The pitfalls of weaponry: Undermining legitimacy in Libya

Published in North Africa

By Al Jazeera Center for Studies

Introduction: Deteriorating security

The deteriorating security situation currently evident in Libya constitutes the worst failure of the authorities. Despite a steady growth in national security forces, introduced by the Ministry of the Interior, the country has, paradoxically, witnessed further deterioration in security, including bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and smuggling. This is in addition to the extensive clashes occurring between tribes or regions, especially in the western and southern areas of the county.

According to a report by the National Security Committee of the General National Congress, the number of employees of the Ministry of the Interior exceeds 200 000, including more than 130 000 commissioned and non-commissioned officers.[i] However, there are no clear signs of the presence of security, despite this spread of police and traffic officers. With all this immense manpower, the Ministry of the Interior is unable to impose security, as policemen hesitate to execute warrants of arrest and criminal prisoners repeatedly escape. The police argue that their inability to confront suspects is due to the proliferation of arms and that the armed men are daring in using their weapons, even against the police and army.

The current security situation strongly affects the general population, and it both fuels and is fuelled by the political crisis. Some powers consider a stronger Libyan state a threat to their interests, so they use the armed factions to weaken state authority, while other powers believe that a stronger state serves their interests – but they oscillate between building the armed forces of the state and using armed factions to implement their decisions. All of this exacerbates internal conflict and contributes to a significant loss of confidence in the state’s abilities to control security. On the eve of 26 February 2014, after the assassination of a number of policemen and soldiers, crowds of protesters in Benghazi demanded the formation of a protection committee to protect their city. They also demanded that this committee be given full financial support, and that police and other security forces be placed under its authority.

The state’s inability to ensure security, the growth of armed groups that gained legitimacy from their participation in the revolution against Gadhafi, the lack of sufficient legitimate and elected political leadership to spread the state’s authority across the territory, and the growing calls for the kind of regional autonomy that existed in the past, have made it possible for some forces to refuse recognition of the state – even going so far as to call for the use of force against the state, if necessary. Retired General Khalifa Haftar’s call to overthrow the General National Congress after its mandate is over has been the most prominent example of such developments.

Change by force

Many of those concerned with affairs in Libya have commented on the severe polarisation caused by the general’s call, between those who saw it as a revolutionary attempt against the legitimate regime, and his supporters, who claimed Haftar offered a political initiative to get out of the deadlock at the end the National Congress’s mandate.

Haftar’s movement depends on military force to overthrow an elected and legitimate regime and establish a new regime based on armed forces, and, as such, it resembles a military coup. Haftar has rejected this characterisation, and on various occasions has used the terms ‘course correction’, and, on television, ‘an initiative’ (like any other initiative that was launched six months ago) to address the critical situation. However, leaders of military change are unlikely to use the term ‘coup’, as they usually describe their actions as a response to the will and demands of the people.

On the other hand, the appearance of Haftar delivering a statement in his military uniform, on Al Arabiya TV channel on the morning of 7 February 2014, brought to mind the recent leading role played by General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi in the coup in Egypt). Breaking news revealed the control by Haftar’s forces of vital sites in Libya’s capital, Tripoli; information that was not denied by Haftar in any of his following statements. This confirms that Haftar is operating from a revolutionary starting point.

The trend towards change by force is made clear in the statement read by Haftar, which emphasised the end of the role of the General National Congress and the Libyan government and the freezing of the Constitution. The content of the statement showed consistency with steps followed by military coups; it is well known that the first decision of revolutionary movements is to abolish existing authority and the constitutional basis on which it is based and from which it derives its legitimacy.

In a later interview with Free Libya TV, Haftar denied that his scheme was a coup, but he confirmed that he was in contact with soldiers, rebels and tribal components, and that he and his supporters were ready to protect the people in case they decided to overthrow the Congress.

Haftar’s communication with officers, soldiers, rebels, and tribal leaders in the east, west, and south of Libya, indicates that – similar to the scenario with Sisi in Egypt – he betted on a broad popular movement on 7 February, with Haftar and his supporters as its military tool. The broad popular movement would then become the deterring force against armed entities supporting the General National Congress and rejecting the ‘No to Extension’ demonstrations. These entities have pledged to protect ‘legitimacy’ and to respond to any military action against the General National Congress. Haftar has publicly connected his role and the will of people: ‘the ball is now in the range of our people, and we are waiting their response to us; and we are ready’.[ii]

These events must be seen in the context of the joint position assumed by the head of the General National Congress, the prime minister and the chief of staff, all of whom have strongly rejected Haftar’s call – despite evident tensions between the Congress, the joint chiefs of staff and the prime minister. They all agreed to consider Haftar’s movement as a coup attempt, and instructions were issued by the prime minister and chief of staff to arrest him.

Bridges and cracks

It is clear that Haftar’s call to overthrow the General National Congress and Libyan government has not received popular response. In addition, the support from officers and armed groups is still limited and confined to modest numbers in the eastern region and some supporters in the west. Even with increasing public sentiment that a strong personality is required to control the security situation in Libya, recent celebrations of the anniversary of the revolution showed popular attachment to its democratic promises and popular rejection of change by force – particularly by someone who was sharply criticised for his role in the civil war in Chad. Moreover, Haftar was one of the officers who helped Gadhafi gain access to power. But continued political confusion, increasing polarisation between different groupings and discontent with the performance of current leadership may give Haftar’s move some momentum, particularly in view of the wave of rejection against the General National Congress by a section of the elite and by rebels.

On the other hand, the regional orientation in the eastern region may be fuelled by Haftar’s move. Hafter’s reliance on this dimension was made clear in his speech before those who gathered in front of his house on 28 February 2014, when he threatened to arrest members of the General National Congress and the Prime Minister if they arrived at any of the airports of the eastern region.[iii]

The impact of Haftar’s move was also clearly manifested in the antagonism between the two political camps represented by the National Forces Alliance and Justice and Construction Party. On the one hand, the chairman of the Justice and Construction party, Mohamed Sowan, described Haftar’s statement as an attempted ‘coup’, as he announced the cancellation of legitimate institutions. On the other hand, the chairman of the Steering Committee of the National Forces Alliance, Abdul Majid Milaiqtah, considered what Haftar offered to be one of the visions put forward by various parties.[iv] The impact of the two parties’ opposing positions on aggravating polarisation and on weakening efforts to contain Haftar is obvious.

There are also indications that Haftar’s move may consolidate struggles and competition for symbols and influence outside the circle of the democratic process and its electoral mechanisms, a factor that will increase the problems of the transitional period and contribute to its obstruction.

It is not expected that repercussions of Haftar’s move will constitute a direct and strong threat to the General National Congress and the government, or to Libyan political processes. However, similar moves to turn away from the state’s authority could take place, such as recent attempts of some armed factions to export oil without permission from the Libyan government. These moves fall within the context of some powers’ bet on arms rather than acceptance of elections to achieve their interests. However, the Libyan state is persistent in its efforts to impose its authority. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, ousted by the GNC on 11 March through a vote of no-confidence, arrived in Benghazi just two days after Haftar’s threats, without being exposed to any harm. The election of the constituent body of the Libyan constitution, a major factor in the transitional road map, is an additional victory for the state and, undoubtedly, a success in consolidating the legitimacy of elections over resorting to arms and evidence that the nascent Libyan state has managed, despite its weakness, to overcome the forces that want to overthrow it.


[i]‘Evaluating the performance of the Ministry of Interior: A Report of the Committee on Security Affairs in January 2014’.

[ii](الشرقالأوسط،) The Middle East, 23 February 2014.

[iii](الشرقالأوسط،) The Middle East, 2 March 2014.

[iv](موقعالعربية) Arab Location, 15 February 2014.

 * This article was first published by Al Jazeera in Arabic and then translated into English by AMEC

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:06

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