On January 20, 2020, world leaders met in Germany and announced the intra-Libyan dialogue framework intended to end Libya’s latest civil war between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) by unifying the rival political, economic and, crucially, military forces under the reconfigured Presidential Council (PC), acting as the supreme commander of the armed forces.
The civil war resumed in March 2020 and undermined political talks before later culminating in a statemate. However, in October 2020, the rival factions announced a permanent ceasefire agreement, in which they also revived the goal of military unification. A single military institution is to serve under the interim government that was formed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on February 5, 2021, ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for December 2021. The ceasefire offers a short-term opportunity to establish peace. But the UN’s unification process and post-conflict institutional framework will define the political character of the state, and the resulting civil-military relations will seriously challenge Libya’s democratic transition.
Two key features of the unification deal will define civil-military relations. First, the deal assigns institutional legitimacy to the LAAF, considered for years to be Libya’s only regular military institution. The deal favors the LAAF from the outset, with a plan to categorize armed groups across Libya and differentiate between regular forces to be preserved and militias to be dismantled. Second, the political talks will conclude with replacing the GNA’s nine-man presidency, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, with a so-called functioning three-man PC. The nine-man presidency’s dysfunction is measured by the rejection of the PC since 2016 by Haftar and the LAAF’s chief political backer and architect, Speaker of the Parliament Aguila Saleh.
The UN’s unification process is predicated on the belief that enduring peace can be achieved through compromise between the GNA and LAAF based on ascribing institutional legitimacy to Haftar’s military force and a newly reconfigured but weak
PC and executive to steer the country towards national elections. This is problematic for civil-military relations for two reasons. First, behind the military insignia and uniforms, the LAAF is not only an irregular military, but actually two irregular armies—a lower-tier, tribal, patrimonial network designed to coup-proof and preserve an authoritarian system, and a higher-tier, praetorian guard designed to keep the tribal patrimonial network in check and preserve the authoritarian power of its chief. The LAAF’s foundational underpinnings are incompatible with civilian democratic rule.
Second, by reconfiguring the PC and executive to appease the LAAF, the peace deal sets a dangerous precedent and challenges a foundational principle in democratic states—military neutrality and subservience to civilian rule. The short-term picture is bleak. By legitimizing the LAAF, the new government will face significant resistance from many of the armed groups and communities under the GNA that experienced the military’s previous incarnation under former leader Muammar Qaddafi and overthrew this system during the revolution in 2011. This reconfiguration of the PC could also result in renewed conflict when the LAAF’s preferred reconfiguration of the PC is replaced through democratic presidential elections at the end of 2021.
Two-Tiered Military History
After nearly a decade since Qaddafi’s fall, Libya’s institutions remain very much up for grabs. Neither of its rival political factions possess regular military forces. The GNA does not have a regular army and was largely rescued by armed groups and militia who mobilized from across Western Libya in fear of a return to authoritarian rule under the LAAF on April 4, 2019. In contrast, the LAAF is often described as the only regular and national army in Libya, but it is actually a reincarnation of the Jamahiriya system, a two-tiered military designed by Qaddafi to maintain his authoritarian grip on Libya for over four decades. The two tiers of this military system were referred to as Jaysh Bubakar, after former defense minister and Qaddafi confidant Bubakar Younes Jaber, and Jaysh Muammar, the elite brigades that served directly under Qaddafi.
Qaddafi feared a coup in the early years of his reign and weakened his military before transforming it into a tool of regime maintenance. Jaysh Bubakar was first weakened—through the gradual erosion of its military reserves, the routine disbanding of military units that Qaddafi feared could plot against him, and the dismantling of its communication system—to prevent it from organizing a coup. A failed military coup in 1993 showed that this weakening effort was inadequate, after which Qaddafi accelerated his process of social engineering in order to engender tribal loyalty and a culture of rentierism within the army and society at large.
Qaddafi established the Socialist People’s Committee (SPC) in 1994 and tasked it with encouraging tribal identity and affiliation, particularly in the military, to create a sense of investment in the continuity and preservation of the Qaddafi regime. This tribal patronage system offered members of tribes new socioeconomic privileges through economic corruption. A culture of rentierism arose in wider tribal communities, driven by petty corruption and employment in the government in order to engender power, privilege, and the preservation of the ruling political order. Jaysh Bubakar was not designed to fight an external enemy, but rather it was an inward-looking patronage system designed to thwart any domestic attempt to overthrow Qaddafi’s authoritarian rule by the wider society.
In contrast, Jaysh Muammar had been formed and trained both to combat external threats and to act as a praetorian guard, keeping internal threats and Jaysh Bubakar in line. The units were led by close confidants of Qaddafi and later his sons, such as the Mohamed Megerayef brigade, led by Al-Barani Shkall, and the 32d Brigade under Khamis Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s balancing act was successful until the Arab Spring led to the demise of the Jamahiriya system through a process of defections from Jaysh Bubakar, NATO’s military intervention, and the subsequent establishment of new revolutionary armed groups that eroded the monopoly of force previously enjoyed by Jaysh Bubakarand Jaysh Muammar.
Haftar’s Two-Tiered Military
Haftar established the LAAF in 2014 in Eastern Libya against a backdrop of assassinations and a power struggle between tribal and revolutionary armed groups in Benghazi. He immediately began shaping a tribal patrimonial network that resembled Jaysh Bubakar. He appointed Beleid Sheikhi as the head of a new SPC tasked with engendering predominantly bedouin tribal patronage to the LAAF. Haftar and Saleh were successful in encouraging loyalty from bedouin tribes by appointing them to senior command positions in the LAAF. However, the LAAF’s tribal foundations had a dramatic effect upon Eastern Libya’s social fabric. Senior LAAF commanders began explicitly calling for the burning of homes and forced displacement of nonbedouin tribes—labelled Turks—leading to the displacement of over 100,000 residents from Benghazi.
Haftar designed his own praetorian guard based on religious and familial loyalty. Haftar established a group of highly trained and well-equipped brigades led by his son Saddam Haftar and his son-in-law Ayyub Forjani and drawn from Salafi Madkhali brigades bound by religious creed to Haftar. They joined the LAAF as an order of religious duty, when their religious leader in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa in 2014 designating Haftar as the legitimate ruler in Libya. A clear division exists between the regular tribal armed groups in the LAAF and Haftar’s Salafi praetorian guard, which enjoys better equipment and training and controls significantly larger stockpiles of weapons and ammunition.
Haftar has used a carrot-and-stick approach to keep his tribal army in check. The LAAF are deeply embedded and involved in an economy of predation, with much of the eastern public economy controlled by armed groups in the LAAF or under the Military Investment Authority created by the LAAF to generate and distribute income to Haftar and his most loyal armed groups. However, Haftar has not shied away from confronting the lower tier of the LAAF and using violence and coercion should they challenge him. Faraj Egaim, a brigade commander from Benghazi in the LAAF, issued an ultimatum to Haftar to leave eastern Libya in 2017. Haftar responded by sending in his son’s brigades to arrest Egaim and restore order.
Culture of Mistrust
Despite the entrenched sociopolitical ties and patrimony, Haftar fears and has a deep mistrust toward his own army, and went as far as faking his own death in 2018 in order to determine the loyalty of his tribal commanders. The LAAF have resorted to employing mercenaries largely recruited by the United Arab Emirates and Russia as a supplement to his praetorian guard and as a substitute for the LAAF’s tribal core, which Haftar could not furnish with arms and send to Tripoli without risking a mutiny in Benghazi.
The LAAF is particularly allergic to criticism. In April 2020, the LAAF established a military committee to counter the coronavirus and publicly threatened to detain Libyans at home and abroad for criticizing the LAAF’s efforts to fight the virus. A member of parliament was kidnapped for publicly criticizing the LAAF’s attack on Tripoli in July 2019, and a prominent activist in Benghazi was gunned down for criticism of the LAAF abuses in eastern Libya. This demonstrates the complex balancing act required for regime maintenance, but also the long-term challenge of keeping the LAAF together as a unified, coherent force. The LAAF is deeply fragile, shaped around a national game of tribal divide-and-conquer and loyalty through family and fatwa. Should Haftar die or be replaced, not only would the LAAF unravel, but it could reopen old conflicts and start new wars.
Peace at What Cost?
Although the UN has offered guarantees for a post conflict democratic transition in Libya, its negotiation and institutional framework to end Libya’s current conflict is at odds with reality and casts doubt over the transition and long-term prospects for healthy civil-military relations. The military dialogue track incentivizes the LAAF’s participation on the premise of prized institutional legitimacy and the UN’s international recognition, but does not condition this on meaningful structural reform to transform the LAAF into a subservient and neutral military and ensure its compatibility with the political transition. The military track remains the sole opportunity for reform, but in its current form will face significant resistance from civilians and armed groups alike who fear a UN-endorsed system of rule they took up arms to overthrow in 2011, then fought to resist once again in its latest reincarnation during Haftar’s power grab in 2019.
The principal concern remains the role and function of the PC and its relationship to the military. The LAAF have essentially achieved through negotiations, without concessions, what it could not achieve through war: a negotiated framework that offers it prized institutional legitimacy and international political recognition without reform, as well as a facade of civilian rule that will not question the LAAF’s behavior or seek to tamper with or reform its tiered system or tribal structures. The UN framework guarantees short-term peace at the long-term cost of the political character of the state, which will be decided over the next nine months of Libya’s transition. Without critical military reforms to the LAAF’s composition and structures, Libya will remain on course for another conflict before the end of 2021.