had no such orders. As if to assert the army’s independence from the Prime Minister, al-Sheikhi added that “If we receive any orders, the matter will be studied at that time.”

In an attempt to assert authority and remain relevant in matters of national security, Zeidan sought to create a National Guard in the summer of 2013, a plan that was scuttled due to allegations that it would act as his praetorian guard. Zeidan and his cabinet have also created official joint security operations rooms in areas where his influence is low, such as in Misratah, or in Tripoli where Abu Sahmain relies on the Libyan Revolutionaries’ Operating Room (LROR), an Islamist rebel outfit that briefly abducted Zeidan on October 10, 2013. The effectiveness of Zeidan’s joint security operations rooms is unknown.

Zeidan has proven reluctant to call upon rebel groups operating outside of the state’s aegis, while Abu Sahmain and Al Obeidi have been more willing to rely on militias to achieve political ends, such as quelling the recent outbreak of violence in Sabha and in Warshafana territory. Semi-state brigades such as the Libya Shield have also been relied upon by the state in the absence of an effective army to intervene in local conflicts, such as in al-Kufra. Pragmatic as this policy is, it nonetheless contradicts Laws Nos. 27 and 53, which require the dissolution of non-state armed formations in Tripoli. Zidan’s government asserted that the laws are nonetheless still in force and that relying on rebels will only prolong the “confused security situation.”

Beyond the human toll, Libya’s contested and poorly led national security establishment has direct consequences on the political process, made obvious by Zeidan’s abduction and Hiftar’s poorly executed ‘coup.’ Libya’s economy also suffers, since its hydrocarbons-based economy can be held hostage by armed groups like Cyrenaican federalists, who have enforced a blockade of oil export terminals for over half a year. An inability to exert command and control also means that Libya will remain a safe haven for extremists and a source of weapons proliferation.

Lastly, Libya’s divided command puts into question the efficacy of international efforts to train and equip a general purpose force for Libya. While important, such a force may prove limited in capacity due to bickering politicians in Tripoli, or worse, manipulated by factions within and without the government, the GNC, and the military. The first step towards answering Libya’s security problems is inherently political: drafting a constitution that definitively defines the roles of powers of Libya’s branches of government and security establishment. Nation-wide elections are scheduled for February 20 to elect a constitution-drafting committee, although expectations are low that this body will succeed.

Efforts to stabilize Libya and the region will prove insufficient absent a coherent foundation with which to build on. Until then, the question of who commands remains.


Andrew Engel is a private consultant on Libya. He traveled across the country immediately after it’s official liberation, and recently completed his master’s degree at Georgetown in Security Studies. Follow him on twitter: @SayyedSamour.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond