Introduction to the Libyan Army: Can the Armed Forces Sustain, Overrule, or Survive Qadhafi?

This Middle East Insight is available for download: Germanos Insight 9

By Camille Germanos

Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi has been the ruler of Libya for the last 42 years, sitting on the largest oil reserves in Africa and ruling one of the most resource-rich countries in the world with an iron hand.  Libya’s public image and governmental institutions, immortalized in his political manifesto The Green Book, are the creations of the socio-political mind of Qadhafi, the “Guide of the Revolution.” Today he is at war against his own population and is seemingly harder to push out than Hosni Mubarak or Zein El Abadine Ben Ali, the now-deposed leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. One immediate consequence of the upheaval is the rise of petrol prices, a development that seems to shake public opinion and consciousness even more than the images of men slaughtered in the streets of Al Bayda and Benghazi.

Political analysts are concerned with the future of the country, and predictions range from an Egyptian military intervention, a multilateral or American intervention in accordance with recent statements from the UN Security Council and President Obama, or an endless civil war between the Tripolitanian regime and the liberated people of Cyrenaica the region which sits atop significant petrol resources[1]. Others try to anticipate what may come after Qadhafi. One key question persists: is a military takeover possible?

Little is known about the representation of Libya’s various social groupings in the Security and Defense apparatus, especially considering that the Ministry of Defense ceased to exist in 1991. Some publications indicate complicated imbrications between the Army, the “People’s Militia”, the “Navy”, the “Air force”, and the intelligence services, all of which are further monitored by independent agencies.

The Army itself is only a small part of the Libyan military forces and entrenched paramilitary legions. Libyan civilian society has indeed been deeply militarized since 1984, following the implementation in 1978 of mandatory military service (average service is three years). That means that over three hundred thousand people, or 20% of the population, belong to the paramilitary generation. They have received regular military training and been initiated into the official People’s Militia, the mission of which is to defend regional clusters run by local military commanders. This paramilitary subdivision of the territory has been implemented alongside administrative decentralization.

This People’s Militia is distinct from the police, who fall under the Ministry of Interior. It is actually an autonomous defense body among others, namely the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. Yet these latter three bodies have been weakening due to reduced weaponry provisions ever since UN sanctions were imposed on Libya in 1992 and more so since Libya stopped developing its chemical and mass destruction arms programs. In 1995 the Army was divided into seven military districts, and five presidential guard units have been added since. While the Naval forces fall under a single command, mainly based in Tripoli, it seems to comprise many subcontractors from the former Yugoslavia (mostly Serbia), South Africa, and North Korea, who provide piloting and maintenance service.  Not only did Qadhafi multiply the armed bodies of his society, but he also divided them into units that would struggle to join forces.

Further to this military fragmentation, Qadhafi’s regime has relied on extreme intelligence activity under Internal Security, partitioned into the following security agencies:

  1. The Guide’s Intelligence Bureau, located in Tripoli
  2. The Libyan Intelligence Service, for internal and foreign security
  3. The Military Intelligence, the high command of the military armed forces
  4. The Security Battalions, responsible for the regime’s security in the cities
  5. The Revolutionary Guard, directly controlled by Qadhafi’s tribe since 1993
Interior Ministry

Internal Security

Armed Forces

The police

The Guide’s intelligence Bureau

The People’s Militia

The Libyan Intelligence Service

The Army (7 military districts, 5 presidential guards)

The Military Intelligence (Head of the military armed forces)

The Navy

The Revolutionary Guard

The Air Forces

This table illustrates the distribution of defense, police, and intelligence services in Libya.

Although the Libyan constitution bans the formation of political parties (being major obstacles to “direct democracy”), and thus has thwarted any political opposition, it is reported that since 2002 the Libyan intelligence services methods have been restructured to focus more directly on opposition groups. Dissidents overseas have also been targeted by Qadhafi, who began in the 1990s to call for the death of his opponents abroad (i.e. Mansour Kikhya’s disappearance from Cairo in December 1993). Such internal security mechanisms and the fear of hard retribution have largely silenced the opposition. Yet resentment towards the regime also emanates from among military officers. Since 1975, at least five coup attempts have been reported, leading to the arrest and murder of an undisclosed number of officers and civilians.

In addition to maintaining an intensive security apparatus and eliminating rivals, Qadhafi has constantly shifted his senior military officers around to prevent them from developing unified units capable of defying the regime. Moreover, it seems he has put members of his tribe into key posts, distributing some of his wealth and power among them and aligning them against other tribes. It was in this context that Qadhafi’s son Saif Al Islam warned Libyans last week of the threat of civil war if they do not comply with the regime.

Taken together, these methods basically leave Libya without a military corpus capable of taking over the dissidence against the dictator, as was the case in neighboring Egypt. Still, one possibility remains and that would be found among heretofore silent dissidents in Qadhafi’s inner circle. The British are already in touch with the heads of some Libyan special forces trained in 2009 by the British Special Air Services (SAS). Other top security figures have been in contact with the CIA since the lifting of UN sanctions against Libya, such as Musa Kusa who was the head of the Libyan Security Organization. Stratfor, a security-consulting firm, reported a coordination meeting held among military generals concomitant to the meeting of the UN Security Council on 22 February. Though formerly close to Qadhafi since the 1969 revolution, the report indicates that these generals may have plans for a military takeover.

Scholars treating Libya’s social and political structures have long grappled with the matter of tribal influence. Many have come to believe that tribal loyalty supersedes institutional hierarchy; tribal dissidence against Qadhafi, spurred by calls to disobey him, would then play in favor of the regime’s toppling. Alia Brahimi, head of the North Africa Program at the London School of Economics, contends that the tribal system will hold the balance of power, rather than the military, in a post-Qadhafi Libya. Qadhafi surely had this notion in mind when militarizing broad swathes of the population.

Yet it is not given that the Army will simply wither away.  After all, following decades of attempts to de-institutionalize Libya, it is the Army that may remain the only institutional structure still standing after the fall of the regime. The ultimate question that may remain unanswered is how global political consciousness watched Libyans endure this delirious political system until this day.

Camille Germanos is a research associate at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed here are her own


[1] About six million Libyans live between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica historical provinces. These citizens are concentrated in thirty-five agglomerations, and distributed quite evenly between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The biggest population concentrations are in Tripoli (1,200.000=1/6population), on the Mediterranean coast near by Tunisia, and part of Tripolitania historical province, in Benghazi (697 000 people= 1/12) and part of Cyrenaica historical province, in Misrate near Tripoli (451000), and El Bayda (310,000) in Cyrenaica (Map1).


A Grim Year for the Middle East

For internal circulation
4 Jan 10
The furore after polls in Iran, the snub delivered to America by Israel and the continuing war in Iraq hint at a new year full of problems from the past

By Patrick Seale

The year 2009, which began with Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, has been one of great torment and much misery in the Middle East. Even the ascent last January of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring a semblance of peace to a profoundly troubled region.

At first, Obama’s arrival seemed like a gift from paradise. Here was a highly unusual, brilliantly eloquent leader who promised to reinvent America, and heal the ravages of the Bush years. But the immense hopes he aroused — especially in the Arab and Muslim world — have not yet been fully realised. But one must not despair: Obama’s mandate still has three years to run.

In spite of Obama’s efforts so far, the situation remains unsettled and potentially explosive in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bearing witness to the enduring nature of the crises in these countries, but also to the inability of an enfeebled US to impose its will.

For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet empire that followed, the US seemed to be the world’s unchallenged superpower, able to dictate terms to friends and enemies alike. One of the striking lessons of 2009 is how fast this supremacy has been eroded.

Several factors have contributed to it. The following must be counted among them: the enraged response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks; the lamentable influence of pro-Israeli neo-cons on America’s Middle East policy; the catastrophic Iraq war; the ill-judged “Global War on Terror”, widely seen as a war on Islam; the grave international financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s unbridled greed; and, not least, the rise of China — a shift in the global balance of power, which the splendour of the Beijing Olympic Games brought home by television to every living-room across the world.

Nothing illustrates the decline of American power better than the defiant rejection of American wishes by both Israel and Iran, as well as the evident reluctance of European allies to contribute more than token forces to the war in Afghanistan.

It would seem that Obama’s unenviable task will be to manage the US decline as best he can.

In Iraq, Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement, bringing Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to a close. But this has not brought peace to that shattered country. Terrorist explosions, each with its terrible toll of dead and wounded, continue to rock Baghdad and other cities.

The region will have to suffer the consequences of Iraq’s destruction for many years to come. Among these consequences are the unfortunate sharpening of Sunni-Shiite tensions and the overturning of the balance of power in the Gulf to Iran’s advantage. History will no doubt judge the invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the great crimes of our time.

One of the most spectacular developments this year has been the explosion of protest in the Islamic Republic of Iran which followed last June’s rigged elections. President Ahmadinejad — and indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei as well — are being challenged not only by repeated mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but also by a split in the ruling elite. Severe repression has failed to deter this growing opposition. The result has been to reveal to the world a picture of another Iran — brave, youthful, educated, aspiring for real democracy, while remaining true to Islamic values. It remains to be seen whether this movement will be crushed, or whether it will eventually shape Iran’s future.

Meanwhile, Iran has forged ahead with uranium enrichment, a programme driven as much by prickly nationalism as by the need to acquire a deterrent against military attack.

Neither negotiations nor sanctions have persuaded Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor even the threat of a military strike by Israel and/or the US. The world may, after all, have to live with an Iranian bomb. The consequence may not be as bad as some fear. It may even contribute to peace by establishing a regional balance of power.

The war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly President Obama’s biggest challenge. He has bowed (possibly against his will) to the request of his military commanders to send more troops. But very few observers believe this will ensure victory. A negotiation with the Taliban — and especially with the powerful Pashtun tribes that live astride the Afghan-Pakistan border — will eventually be necessary if the nine-year war is ever to be brought to an end.

Crises and myopia

What of the long-stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict? Determined to resolve it, Obama sprang into action in the very first hours of his presidency, naming the veteran negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy. But after much frustration the one success so far has been to wring out of Israel’s reluctant Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a partial, 10-month colony freeze, which excludes Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel continues to colonise.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continue their interminable feud, as if indifferent to the damage this does to their cause.

Tolerably good news has come this year from those squabbling twins, Syria and Lebanon. With help from France, Qatar, Turkey and other well-wishers, Syria has emerged from the isolation in which the Bush administration had attempted to confine it. The young President Bashar Al Assad is attempting with some success to build a modern state, but his efforts — and his country’s image — have been marred by human rights abuses and a crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, having elected its former army chief, General Michel Sulaiman, as president in 2008, has now, after endless months of sterile bargaining, a new government under the majority leader Sa’ad Hariri.

He was able to reach a compromise with Hezbollah — the most robust element of the opposition — under which the Shiite movement will retain its weapons to defend the country against any future Israeli assault.

In spite of the domestic and regional turmoil, Lebanese banks have continued to prosper, while the irrepressible Lebanese — or at least the affluent middle classes among them — have continued to enjoy themselves, as only the Lebanese know how to.

To complete the picture, mention should perhaps be made of Yemen, afflicted by serious disturbances both in the north and the south of the country; of Egypt, obsessed by the unresolved question of the succession to the long-serving President Mubarak.

I have two choices for the winners in 2009: they are Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

These two powerful states have emerged as the stable and sensible “big brothers” of the region. Turkey — led by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davudoglu — has won the admiration of the world by its active diplomacy, aimed at spreading peace, prosperity and good neighbourliness across the region.

Turkey may not yet have joined the European Union — as it deserves to do — but it has rapidly forged friendly political and economic ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other countries, including its old adversary Armenia.

It has even taken cautious steps towards settling its quarrel with its Kurdish population, although these efforts received a setback in December when riots broke out following the dissolution by the constitutional court of the main Kurdish political party.

Saudi Arabia has this year consolidated its position as the Arab world’s leading country, distinguished by its great wealth, by the size and varied talents of its ruling elite (both royal and non-royal), and by the consensus-seeking style of government and reformist policies of King Abdullah. The Allegiance Council (Al haya’ Al baya’) the king created in 2006 is well-placed to ensure the continuity of good governance in the future.

Among King Abdullah’s many achievements in 2009 were the benign influence he has exerted within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the curbing of radical and often obscurantist clerics at home, and the launch of KAUST, which is the long-awaited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate centre of scientific excellence.

Pointers to the king’s reformist vision are the fact that the campus of this new university is co-educational — the first in the kingdom — as well as the appointment, for the first time, of a woman, Noora Al Fayez, to the post of deputy minister for women’s education.

These are highly positive developments, but they cannot obscure the sad truth that the Middle East, plagued by many unresolved conflicts, remains at the centre of the world crisis.  

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
Gulf News, Dubai  –  1 Jan 10