In Libya, Poor Prospects for a Coup

7 MINS READFeb 14, 2014 | 21:06 GMT
Libyan Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani at a Libyan army graduation ceremony in Tripoli on Jan. 16.
Libyan Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thani at a Libyan army graduation ceremony in Tripoli on Jan. 16.

Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a Gadhafi-era military commander who defected from the regime and attempted to aid the Libyan rebels during the 2011 uprisings, said Feb. 14 that Libya's beleaguered transitional political body should cede power because its mandate to rule ended Feb. 7. In his announcement on a Saudi-backed television channel, he ordered the General National Congress to step down in favor of fresh elections and claimed that Libyan army troops were in the streets of the capital. This statement was later proved false as local news stations went to the congress and other government buildings in Tripoli and found lawmakers, including the prime minister and the president, working as usual.

Though Prime Minister Ali Zeidan referred to the episode as "laughable," this scenario underscores the often outwardly precarious situation facing Libya's political transition and its domestic stability now more than two years since the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Libya is indeed plagued by a stalled political transition process and a proliferation of armed groups vying to influence the formation of an eventual permanent government. But unlike in Egypt or Algeria — other countries in the region with a tradition of strong military influence in domestic politics — Libya's fledgling military lacks both the physical presence and the institutional legitimacy to either meaningfully challenge the government or to successfully stabilize the anemic authority of the central government by ruling in its stead.

Though Hifter's call for a coup did not prove to be an immediate threat to the current Libyan government, the General National Congress does face an uphill battle for successfully holding constituent assembly elections and pushing the country toward a more permanent form of governance under the framework of a new constitution. The transitional process since the fall of Gadhafi has been beset with a number of difficulties: a proliferation of armed groups and militias that claim oversight over the government, weak control of national borders and Libya's vast desert territories and persistent concerns over the numbers of militants entering the country. These problems have led to fluctuating oil production and ongoing challenges to the central government's attempts to implement policies and hold municipal and national elections that would replace the myriad forms of local governance, tribal authorities and rising militia strongmen with democratic institutions.

In Egypt, the military grew into the most powerful state institution, imposing a top-down order to Egyptian governance. It became the ultimate arbiter of political disputes and the guarantor of the state's domestic and international obligations. With 80 million people living in Egypt, Cairo faces the daunting task of governing the Middle East's largest population, the vast majority of whom are densely settled along the banks of the Nile River. In this situation, the Egyptian military has been well suited to rule, with its organizational capabilities, available manpower and relative popularity among the Egyptian people.

Libya's population is the smallest of the North African states at approximately 6.5 million people, spread primarily along the coast or in smaller pockets within the Libyan desert.

Gadhafi's Libya is markedly different. Its population is the smallest of the North African states at approximately 6.5 million. Spread primarily along the coast or in various smaller pockets within the Libyan desert, there is no unifying geographic feature to define Libyan society such as Egypt's Nile or the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria. Therefore, Libyan society has maintained its strong tribal identities and affiliations.

Rather than rule only through a crushing concentration of force wielded by a loyal army, Gadhafi maintained a delicate balancing act between Libya's opposing regions and local tribal competitions through his own patronage network that tied tribal networks into the regime. The People's Militia — armed and loosely trained tribal networks — also formed a significant number of the pre-revolutionary Libyan armed forces. Because Gadhafi took power through a military coup, as he grew older and increasingly paranoid he sought to limit the military's ability to concentrate force outside his control and thereby threaten his ability to rule the country.

In a bizarre twist of fate, post-Gadhafi Libya has in some instances seen the fruition of the previous dictator's supposed plans for the country — specifically, the proliferation of local militias keeping in check the central government's ability to rule through force or unpopular decree. Though Gadhafi never intended for public opposition to rise up and depose him, or to effectively stall the government's ability to function, the rise of Libya's armed groups has underscored a startling truth for the General National Congress and Libya's foreign observers: The Libyan military is one of the most dysfunctional and poorly organized institutions within the Libyan state. Competitions for power within the congress itself, a distrust of the lingering Gadhafi-era military leadership, a well-documented inability to delineate authority and a lack of clear communication have all hampered the military's ability to secure the country or push back against militia posturing.

The Libyan army suffered from large-scale defections and the loss of weapons, equipment and materiel following the 2011 revolution. The Libyan militias' refusal to disarm has created a scenario in which the military is no longer the strongest or most capable projector of force in the country. Local militia groups, such as those from Zentan or various pro-government militias of varying degrees of loyalty and dependability, support the national army in almost all of its operations in the country. Furthermore, there is still strong popular resistance to the formation of another strongman government rising in Tripoli, despite frustrations with the slow pace of change since the fall of Gadhafi.

Hifter's statement that the General National Congress should resign occurred against a backdrop of voices demanding that the congress step down in favor of another governmental body ahead of the planned constitutional drafting process. Though Hifter's threats of a coup proved false, his sentiments correspond with those of many people in Libya who would like to see the General National Congress step aside and allow another group — one that may be more amenable to the changes they would like to see in the constitution — to come to power and oversee the drafting of Libya's Constitution. However, Hifter is an interesting person to issue such a statement. A figure in Gadhafi's military structure, he defected nearly 20 years before Gadhafi fell, returning in Libya in 2011 to aid the rebellion. Hifter's role as a military commander during the rebellion was quickly ended over suspicions that he had ties to the CIA, and Hifter has lingered ever since with an unclear role in the current military structure and a poor record of military command or loyalty among troops.

The fact remains that Libya's army is demoralized, weak and out-armed by the various militias and armed groups that have risen to fill the void of the central government throughout Libyan territory. Even if a faction of the military could rise up and overthrow the current government, it would be unable to arbitrate between the various militias and political factions that would vie to replace the General National Congress. If it sought to hold power, the military would almost assuredly risk another civil war as the country's tens of thousands of revolutionaries moved to prevent another unelected dictatorship in Tripoli.

Geographic realities also severely impede the army's reach. The army functions mostly as the country's largest militia, and it can reliably secure and protect only Tripoli and its immediate environs. The country's protracted stalemate, already often beset with violence, would further descend into chaos. For these reasons — internal dysfunction, poor communication and a lack of institutional power — a rise of the Libyan military similar to that in Algeria or Egypt is unlikely, and even if it were to happen, there is little chance that it would lead to greater stability.

As the country heads shakily into the next period of transition, stakeholders from the various elements of Libyan society will all seek to pressure the General National Congress, the constitutional commission and the eventual permanent government to make sure that their interests are safeguarded and guaranteed within the structure of the constitution. While the militias have weapons, fighters and a key method of pressuring the central state — shutting off vital energy flows — the military is less agile or capable. In its inability to secure and support the wavering transitional government, Libya's military has already, albeit unintentionally, undermined the capabilities of Libya's civilian leadership.

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