Libya: In Search of a Leviathan


The original cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan depicts a Godzilla-sized giant towering over mountains, farms and a 17th-century European city, wearing a crown and holding a sword and scepter. His body is composed of innumerable tiny people. He’s theLeviathan, a symbol of the manifested sovereignty and authority of the state who rules the land he looms above. This great monster is the state, composed of men like a body is composed of cells. He rules over society and prevents the “bellum ominum contra omines.

Today most of the countries on Earth stand between the feet of one or another Leviathan, modern examples of the species seen on the cover of Hobbes’ book. Libya is an exception to that. Since the previous sovereign, the personal state of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, was destroyed in the 2011 Libyan Civil War, no giant has stood bestride the expanse of the Sahara Desert from the Jebel Nafusa mountains in Tripolitania, to the Jebel Akhdar in Cyrenaica.

Imagine if one were to update the original Leviathan cover by replacing the 17th-century European landscape with modern Libya. Instead of a single, over-arching giant presiding over it all we would see many smaller giants, just children compared to a full-grown specimen. Rather than standing still and gazing over the landscape placidly, these Libyan mini-Leviathans would be wrestling with each other and kicking up great clouds of dust. Some of them are growing in size, for as they stomp up and down the coast of the Mediterranean and trod on Tripoli and Benghazi, individual humans are jumping onto their legs and feet, to scramble up and take their place in these wannabe Leviathans.

The battle of the newborn giants is the first stage in the reformation of the statein Libya. Factions are struggling against each other to exercise sovereignty, and fill the power vacuum. Eventually, a new Leviathan will likely reign supreme, but the question now is: how much will Libya have to suffer before the new sovereign is crowned? The post-Qaddafi honeymoon produced a mostly powerless and hopelessly divided state in-name-only that continues to limp along. The real contenders for power are done waiting and holding back. They’vedropped the figleaf of deference to the hollow state that characterized Libya’s “hybrid security order” from the end of the revolution until this summer. Now, the strongest militias are ready to make more aggressive plays for control.

The field of competitors is crowded. The “Operation Dignity” coalition is one of the would-be Leviathans engaged in the fight for control of Benghazi and Tripoli. These forces are, for now, led by General Khalifa Hifter. Hifter is a shifty character who defected from Qaddafi’s regime during the disastrous Toyota War. Now, he has proclaimed his forces to be the defenders of law, order and secularism against terrorists and supposed conspiracies by the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. He has also openly called for intervention from Libya’s neighbors to support him. The Dignity coalition contains forces from the Qaa Qaa Brigade, which is a hybrid militia, composed mostly of fighters from the city of Zintan. According to many sources, armed members of the Warshefana tribe from the Sirte region and a smattering of other semi-official armed groups have joined its ranks. In Benghazi, Hifter’s Operation Dignity mainly relies on the Special Forces, ostensibly a unit of the nascent Libyan National Army.

The Operation Dignity coalition has some strengths. It has some of the best military equipment in Libya, thanks to the fact that a few of its component militias were enrolled in the so-called Libyan National Army, and thereby received armored personnel carriers, body armor and other items donated by the international community, especially the United Arab Emirates. The coalition has robust foreign support, which was amply demonstrated to the world at the end of August when Egyptian and Emirati aircraft bombed Libya in support of Operation Dignity’s forces in the capital. But the Dignity coalition also has weaknesses. It does not have a unifying ideology, but is rather an alliance of convenience tentatively held together by General Hifter. The militias that are participating in Operation Dignity are spread out geographically, based in different regions of Libya, with their own power bases and disparate interests. And they have suffered battlefield defeats in Benghazi and Tripoli. For now, foreign backing and a common enemy holds them together, but that could change.

There are other baby Leviathans growing in Libya. The most important of them is “Operation Dawn,” a coalition of militias that is commonly billed as the Islamist response to Operation Dignity. Operation Dawn’s forces are mostly composed of militias from the capital and from Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city. The leader of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood has declared that the group supports Operation Dawn, which is nominally led by Salah Badi, a leader of the resistance to Qaddafi’s siege of Misrata during the revolution and a former member of the now-abolished General National Congress. After seizing the capital’s airport from the Dignity-aligned Qaa Qaa Brigade, Operation Dawn’s forces are now clashing with another of Hifter’s allies, the Warshefana tribe, outside the city.

Operation Dawn also has strengths and weaknesses. They have a more unified and clear political program than Operation Dignity, and at least some public support. They have a more defined geographic power base, situated in the capital and nearby Misrata, Libya’s most stable city. They can claim to be defenders of the country against foreign powers and unreformed former Qaddafi henchmen. Victory in Tripoli has established them as a strong player. However, Operation Dawn is also perceived as a group of law-breakers by many Libyans, and they are directly at odds with the elected government. Western governments have thus been wary of dealing directly with the group, although others have not been so cautious.

Caught in between the two groups is the country’s official governing body, the Majlis al-Nuwaab, or House of Representatives. The members were elected in June, but the legitimacy of the body is precarious. In the election, turnout was an abysmal 18% and polls did not even open in some areas of the country. The body is dominated by secularists, and it has deemed the Operation Dawn coalition a “terrorist group”. For its part, the actors that make up Operation Dawn have rejected the legitimacy of the House of Representatives, and have been supported in this by some local councils in western Libya. Hifter and the component factions of Operation Dignity declare their support for the House of Representatives, but it’s far from clear that the Dignity coalition would follow the body’s dictates if they became inconvenient. Right now, the House of Representatives risks becoming a government in name only, because it doesn’t even control its own capital.

These are the biggest players mini-giants battling it out, but there are others. Yet another contender is, of course, Ansar al Sharia (AAS), Libya’s most hard-core Salafi jihadist outfit. AAS dealt heavy blows to Hifter’s “Special Forces” and exercises a worrying degree of territorial control in Eastern Libya. The east is also home to the militias of the “federalist” movement, who seek to form a regional government of their own or even move for total independence. This group holds a number of oil export facilities and is loyal to former Petroleum Facilities Guard commander Mohammad Jadhran.

All these belligerents have existed for some time. But until this summer, their power struggleswere more restrained, with violence mostly limited to anonymous assassinations and car bombings rather than open, sustained combat with heavy weapons. Maintaining plausible deniability was viewed as necessary when using violence. But in the last few months, things have changed. Tripoli and Benghazi arenow open war zones, with alliances clashing over control of strategic locations in those cities, using artillery and airstrikes in fighting that has killed hundreds already. The factions are at odds over the fundamental political structure of the country. When one side recognizes the House of Representatives as the only ultimate legal authority in the country, and the others do not, there is not much room for agreement.

This multi-sided power struggle is already complicated, but the battle of the would-be Leviathans is just getting started. These loose factions and coalitions are likely to break up, reform into new alliances and jockey for new positions. Mutual support for political Islam is no guarantee of cooperation: Ansar al Sharia and the Muslim Brotherhood are already at odds in Benghazi. The cast of “Operation Dignity” may not hang together for long either; it’s possible that, for example, regional Zintani militias could balk at backing a stronger play by General Hifter for centralized control. This isn’t quite a bellum ominum contra omines, but it’s close.

To understand what’s happening in Libya, let’s look to old Tom Hobbes. During the English Civil War, he saw, first hand, a fairly universal truth: in times of civil strife, people support a powerful authority that can provide security for them. In other words, they hop on-board with the man-made giant that they feel best secures their basic needs. A leader that can make a display of auctoritas, the organic quality of legitimate authority, will win supporters and become able to provide that security. The giant that can provide the security that the society needs then becomes the legitimate sovereign, the Leviathan.

What does this mean for Libya in 2014? It means that the faction with the right mix of effectiveness and palatability can command popular support, gain legitimacy and become the victor. The Libyan people are plainly desperate for security: witness the continual protests for security since the 2011 war, and polling data that shows Libyans rate security as their highest national priority. Outright calls for a restored, if temporary, dictatorship are increasingly common on Libyan social media. General Hifter clearly saw the opportunity that this desperate need created when he unilaterally launched his Operation Dignity, which was intended to be the decisive display of auctoritas and courage that would confer legitimacy upon his own nascent Leviathan. It struck a chord, and thousands of people marched in support of his militia in the first days of Operation Dignity. But he wasn’t the right man for the job: his effort has stagnated due to military setbacks and the controversy surrounding him. It’s difficult to convince people that you are a useful protector when you’re known for launching militarily ineffective, inaccurate and deadly airstrikes. Similarly, it’s likely that Ansar al Sharia would have a difficult time becoming the Leviathan, as their brand of Salafism and their reputation for violence would make it difficult for most Libyans to view them as effective guarantors of security.

But somewhere among Libya’s many contenders for power, there’s probably a faction with the right combination of qualities to win this wrestling match of young giants and form the adult Leviathan. They’ll need military prowess, revolutionary credentials, political savvy, loyal rather than opportunistic supporters, and at least a measure of integrity. The situation is still ripe for a display of raw auctoritas. A negotiated settlement could peacefully merge some of these factions to form a viable Leviathan and allow Libya to continue the transition to peace and prosperity.

The alternative is much worse for Libya. It’s possible that none of the fledgling monsters battling over the country has what it takes to win the struggle before too much killing and destruction has happened. It’s possible that Libya will remain the land of many mini-Leviathans for a long time. That’s the worst-case scenario.

In the context of this struggle between would-be ruling giants, interventions by the international community can be very dangerous. Outside assistance to a would-be Leviathan that is not viable due to poor leadership, fragile composition or unpalatable ideology could fatally distort the process of state formation and make the worst case scenario more likely. But outside involvement can also be helpful to Libya. Bringing the factions together to negotiate, and peacefully form a merged Leviathan would be extremely helpful. To that end, the United States and its allies made a good move by deciding to reaffirm support for the House of Representatives in principle. More needs to be done: the belligerents should be reminded that no one currently has a monopoly on legitimacy, and Libya’s nosy neighbors should be warned to stay out of it. A grand bargain could prove unworkable. If the international community still then feels the need to intervene to protect interests, care must be taken that support is given to a faction or factions that have the potential to be the leaders of a viable state structure. The most important thing is that a new Leviathan is formed in Libya, to prevent the disintegration of country.


Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks.

Photo credit: Jordi Bernabeu Farrus