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

The Libyan uprising launched almost three years ago has yet to produce the promised transition to a new post-Qaddafi political order. The moment of unity generated by toppling the tyrant has fragmented due to the fact that, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, no state apparatus existed to take over from the victorious rebels. Transitional authorities under the National Transitional Council (NTC, March 2011-August 2012) were too weak to govern and acquire legitimacy. Their successor 200-member constituent assembly, the General National Congress (GNC) elected in July 2012, has not fared much better due to dysfunctional politics, factional disputes, pervasive distrust, a legacy of institutional destruction, and sporadic resistance by former members and supporters of the toppled regime, as well as historical, regional, and tribal cleavages.

Outbursts of violence regularly threaten a precarious facade of stability. Militias have proliferated, numbering almost 300 since they took de facto control of some parts of the country after eliminating Qaddafi. Thus the new Libyan government continually struggles to acquire a legitimate monopoly of the means of force—the very definition of a “state” and an essential condition of governance. With only rudimentary and untrained army and police forces, the government has had to rely on various militias to handle internal and external security, often becoming beholden to the militias’ demands. In turn, these militias have been challenged by other militias serving narrow local, ideological, tribal, and even family interests.

The continued existence of the GNC and its mandate to manage the country’s transition to constitutional rule, along with a relatively free media and emerging civil society organizations, do project some stability and democratic progress. This is overshadowed, however, by a separatist or federalist movement in Cyrenaica with an exclusive claim to the region’s oil resources, clashes among traditional tribal groups, strong assertions of local autonomy in some cities and towns, and a decision-making paralysis on the part of fragile “central” authorities. As a result, policies that may be slowly agreed upon in the GNC are hardly implemented. After four decades of Qaddafi’s “stateless” iron rule and three years of freedom, the state has not yet returned.

The most destabilizing factor in today’s Libya is the citizenry’s worsening insecurity fueled by daily low-level violence. This includes frequent murders in Benghazi, Darnah, and Sabha, and to a lesser extent in Tripoli, as well as random attacks on public buildings, including army and air force bases, and looting. At the time of writing in early 2014, it was reported that the deputy minister of industry, Hassan al-Droui, was assassinated in his hometown of Surt near Misurata, which was the first killing of a member of the transitional government. Similarly, the self-styled “prime minister” of the “Cyrenaican government,” Abdraba Abdulhameed al-Barasi, barely survived an assassination attempt in mid-January. In the south, around Sabha in the Fezzan, close to cross border smuggling routes between Chad and Niger, intermittent clashes between the Tabu and Awlad Suleiman tribes left scores dead and wounded. To contain the violence, the government called in the army, air force, and the strong militias from Zintan (southeast of Tripoli) and declared a state of emergency or “high alert.” The outcome of this latest in a series of clashes is still uncertain. The Libya Herald has been reporting a trend of “murderous attacks in Benghazi” since November 2013, such as the killing of army officers and security personnel, confirming in its January editions more assassinations as “violence continues.”[1]

The government has attempted to provide security by combining regular police and army units with loyal militias in two organizations, the Libya Shield (LS of the Ministry of Defense) and the Supreme Security Committee (SSC of the Ministry of Interior). These coexist with the (pro-Islamist) Libyan Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) and the militias of the Tripoli and Misurata Military Zones under their respective local councils. Other local councils are reported to handle some security assignments. A military governor was appointed to improve security in Benghazi, setting up checkpoints and cameras around the city. In addition, the Warriors Affairs Commission for Rehabilitation and Development was set up to register and convert thousands of rebels into disarmed ordinary civilians and eventually deploy some into army and police units. The latter are supposed to merge into a broader “Libya General Purpose Force,” Libya’s new military that is being trained by the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Italy.

These organizations have generally been ineffective. Ordinary Libyans seem to have become resigned to the disarray in public security, only occasionally protesting the uncertainties and dangers they face, because there can be nothing worse than the previous Qaddafi regime. But last November, in Tripoli’s Gargour district, a major clash between (Misurata) militias and protesters who demanded their expulsion resulted in at least 46 civilians dead and over 500 wounded. The protesters prevailed after the intervention of the national army and police, and this was a boon for law and order. However, as the militias fled, “it [appeared that they] may be supplanted by an even more fractious collection of armed groups, including militias representing tribal and clan allegiances that tear at the tenuous sense of common citizenship.”[2] Kinship loyalties have now reinforced a primordial sense of parochial solidarity, eroding the initial level of common trust generated by the uprising.

Sources of Insecurity

1.     The uprising lifted the lid on Qaddafi’s pervasive and oppressive security apparatus, thereby unleashing the power and claims of the victorious militias but also constraining the reach of an emerging weak national government and contributing to conflict and collaboration with elected authorities as well as among Libyans.

2.     The Qaddafi regime had caused a split in the population between those who supported it, participated in its nefarious activities, and benefited from its extensive patronage versus those who were marginalized or withheld support. After their victory, separate rebel constituencies and their militias staked their repressed claims to the spoils from which they were previously excluded. They also sought to punish Qaddafi’s former security henchmen and other beneficiaries of the regime, including experienced former government officials who had sustained or even tried to reform Qaddafi’s system from within. Militias sought the removal of these former technocrats from any public role by forcing the GNC to pass a “political isolation law,” with the consequent loss of the technocrats’ much-needed expertise in governance. This has led to more divisiveness and insecurity by casting different groups as winners or losers.

3.     In the absence of personal security in post-Qaddafi Libya, more local militias have been formed and more attempts made to “settle accounts” by kidnapping or killing both real and suspected rivals. The son of Libya’s defense minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, was held captive for four months and then released, but a kidnapped local councilor from Janzur has not returned. Even Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped by a militia and later released. In mid-January 2014, militias staged an armed attack on the GNC chamber in order to force a no-confidence vote regarding the prime minister—a flagrant show of distrust, contempt of government, and a renewed local attempt to dictate terms to the GNC. Even more pronounced is the current attempt in Cyrenaica by Ibrahim Jathran, a self-proclaimed leader of Cyrenaican separatists, to wrest control of the oil in the region and export it independently. Other manifestations of localism include the post-Qaddafi hyperactivity of ethnic groups such as the Tabu tribes in the south and the Berbers in the West, as well as of ideological groups, moderate and extreme, such as the Islamist Ansar al-Shariah, believed to be involved in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in September 2012. There is, however, a more constructive side to localism that has produced a large number of civil society organizations led by young Libyans that are dedicated to promoting reconciliation, democracy, and national cohesiveness.

Civilianizing Security

The following approach for civilianizing Libya’s security is based on three assumptions:

First, despite regional rivalries and current divisiveness, there are no major schisms brewing in Libyan society today. Instead, an overarching Libyan Muslim identity reduces the chance of civil war and could potentially enable Libyans to gradually build a new and more liberal political order.

Second, it appears that, presently, building a centralized unitary state is neither feasible nor a priority. The reality on the ground suggests an acceptance of localism within a decentralized state framework due to the nation’s small population of six million, vast distances between major population centers, divergent historical and tribal traditions in the country’s three regions, and a four-decade experience of bypassing or rejecting central authority institutions.

Third, while the deteriorating security situation challenges the existence of a “state,” it is also an opportunity to create a new regional security sector that, bolstered by robust intelligence support, can meet citizen security needs promptly and effectively.

This author envisages that civilianizing security in Libya at this time would involve a number of steps that can be implemented in two phases over a five-year period.

Phase One

The first phase would consist of the following four steps that should be designed to include verifiable benchmarks to monitor progress and provide triggers for proceeding to the next phase:

1.     Disarming the militias by offering monetary incentives consisting of an initial lump sum payment for collected weapons as well as monthly payments in return for consistent compliance. In the past, Qaddafi’s successful negotiations that neutralized his Islamic opposition (LIGF) may offer relevant lessons. Saudi experiments using such incentives to persuade extremists to surrender their weapons may also yield useful tips.

2.     Establishing special elite forces at the national and regional levels (integrating vetted militia members as well as police and army personnel drawn from across regional, tribal, and ideological lines) to replace security units serving local councils and deploying them as general security services around the country. Operationally, these special forces would report to a joint committee of military and civilian personnel from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. Constitutionally and institutionally, an independent security board would be established in parliament with exclusive oversight responsibilities over security services. The board would review the security situation in Libya, report to parliament biannually, and disclose findings to the public on an annual basis.       

3.     Conducting two separate but parallel public campaigns: one aimed at reconciliation with former supporters of the Qaddafi regime nationwide (thereby softening the effects of the political isolation law) and the other aimed at local mediation among rival tribes and regional leaders. Similar mediation efforts have already shown positive results among Kufra tribes in the southeast and among tribes in the northwest. An atmosphere of reconciliation also produced the election of the first four mayors in functioning municipal councils. Coordinated at the regional level by “wise” and nonpartisan public figures, these campaigns can be carried out by civil society organizations through selected NGOs such as the H2O Team and Bokra, which have already demonstrated innovative and successful approaches to conflict resolution.[3]

4.     Preparing and initiating a fair revenue-sharing scheme between the national government and the three regional administrations in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and the Fezzan. This plan would be based on oil revenues, consistent with the country’s overall economic priorities, and it would neutralize separatist initiatives, such as the aforementioned one spearheaded by Ibrahim Jathran. Revenue allocation to municipals councils would follow from the budgets of these three regional administrations. The implementation of this scheme could be gradual as all involved entities acquire the technical capacities necessary to administer their fiscal responsibilities in an efficient and transparent manner. Once agreed upon, this scheme should help defuse current tensions over the ownership of oil resources and strengthen nation building, including the institutionalization of a reformed security sector.

Phase Two

This phase can begin at any time parallel to phase one, but would be most effective when triggered by the achievement of benchmarks under phase one to signal restored government credibility, trust, and executive capacity within a democratic framework. Essentially, it involves an internal Libyan adaptation of standard security sector reforms as succinctly formulated by the U.S. Institute of Peace:

Security sector reform is the set of policies, plans, programs, and activities that a government undertakes to improve the way it provides safety, security and justice. Developing an integrated system of actors, institutions and oversight bodies is the only mechanism through which the government can provide security. All security forces must always be subordinate to and act at the direction of a legitimate civilian authority.[4]

It is most important that any adaptation to the Libyan environment must be rooted in political realities, recalling how similar recent reforms in Tunisia and Egypt stalled for lack of cooperation or passivity on the part of various stakeholders. Security reform in Libya may be best approached as a bottom-up process to be implemented at the regional and local levels and coordinated with national police, military, and civilian authorities. The mechanics of security reform may include a variation on those outlined in the Carnegie paper, “Building Libya’s Security Sector.”[5]

As Libya muddles through its transition to a better future, violence continues to erupt daily, especially in the Benghazi area. However, the democratization show goes on, and a peaceful reshuffle of the Zeidan-led cabinet is taking place as of late January. This change was accompanied by the GNC’s announcement that “Congress has voted for plans committing it to transfer power to a newly elected legislature on 24 December 2014. The roadmap rests on the condition that the new constitution is drafted and ratified by referendum before that.”[6]

All of this rests on the condition that the security issue will be on the way to resolution through a process of “civilianization.”

[1] Noora Ibrahim, “More Murderous Attacks in Benghazi,” Libya Herald, 29 December 2013,; “Violence Continues in Benghazi,” Libya Herald, 11 January 2014,

[2] David Kirkpatrick, “Libya Militias Fleeing Cities, Leaving Chaos,” New York Times, 20 December 2013,

[3] Ayat Mneina, “Political Participation in Libya: Current Challenges and Prospects for the Future,” Fikra Forum, 10 October 12013,

[4] United States Institute of Peace, Legitimate State Monopoly over the Means of Violence,

[5] Frederic Wehrey and Peter Cole, “Building Libya’s Security Sector,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 6 August 2013,

[6] Ahmed Elumami, “Congress Plans to Quit by 24 December,” Libya Herald, 22 January 2014,


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