No. 14: July-December 2015

Imad Mansour

Libya’s Transition

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of Libya’s transition?

Domestic transition in Libya will be a long and arduous process that will involve jockeying and struggling for positions between the many factions that make up the country’s new political landscape. The direction and degree of change places the legitimacy of the transition, and the authority responsible for it, at stake. This is because all Libyan factions agree that a break with the past is necessary, the nature of future changes remains unclear. Most importantly, there are multiple security challenges in Libya’s neighbourhood that will very likely complicate its domestic transition because they will augment opportunities for negative intervention in this transition as well as put to the test whatever security agreements that would be reached. These external security challenges include massive flows of radical ideas, disenfranchised populations many of whom turned mercenaries, and arms. These will drain resources towards military rather than civilian sectors and human development projects, and are likely to continue into the next few years due to the continued negative externalities from structural security dislocations and political rivalries.

I analyze structural factors that will impact the transition in the “new” Libya, both domestically and in the regional context. Domestic institutional structures are important because they condition how the transition in its entirety will develop, and changes there impact what the emerging actors can do in foreign policy. Externally, geographic proximity is key given the emphasis on security challenges facing Libya, and how these are fluid especially over short distances, and are incubated in zones close to the country. I analyze important security dynamics in North Africa, and the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

I believe that the Arab Spring represents a resurfacing of the simple – yet powerful – idea of self-determination to mean societies retaking the initiative to make possible imagining their own futures, and transforming their imagined narratives through inclusionary governing practices. The fall of the old regime empowered the Libyan people; the rupture will – expectedly – have unpredictable domestic outcomes, as it is doing today. With the national narrative changing, political consolidation, state-building, and foreign policy are bound to also change. Continuities in Libya’s external environment are also likely to prevail, at least in the next few years, thus impacting the entire range of transformations in domestic politics and foreign policy.

On the one hand, domestic political transformations are occurring on an almost blank institutional slate, especially in regards to security structures that would have significantly aided in stabilizing the political process – a condition that needs significant time to rectify. Moreover, I do not think that regional security is likely to substantially improve over the next 5 years, given how much of the causes of instability need more time to address; of utmost concern regionally are the proliferation of small arms and movement of mercenaries.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

I think that three structural security dimensions are important to analyze because they are likely to endure for the foreseeable future; these will complicate the transition process for Libya.

Dimension one: domestic institutions

The fragility of domestic governing structures is not a recent reality, and is likely to continue to complicate the transition process. Legacies of Italian colonialism still haunt Libya: it Libya destroyed pre-colonial governing institutions leaving the country to suffer uncertainties about its ability to forge national unity post-independence. After which, the Libyan monarchy (before and after the oil boom of the early 1960s) eliminated the space for political interests to organize, and did not engage in state-building in the sense of creating formal institutions around which society would rally; this combination perpetuated a drive to stabilize governance through balancing networks of family and tribal alliances, practices that were sustained with oil rent. Then, for four decades, the Libyan state was largely an emanation of its leader who systematically kept formal political institutions dismantled, formed a state around his figure, and used a “divide and rule” strategy to weaken any domestic opposition.

The legacy of this intended weakening and fragmentation of national institutions today is that the various visions of Libya’s future (embodied in political and militant actors) do not have a venue in which to organize, and interact today on a backdrop of absent prior record and experience in bargaining. What we observe today in the form of forces on the ground acting with the aim of mutual containment directly derives from the above. Institutional structures are important because they allow actors to formalize their gains and provide information on others’ preferences. I mention this because the actors in Libya today have clearly shown tactical abilities and flexibility to enter into coalitions despite incompatibilities in preferences; for example, the so-called Islamist grouping includes minorities and other elites with no agenda to construct an Islamic state, same as the military campaign to counter them has garnered wide-ranging support. What seems to be missing, therefore, and does not seem likely to emerge in the near future, is a centrifugal momentum and a forum through which to obtain segmented progress, such as a trusted judiciary). (1)

Libya’s institutional transition is connected with the regional and global environments through the purposive act of foreign policy making, and via the spill-overs unto the domestic realm from conflicts and security challenges in proximate geographic regions. The Libyan revolt was onset in regional settings riddled with long-standing rivalries between states and non-states alike, as well as insecurity-provoking mobility of mercenaries, arms, and radical ideologies. Hence, not only is the country likely to develop new friendships, but as well, new enemies and security vulnerabilities.

Hence, the fact that Libya’s external environment suffers from insecurity will surely complicate the process of domestic transition.

Dimension two: North Africa

Libya’s environment is likely to continue to lack political agreement on how to bring stability and control against flows of guns and fighters. For almost three decades, many local communities as well as tribes supplied regimes – especially Qaddafi’s – with cheap labour and mercenary combatants, perpetuating a cycle whereby the poor and marginal were systematically exploited, marginalized, and radicalized. The movement of displaced migrants and trained and armed fighters post-2011 via porous desert borders is feeding into already existing networks of criminality, and drugs and arms traders.(2) Security arrangements to manage these lingering concerns, for example with Niger and Mali (where both have seen military insurrections in the past, and still suffer from grave socio-economic dislocations) but also with others like Algeria, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso do not exist because concerned regimes have been unable to agree on goals and policies for security coordination or economic development.

The rivalry between Algeria and Morocco (with its clearest lingering manifestation in the Western Sahara conflict) is one of several intra-Maghrebi rivalries that had long hindered the creation of collective regional security architecture. Regional rivalries have left legacies of alliances, aborted unity schemes, and personal fiefdom-making, and all were felt post-2011. Current regional politics is tainted by memories of pre-2011 alliances and counter alliances by Morocco, Algeria, and the Polisario, for example, to which are added disenchantment of Libyan transition forces with these parties’ reactions to the Libyan revolt. The political postures of Libya’s neighbours remain uncompromising and diplomacy in a stalemate, thus necessary coordination over movement of individuals, drugs, small arms, and other security concerns that preoccupy Libya are absent.

For Libya, such an environment increases perceptions of mistrust of surrounding states (and non-state actors alike), especially given its security vulnerabilities resulting from inherited weak and fractured national institutions. The cost of monitoring and securing borders (especially from mercenaries and terrorist groups), is bound to increase. There is potential there to help bring stability through projects for socio-economic development, technological assistance to develop the agriculture sector, best practices on monitoring, and training on improving selective dimensions of local governance; these, however, require a modicum of security, in the least.

Dimension three: the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa

Many security problems and structural dislocations in these proximate regions will most likely continue to pose serious challenges to Libyan security and transition (on the short-term at least). There is need here to regulate the movement of individuals and monitor borders. Sub-Saharan Africa already lacks regional security architecture to manage traditional and human security concerns. This weakness greatly stems from compromised domestic security institutions and the politicization of national militaries; since these will not change drastically anytime soon, it remains uncertain what capacities Sub-Saharan African leaders do have to participate in drawing a new collective security architecture that can be of benefit to Libya.

Moreover, relations between the African Union (AU), member states, and Libya come with rather negative historic baggage. The AU and some African leaders were seen by Libyan revolutionaries as having been relatively restrained in coming out in opposition of Qaddafi’s use of force, compared to the more stern tone taken by African voices against NATO airstrikes. (It should be noted, however, that Gabon, Nigeria, and South Africa, all non-permanent UNSC members, voted for the no-fly zone.) Tensions also emerged over mistreatment of Africans in Libya during the revolt. These tensions rest on a history of Qaddafi playing on divisions among African leaders through bankrolling personal agendas which undermined the AU, supporting local patrons, and employing migrant workers. What is important to note here is the fact that most African states already suffer from poor abilities to monitor movement of people and arms, to which is added the absence of a regional collective approach to problem solving; hence when the AU acts, its actions should be analyzed as having come under constraints of available resources and statist logics not collective agreement. This does not mean, however, that observers or the Libyans themselves would necessarily appreciate its formal position on the Libyan revolt and its progress; at some point, the Chairperson of the AU needed to address these views and grievances in public.(3) Relations between the new Libyan regime and Sub-Saharan African states, especially with the AU, will demand delicate diplomacy to at least find a working relationship to meet common interests in the security realm.(4)

For Libya, complicating the search for stability and predictability in the Sahel and Sub Saharan Africa is their falling in the midst of what has been developing as a conflict theatre for middle and major powers – in particular South Africa, China, and the United States. It is uncertain what indigenous capacities will do; for example, what leadership role would South Africa play in organizing the African states and the African Union? And on a related note, what role is AFRICOM (the American Command Center for Africa) going to play or impose, and on that front how is the American-China outbidding going to impact Africa in general. A pattern seems to be major powers (especially the United States and China) finding regional allies in regimes and/or tribal leaders rather than investing in or pushing these leaders to organize into stable and sustainable security organizations. Stresses on Libya’s capacities do not seem to be ending soon.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) – as a collectivity – has vested interests in controlling human trafficking, illegal migration, and small arms smuggling from North Africa. EU active security/military presence post toppling of Qaddafi, however, remains somewhat relatively restrained, and EU member states seem to be uncoordinated on the matter. There will remain in the foreseeable future a gap/contradiction between EU formal positions on human rights and development and individual national interests vis-à-vis Libya’s neighbours on issues such as the lucrative arms trade, uranium mining, and favorable energy exports. But the magnitude of the security instability in Libya and its neighbourhood is in many ways unprecedented, and whether or not this would incentivize a change in European policy towards more action remains to be seen.(6)

My concluding remarks: The fact that Libya’s external environment suffers from insecurity will surely complicate the process of domestic transition. Offsetting challenges to Libya’s transition might be neighbouring regimes themselves focusing on domestic consolidation and veering away from polarizing foreign policies. Important as well would be investments by regional and out-of-region actors interested in regional stability. These include not only focus on military dimensions, but also developmental projects that can help to remedy some of the immediate sources of socio-economic marginality plaguing entire communities across the region. Eliminating societal sources of conflict as well as addressing underlying causes of political rivalries need concerted attention, these are lacking today. Hence, several structural dislocations are bound to continue to complicate Libya’s transition. Meanwhile, Libya and its neighbours will be re-learning to coexist.


  1. (1)See Milad Miftah Al-Hirathi, al-Dawla al-Libiyya Min al-Shakhsana ila al-Maa’sassa (The Libyan State: From Personalization to Institutionalization) (Egypt: al-Maktab al-Arabi lil-Nashr, 2013).

  2. (2) We could track the increasing magnitude of the situation from earlier reports; see Jeremy Keenan, “Libya and the Sahel’s Nightmare Scenario,” Al Jazeera (September 28, 2011):

  3. (3)See statement by Chairperson of the African Union on this matter: Jean Ping, African Union role in the Libyan crisis (2011):

  4. (4)Knox Chitiyo, “Has Africa Lost Libya?” The Guardian (September 18, 2011).

  5. (5)See “European Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons and Explosive Remnants of War,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (2006).

  6. (6)The EU has recently been mulling over a security mission in Libya:                          

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Imad Mansour is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs at Qatar University. His research interests include regional orders, rivalries and protracted conflicts, and foreign policy analysis. He could be reached at (

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