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A land of militias, Libya struggles to build a military

Published: February 24, 2013
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Source: CSM

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.

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 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.

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