This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. See More

(Translated from the German by Iris Müller)


Libya occupies a special place among those countries of North Africa and the Middle East that have experienced political upheaval since early 2011.[1] Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the security forces have retained a high degree of continuity despite the overthrow of Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak, Libya’s existing security architecture (armed forces, police, and revolutionary committees) and the central institutions of the state were completely broken. The victory of the Libyan opposition was proclaimed on October 23, 2011 as the country’s “liberation.” This milestone marked the end of the Qaddafi state model, whose key elements, dating from 1977, were the legislative people’s conferences and executive people’s committees.

The fall of the Qaddafi regime and the loss of the state monopoly on violence gave way to a duopoly of power in Libya whereby rudimentary “national” forces—under the control of the National Transitional Council (NTC) from March 2011 to August 2012—were established in competition with the non-state “Revolutionary Brigades,” which had borne the brunt of the military struggle against Qaddafi’s forces.[2] Since then, the Revolutionary Brigades have increasingly sought to assert themselves in the political arena. Their political demands have led to, among other things, the adoption of the so-called Political Isolation Law on May 5, 2013, through which supporters of the previous regime are barred from the civil administration and leading positions in the army.[3] Thus, due to the political dominance of the brigades, Libya has become known as a “state of militias.”

The Replacement of Qaddafi’s Security Architecture

The Revolutionary Brigades—composed of defectors from the armed forces and embattled volunteers—established themselves spontaneously after February 2011.[4] They organized themselves according to local allegiance, regional origin, or to their ideological convictions. As the fighting extended into western Libya, the brigades, or “militias,” were increasingly pushed into unfamiliar areas. After hostilities ended, they did not return to their homes, but instead seized control of key infrastructure and facilities, mainly in Tripolitania, such as road crossings, airports, and central administration buildings.[5]

Within the constellation of Revolutionary Brigades are those whose activities are focused on the enforcement of religious aims and who also look to influence government, law, and civil society.[6] These Islamist brigades[7] are problematic in three respects:

  1. They play, even within the brigades, a distinctive role in that their goals and interests are different from the majority. This is why they have caused conflicts among the brigades’ advocacy groups, such as the Higher National Council of the Revolutionaries, that have been established since 2012.
  2. The Islamist brigades, due to their religious mission and rejection of a “non-Islamic state,” strictly oppose and thus pose a great challenge to the brigades’ demobilization and integration into the national security forces.
  3. The boundary between these brigades’ activities and those of terrorists is blurred.[8] The exact scope of cooperation between the Islamist brigades and the al-Qa‘ida network is unclear.

The Collapse of Institutions

After March 2011, under the leadership of Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the National Transitional Council (NTC) largely determined political developments in Libya. As early as August 3, 2011, even before the opposition captured Tripoli, the NTC determined a road map for state reconstruction of Libya after the end of Qaddafi’s rule in a Provisional Constitutional Declaration.[9]

According to this declaration, a new government should be selected within one month after the Proclamation of the Liberation of Libya and a 200-person General National Congress (GNC) should be elected within 240 days (eight months). The GNC in turn should elect a president within a month, appoint a new government within two months, and then determine a 60-person Constitutional Commission.

While this institutional reconstruction of Libya, except for drafting the constitution, has been implemented mostly according to the time frame,[10] little progress has been made thus far toward ensuring public safety and overcoming security challenges. The post-Qaddafi political institutions up until now have been unable to overcome the divergent interests of the various armed and unarmed actors and thereby forge a national consensus policy and enforce the state monopoly on violence.[11] Historical divisions in Libya that have intensified since the fall of Qaddafi are particularly inhibiting such a consensus.

The Fiction of Libyan Nation Building

Libya, with its three historical provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, its distinct tribal structure, and its ethnic diversity only existed as a “nation state” between Tunisia and Egypt due to its prevailing authoritarian structures, the Qaddafi state ideology, and state oppression of regional, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. The fall of the Qaddafi regime let long-suppressed cultural differences express themselves publicly and made the fragmentation of Libyan society clearly visible.[12]

The fissure between east and west, which played a strong role in the opposition to Qaddafi, has widened. Since 2012, a federalist movement has increasingly manifested itself, demanding more autonomy and a greater stake in the state’s resources, especially for the region of Cyrenaica. The Proclamation of Independence of Cyrenaica in June 2013 by tribal representatives and the formation of Cyrenaican self-defense forces presents the central government in Tripoli with a fait accompli. A solution to this conflict is not in sight.

The second fissure occurs along ethnic lines. Most notably, the Berbers settling in western Libya in the Jabal Nafusa and the Tabu ethnic group—natives of southern Libya—are demanding more rights. In particular, the Berbers, the majority of whom are Ibadis[13] and not Sunnis like the majority of Libyans, insist on recognition of their language as an official language and have threatened armed resistance since the autumn of 2013 if this demand, including constitutional protection, is not accommodated.

The third fissure, evident since 2011, is between Islamist groups and the conservative Islamic, but not pro-Islamist, population, which rejects the rigidity of the Islamic society project and the demand of Islamists to introduce the Islamic penal law. They also condemn the destruction of Sufi graves by Islamist brigades, for whom these tombs are an expression of “idolatry.”[14]

The nation building process, initiated with Libya’s independence in December 1951, was never completed. The antagonistic forces within Libyan society, which were kept in check for over 60 years under the Sanusi monarchy and under Qaddafi, have sharpened since 2011 and have contributed to the current political crisis.

The Restoration of the Libyan State

Despite such problems with geographic, ethnic, and ideological divisions, some movement toward state building has occurred. However, the integration of the brigades into the national security forces will be crucial to see such a process through.

The government that Abdel-Jalil appointed declared from the beginning that state building, including the construction of new national security organs, was the first priority. Both the GNC, elected in July 2012, and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who held office starting in November 2012, held firmly to this priority. However, the crisis over the GNC mandate (which was slated to have only taken 18 months and was supposed to be extended in early 2014)[15] and the central government’s lack of efficiency impose a burden on the state-building process.

At the end of 2013, Zeidan dismissed the accusation made particularly by Western countries that Libya is a “failed state” due to its diverse unresolved conflicts. Zeidan insisted that, rather, “The state of Libya doesn’t exist yet…We are trying to create a state, and we are not ashamed of that. The outside world believes that Libya is failing, but Libya was destroyed by Qaddafi for 42 years and was destroyed by a full year of civil war. And that's why we are trying to rebuild it.”[16]

The start of national reconciliation initiatives, the election of the Constitutional Commission in late February 2014, and the approval of a new road map to replace the GNC by an elected parliament by the end of 2014 give reason to expect a medium-term stabilization of the political situation despite the dismissal of Zeidan, who was replaced temporarily by the acting Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. In addition, the structure of the national security forces is making progress as a result of significant foreign support, including that from the United States, Great Britain, Italy, and Turkey.

The construction of the new Libyan army, the new police organization, and a new national intelligence service has been addressed successively since the summer of 2011. The Free Libyan National Army has been faced with the task of organizational and staff buildup since its founding by the NTC in March 2011, although outlining the organization and determining the leadership structure have proven easier to accomplish than staff recruitment. During the civil war, most fighters were active in the independent revolutionary brigades and only after the fall of the Qaddafi regime in October 2011 did the army, formally reconstituted by the NTC, raise the claim to be the only legitimate Libyan armed force. The brigades should therefore be dissolved or partially integrated into the armed forces and the police. This process—starting in February 2012 with the integration of the first 5,000 fighters—proceeded only very slowly despite public support, because the brigades still oppose their dissolution and the accompanying loss of power.[17]

Dreams of Demobilization

Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, the central challenge has been neither the “civilianization” of a repressive authoritarian state in which the security forces play a core regime-saving function, nor the need for classic security sector reform to strengthen accountability, civilian control, and transparency.[18] Instead, the challenge is, or should be, threefold: the rebuilding of state structures, the launch of a nation building process to overcome regional disparities and ethnic-religious conflicts, and the restoration of the state monopoly on violence, which can only be achieved through the demobilization of the brigades.

Steps toward “civilianization” of the state are not expected in the near future, especially since a consensus on the future political order has yet to be achieved and both the nation and institution building processes have yet to be completed.

It is particularly concerning that so far, despite various initiatives, a significant reduction in the effective staffing of the brigades and enforcement of their demobilization has not taken place. Karim Mezran argues that

[t]he idea of voluntary disarmament of the militias or a buy-back of their weapons is unrealistic and will not work given the weak central government. It is important to recognize that for many of the young men who fought against Qaddafi, being a militia member and a revolutionary is a status symbol and, in the absence of professional opportunities, a permanent job.[19]

Due to the lack of security in Libya and the reduction in oil exports from strikes and protest brigades, it will take a long time to revive the Libyan economy and generate the opportunity to create jobs. Thus the vicious circle closes; without a revival of the economy, Libya’s security problems cannot be solved.

[1] A second special case is Syria, although it is not possible to make accurate statements about the future of the Syrian state until the armed conflict ends.

[2] The sizes of the brigades vary from 50 to more than 1,000 fighters. Security professionals estimated the number of brigades in Libya in late 2011 to be 400 to 500. Assuming an average strength of 250 men, the brigades total around 110,000-130,000 fighters, a number that is likely to be accurate given the small demobilization to date.

[3] Caroline Abadeer, “Full Text of Libya’s Political Isolation Law,” Muftah, 16 May 2013,

[4] Brian McQuinn, “After the Fall: Libya's Evolving Armed Groups, Geneva,” Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2012,  

[5] In eastern Libya, the fighting ended in March 2011, while in western and southern Libya it ended in August-October 2011.

[6] Caliphate as a form of government; Islamic law, including criminal law; Salafi-dominated social order.

[7] Examples of such brigades are brought together in the Ittihad Saraya al-Thuwwar brigades from greater Benghazi or originating from the Jabal Akhdar Katibat Shuhada Abu Slim, Katibat Umar al-Mukhtar, Katibat Ubaida Ibn al-Jarra, and the Ansar al-Shari‘ah primarily in Benghazi and Darna.

[8]  The Islamist brigades carried out numerous attacks on foreign embassy facilities, such as the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 and the French embassy in Tripoli on April 23, 2013.

[9] See “Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage” at

[10] The transitional government of Abdel Rahim el-Keeb was established on November 23, 2011, and the elections to the GNC took place on July 7, 2012. On August 9, 2012 the longtime opposition leader Yusuf al-Maqaryaf was elected as the first GNC President. On October 14, 2012 Ali Zeidan was elected as the new prime minister. He and his government were sworn in on November 14, 2012. Zeidan was dismissed by the GNC in March 2014 over security and governance issues. The election of the 60-member Constitutional Commission took place in most of the constituencies on February 20, 2014 and will convene for the first time in al-Beida on April 14, 2014.

[11] Rosan Smits, Floor Janssen, Ivan Briscoe, and Terri Beswick, “Revolution and Its Discontents: State, Factions and Violence in the New Libya,” The Hague, Conflict Research Unit, The Clingendael Institute, 2013,

[12] Isabelle Mandraud, “Libye: Un Etat ​​en Morceaux,” Le Monde, 4 December 2013,

[13] The Ibadis are part of the Kharijites, the third largest Muslim sect besides Sunnis and Shi‘a.

[14] Since summer 2012, the Islamist brigades have destroyed more than 90 Sufi shrines.

[15] As of March 2011 under Mahmoud Jibril and from November 2011 under Abdel Rahim el-Keeb.

[16] Mick Krever, “Libya is Not Failing, PM Zeidan Tells Amanpour,” CNN, 26 September 2013,  

[17] Under the slogan “Yes to the National Army, No to Militias,” there was a fresh outbreak of popular demonstrations beginning in May 2012, particularly in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Darna after the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

[18] Barah Mikail, “Libya’s Turbulent Transition: The Pressing Need for Security Sector Reform,” POMED Policy Brief, 4 December 2013,

[19] Karim Mezran, “A Holistic Approach to Security in Libya,” The Atlantic Council, 10 July 2013,


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