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A land of militias, Libya struggles to build a military

The Libyan government wants a professional standing army, but the many militias still on the streets are too good at their job to be replaced with a fledgling, inexperienced military.

By Maggie FickCorrespondent / February 24, 2013

Libyan National Congress President Mohammed Magarief (second from r.) shakes hands with officers of the Libyan National Army during a graduation ceremony for students of military academies in Tripoli Feb. 20.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

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Tripoli, Libya

In the seventeen months since Muammar Qaddafi was killed, Libya has made building an army a top national priority. But progress toward achieving this goal has been slow at best, with an official admitting that he does not even know how many soldiers are currently in the Army.

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Public statements by senior Libyan leaders suggest that there is little disagreement over the notion that the country desperately needs a functioning military to ensure a peaceful transition – and a clean break from the Qaddafi legacy of a weak Army dwarfed by powerful brigades loyal to the autocrat’s sons. However, political will alone hasn't been enough to effect serious reforms. 

The decrepit, near nonexistent, state of the Army two years after Libyans rose up against Mr. Qaddafi is a symbol of the interim government’s failure to begin developing institutions to guide Libya’s path toward a democratic state. The hurdles to building an army reflect the broader struggles facing Libya as it seeks to define its national identity in the wake of 42 years of a regime based solely on the whims of one man. 

Over the past year, Libyan authorities have largely entrusted the revolutionaries who overthrew Qaddafi with the task of maintaining security across the country, punting on the responsibility of building new army and police forces. Militia fighters in a rainbow of uniforms – not soldiers or police officers – remain the predominant public face of security in Tripoli and in other cities and towns throughout the country.

Absent a strong central command to manage the conduct of the thousands of local militias participating in security provision, many of the militias that overthrew Qaddafi remain intact and continue to operate outside the confines of law.  

The “revolutionary legitimacy” of the local brigade members and their leaders far outweighs that of Qaddafi-era Army officials.

In some cases, the government has authorized the creation of semi-formal umbrella groups for the militias like the Libyan Shield Forces; in others, local militias simply govern themselves. 

'In name only'

When Prime Minister Ali Zeidan took office last October, he declared that building professional army and police forces was his highest priority. But in the case of the Army in particular, this goal remains out of reach.

Some Libyans describe it as existing “in name only.” Many soldiers who served during Qaddafi’s rule and remained on the autocrat’s side during the 2011 uprising either were killed, fled the country, or have attempted to conceal their past loyalties in order to avoid persecution.

This raises the question of who exactly remains in the Army. When asked to estimate how many soldiers there are, Giuma Sayeh, the head of the defense committee for the temporary General National Congress elected in July told The Christian Science Monitor he had “no idea.”

Meanwhile, militia fighters remain as well armed as soldiers. Research by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey found that in Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city and the scene of some of the fiercest battles of the 2011 uprising turned civil war, revolutionary brigades control more than 90 percent of the city’s weapons.

"The primary security challenge facing Libya is how to transform a decentralized revolutionary force – which is made up of hundreds if not thousands of separate units – into state security structures that have democratic checks and balances,” says Brian McQuinn, an Oxford University doctoral student who has been studying Libyan armed groups since Qaddafi’s fall and is the author of a recent Small Arms Survey report on the same topic. 

Mr. McQuinn says that Libyan leaders are grappling with the need to build a new national Army while also recognizing the importance of accommodating the many local groups of revolutionary fighters "who sacrificed a great deal."

As for the efficacy of the current security arrangements – overlapping and parallel forces operating independently of each other – McQuinn expressed a widely held view: "What is the alternative at this point?"

Impossible task

Army Chief of Staff Yussef al-Mangush, a former colonel in Qaddafi’s Army who retired from the Army just before the revolution began, was appointed by the interim cabinet early last year and is now facing mounting opposition from GNC members.

“We are trying to nominate another chief of staff,” Mr. Sayeh said.

"He has tried to do something, but he is not capable because he is weak," he added, criticizing his management skills but stopping short of any comments about the colonel’s past role in Qaddafi’s regime.

Mangush is in the unfortunate position of being increasingly unpopular among parliamentarians for his failure to make quick progress, while at the same time being tasked by the government with an ever-growing raft of responsibilities.

"People are calling for his dismissal but he keeps getting handed more responsibilities," says a Western official in Libya who spoke on condition of anonymity.  "Land, air, naval forces, border security. In theory he is powerful, but he is working with the shells of institutions."

Analysts say that aside from facing the tall task of rebuilding these institutions, Mangush is also grappling with the demands of powerful local militia commanders, few of whom are interested in ceding power to his authority.

Who can serve?

With Libya focused on building new institutions, both in the security sector and elsewhere, and with the constitution-drafting process yet to begin, the question of who will be permitted to lead this process is being decided by the congress. In Tripoli this week, the 200-member General National Congress is debating a draft of the Political Isolation Law, which will specify which Libyan citizens are ineligible to run for political office based on their past service of the Qaddafi government over 42 years.

Activists say the law is too expansive and will prevent many Libyans who had no choice but to serve in the government from playing a role in the building of the new state.

“We have educated people from the [former] Navy, Army, and Air Force,” says Sayeh. “To be honest, some were with Qaddafi and they escaped; they are now outside the country. But some [from the former Army] were clearly against Qaddafi under the table,” he says, expressing concern that experienced officers who could help lead the new armed forces would be prevented from doing so if the bill passes.

Revolutionaries who are still manning checkpoints and performing security duties on behalf of the state “should go back to their jobs or be trained in military academies," he says.

A government program offering such choices to the tens of thousands of young Libyans who played roles in the revolution could be an appealing alternative to holding on to their weapons and their positions of local power.

Until such a program is created, however, the structure of security forces in Libya may continue to model that of the highly decentralized revolution. 

The current reality is a glaring reminder that although Libyans rose up in unison to bring down Qaddafi, there is less unity of purpose when it comes to the hard work of managing the country while it remains awash in arms and rife with militias that are not eager to return to civilian life.

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