What exactly is the European Union doing in Libya? Officially, the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) is a “civilian mission to support the Libyan authorities in improving and developing the security of the country’s borders,” a EU press communiqué said, adding: “In practice, the work is carried out through advising, training and mentoring the Libyan authorities in strengthening the border services.” It also specifies that “the EU civilian mission is a response to an invitation from Libya and its initial mandate is for two years”.
The idea one may get when reading this press communiqué is that at the request of a democratically elected and legitimate government, the EU is conducting a civilian mission destined to train and support a civilian administration that will peacefully ensure border surveillance, just like almost any country in the world.
The reality might be slightly different, because Libya is not just any country. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the territory, putting in doubt claims by Americans, British and French politicians that NATO’s military intervention in 2011 to help rebels oust former leader Muammar Gaddafi was an outstanding example of successful military action. According to the EU General Affairs Council conclusions of Nov. 18, “the security situation in Libya remains a serious challenge.” Many analysts fear Libya is at risk of becoming a failed state.
After 42 years of dictatorship, the country was temporarily governed by the National Transitional Council (NTC), which was dissolved on July 7, 2012 with the General National Congress ’ election. International observers viewed the elections as fair, despite some violence and attacks on polling stations. But the transfer of power to the 200-member Congress marked only the first step of democratic governance. The GNC was mandated to form a government, prepare a new electoral law, and hold new elections.
Since then, Libya’s interim government has been struggling to assert authority and re-establish security; it has proved unable to restrain the warmongering between the myriad of armed groups around the country. NATO helped Libyans remove Gaddafi, but they did little to help secure borders, secure weapons, and rein in the thousands of armed men who fought during the civil war.
Militias on government’s payroll
A patchwork of local militias still dominates large parts of the territory and is spreading anarchy around the capital. On the streets of Tripoli, there are militia checkpoints everywhere, manned by former rebels from different parts of the country, carving out their own little fiefdoms. Popular protests against militiamen have been met with gunfire; 31 demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded as they protested in the eastern town of Benghazi in June. More recently, militias clashed after gunmen from Misrata attacked anti-militia protesters, killing more than 40 people.
Many of the militias have been put on the new regime’s payroll in an apparent effort to purchase loyalty. But in reality, they are loyal mostly to themselves. This was clearly displayed on Oct. 10 when Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped in the heart of the country’s capital by a militia under the government’s pay, who in theory answers to the interior minister and is tasked with fighting crime. Zeidan’s capture underlines the fragility of Libya’s fledgling institutions.
The central government, lacking independent and viable security forces, does not have the ability to rein in the militias, who act as the country’s de facto security forces, in essence running the two security ministries. The Supreme Security Committee is made up of former anti-Gaddafi militiamen nominally under the control of the interior ministry. And last August, Interior Minister Mohammed Khalifa al-Sheikh resigned only three months after taking the post in frustration at being unable to do his job.
The truth is that despite last year’s elections, the country lacks a credible central administration. Nearly two years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, Libya’s ‘democratic transition’ is in chaos. The state apparatus is in reality little more than a loose assemblage of armed groups who pursue their own interests that often run counter to the central government’s agenda.
Given these circumstances, who exactly is the EU training in Libya? According to the EUObserver, the EU ‘civilian’ border mission is “in fact training paramilitary forces” adding: “its main effort is to build the operational level of Libya’s Border Guards and Naval Coast Guards. Both units are part of Libya’s defense ministry” and are “under the direct command of the Libyan army’s chief of staff”.
The term ‘paramilitary’ in itself is not precise, but the fact remains that the patchwork of militias, a lot of which are on the government’s payroll, has completely blurred the distinction between civilian and military. There is a real risk that at least some of the people trained won’t have the cleanest records. And as long as the security situation has not stabilized, there is also a risk in boosting the capabilities of forces whose loyalties may be changing.
Protecting the hydrocarbon sector
Libya’s primary focus on border security arises from the attack Jan. 16 against a gas facility near the Algerian town of In Amenas, where the attackers used Libya as a safe zone from which to launch the attack. For the Libyan government, it is vital to protect its fragile hydrocarbons sector. But the state institutions tasked with protecting it are weak and unreliable. Short of men, the authorities in Tripoli had little choice but to turn yet again to armed groups to ensure security.
A breakdown in business confidence in the oil sector would be disastrous for a country where hydrocarbon production accounts for an estimated 90 percent of government revenues and for all those who hope to benefit from it in one way or another. It is probably no coincidence that EU ministers gave the green light to a border management mission in Libya on Jan. 31, a few days after the attack in In Amenas.
The EU is not the only one active in Libya. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed last week that the Alliance had given a positive response to a Libyan request to help in developing its security structures. “We have received a request from the Libyan government to assist the Libyan authorities in developing their security sector … We have given a positive reply to the Libyan authorities, and will coordinate our assistance with the work of other international organizations and also individual nations”, he said.
Italy, the former colonial power, is also active on security projects. France is training bodyguards. The UK has a defense assistance team in the Libyan defense ministry. And the U.S. is working on a scheme to train Libyan troops and security forces.
Of course, these “training missions” and the like are also a good way of making contacts and building influence in the country. In two or three years, if Libya stabilizes and a strong central government emerges, and if oil production resumes to its full extent, they all want to be among those who were helpful from the start.
But any sort of outside intervention that could be construed as Western interference may provoke a serious backlash from some militias. In other words, the international community must be careful not to reinforce the militia’s grip on the country’s politics.