The Role of the Libyan Military

The Threat of Civil War

As Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fights to crush a popular uprising and maintain his grip on power, experts say that Libya's faction-riddled military is unlikely to play the stabilising role its Tunisian or Egyptian counterparts did. Sonia Phalnikar reports

Libyan soldiers on parade during ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the Libyan Revolution in September 2009 (photo: AP)
It has been suggested that Gaddafi intentionally kept the Libyan military weak in order to check any threats to his power

​​As the anti-Gaddafi revolt in Libya faces a brutal crackdown, prompting international condemnation, attention has focused on the role played by the country's motley military in the quelling of the protests.

In recent days, media reports have cited witnesses in Libya as saying Gaddafi was using foreign mercenaries from African countries to protect his beleaguered regime. Foreign militias are reported to be cruising the streets in pickup trucks, firing into crowds of demonstrators.

Unconfirmed reports also claim the use of heavy weapons – including rapid-firing, anti-aircraft guns – against unarmed civilian protesters.

It's a far cry from the restraint and respect commanded by the armed forces during the recent 18-day uprising in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

"An instrument to consolidate power"

But analysts say that the use of violence against protesters isn't the only thing that sets Libya's military apart from its counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt.

"The army, both in Tunisia and Egypt, saw itself as a mediator between the regime and the demonstrators and in the end decided to take the side of the protesters," says Udo Steinbach, a Berlin-based Middle East expert. "In Libya, the military has largely been an instrument used by Gaddafi to consolidate his power."

But that assumption has been thrown into question as reports emerge of some government forces, particularly in the east of the country, abandoning their uniforms and joining the popular uprisings. Deepening the sense of chaos pervading the army, two senior air-force officers reportedly refused to shoot at demonstrators and fled to Malta in a warplane. Protesters backed by defecting army units are thought to have almost the entire eastern half of Libya under their control.

Some analysts have suggested that Gaddafi, fearing the development of any network that could check his power, has deliberately kept the armed forces weak and divided into battalions.

The result has been that Libya's military – estimated to have around 75,000 personnel – lacks both the discipline and professionalism to serve as any kind of possible transitional structure to civilian government if Gaddafi were to step down.

Military lacks popular support

Libyans protest against Gadaffi (photo: AP)
Muammar Gaddafi, the "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution", who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1969, remains defiant in the face of both domestic rebellion and international condemnation and has launched counterattacks against the rebels

​​The armed forces are also reportedly plagued by a lack of usable military equipment. Most of the battle tanks and warplanes date from the 1970s and 80s when the country bought most of its military hardware from the Soviet Union.

More importantly, some say, the armed forces lack the kind of widespread popular support seen in Egypt and Tunisia.

"Gaddafi's policy, dating back to his pan-African ideology of the 1970s, has always been to recruit the core of his military from neighbouring African and Arab states. These soldiers thus have absolutely no emotional relationship with the Libyan people," says Steinbach.

Gaddafi is believed to have used foreign mercenaries in the past as well, for example in a 1987 war that it lost against its impoverished southern neighbour, Chad.

Tribal loyalties split army

The unravelling of the Libyan military also has its roots in the country's strong tribal culture. Experts point out that many Libyans continue to identify themselves as belonging to a tribe and that has been most pronounced in the armed forces where each of the main tribes is represented.

"Libyan society is shaped by tribal culture. Many people are primarily loyal to their own tribe and not to the state," says Ziad Aql, a Libya expert at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"There's a clear split within the Libyan army," says Aql, pointing out that the army is largely headed by members of President Gaddafi's tribe with Gaddafi's son Mutassem responsible for the country's internal security. On the other hand, he added, many foot soldiers belong to the Tarruna tribe which has taken the side of the demonstrators.

"So there are two camps in the army – one that follows Gaddafi's commands and shoots at demonstrators, and another that refuses to follow his instructions and either flees with their weapons or joins the demonstrators," says Aql.

"A black hole"

Muammar Gaddafi (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Speaking to the nation on television this week, Gaddafi ruled out the possibility of stepping down, saying: "I am not going to leave this land. I will die as a martyr at the end … I shall remain, defiant."

​​Aql warns that there is a danger that the simmering tensions among the various factions within the army could come to a head.

"There are indications that parts of the army that belong to Gaddafi's tribe will remain loyal to him. That has sparked concern that we could see violent battles within the army," says Aql.

There are concerns that the unrest in Libya could turn into a fully-fledged civil war, and analysts say that a future without Gaddafi looks ominous. Unlike in Egypt, where the army has been a pillar of society, Gaddafi's four decades of one-man rule have left the country without any national institutions. "The Libyan regime lacks institutions in all sectors," says Aql. "Gaddafi rules the country as he likes. And that's how he's controlled the army too."

Some worry that Libya also lacks a civil society framework as is evident in Egypt or leading intellectuals as seen in Tunisia, many of whom have lived in France for decades.

"We can't rule out a civil war if Gaddafi were to go," says Steinbach. "Without any functioning institutions, there will just be a black hole."

Sonia Phalnikar

© Deutsche Welle 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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