Who’s Really In Control of Libya’s Guns?

Who’s Really In Control of Libya’s Guns?

More than a thousand armed vehicles filled with troops arrived in Tripoli last week. The forces were ordered into the Libyan capital by Nuri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), signaling the start of a major push to secure the city in light of the worsening security situation.

The troops, who are members of Libya Shield (a security force designed to bring Libya’s fractious militias into a single force under government control), vowed support for the new chief of staff’s initiatives to improve security in the cities and rebuild a strong national army. At first glance this would seem to be good news. In reality, though, Libya now finds itself with four armies, all sanctioned by the government and nominally under government control. In fact, however, all of them have conflicting agendas.

The first army is commanded by the army chief of staff. It consists of Libya Shield militias, and its power base is in Misrata. The second is subordinate to the minister of defense. Established by former minister Osama al-Juwali, its power base is in Zintan, and it controls some of the most powerful militias in Tripoli. The third is the Border Control Army. It has its own commander and budget and is resisting any calls to integrate under the chief of staff’s command, insisting on its autonomy. The fourth force is the Barqa Army, viewed by many as the armed wing of the Cyrenaica Council, which is calling for autonomy for the country’s oil-rich east. Attempts by the government to tame these factions have met with mixed success. Each of these groups views the others with suspicion, and there have been no serious efforts to coordinate their efforts.

The deployment of Libya Shield forces comes as violence in Libya is escalating. Tripoli and its surrounding areas have experienced a number of recent attacks on military installations that saw weapons and military equipment stolen by armed groups. Some commentators say that the attacks revealed a high degree of coordination. Alarms were raised by the GNC president, who implied that a coup against the GNC was in the offing. GNC officials let it be known that the coup was likely to be orchestrated and staged by remnants of Qaddafi’s army and their sympathizers, in emulation of last month’s overthrow of President Morsy in Egypt. Abusahmain was nominated and supported for the GNC presidency by the Islamist blocs within the legislature after Mohamed Magariaf resigned due to the controversial political isolation law. The law was pushed through by the Islamists with the help of Libya Shield militias that besieged government ministries and pressured politicians to pass the law (yes, the same Libya Shield that is now being used to secure Tripoli). In this respect, the deployment of Libya Shield forces can be seen as a pre-emptive attempt to safeguard the Islamists’ influence and control over the capital Tripoli with the help of their allies in Misrata.

The decision to deploy Libya Shield forces in Tripoli was taken over the Eid al-Fitr holidays. GNC President Abu Sahmain took the decision without consultation with the legislature or the government, which has spooked some lawmakers and officials. Now, according to official GNC spokesman Omar Hmaidan, some lawmakers are insisting that Abusahmain submit to questioning about his actions. Hmaidan went so far as to declare the GNC president as unconstitutional and illegitimate. The decision by Abusahmain comes after increasing calls for the dismissal of the GNC and the dissolution of political parties, due to the widely held view that political infighting between political parties is the main reason for polarization and instability in the country.

The deployment of the Libya Shield forces in Tripoli underlines the fragile security situation in the country and the increasing polarization among political factions. It also shows how the different factions are using armed groups to protect their political interests in the face of growing instability and the potential for the collapse of the post-revolutionary political establishment. Many Libyans do indeed blame political infighting within GNC for the deteriorating security situation and the heightening of tensions.

Most Libyans have clearly expressed their opposition to the existence of armed militias and refuse to accept anything short of a national army and police force. Still, the deteriorating security situation has warranted urgent measures to establish control by relying on Libya Shield militias. It’s entirely possible, though, that these militias could turn their back on the government, either to ask for more money or to pressure the government into adopting certain laws that benefit them and their political backers. The reliance of militias will also continue to erode Libya’s finances through the huge payouts given to the militia members and delay any real effort to rebuild Libya’s security and defense sectors.

In post-revolution Libya, the politicians are playing a dangerous game by politicizing the security establishment. Right now security institutions in the country are plagued by factionalism and political polarization. Given the widening regional and political mistrust, it’s hard to see how the existing security and defense forces can ever be developed into a viable national force.