OPINION - Who will lead Libyan army after political agreement?

Uncertainty looms over defense portfolios despite recent positive developments in Libya

Osama Dali  | 30.03.2021 - Update : 30.03.2021
OPINION - Who will lead Libyan army after political agreement?

*The writer is an Istanbul-based Libyan journalist and analyst


The formation of a new Presidency Council and national unity government in Libya represented an important step towards unifying the country and its institutions.

This unity, however, will not be completed until the military establishment alongside all its brigades is united under one command.

On Feb. 5, Libyan delegates elected Mohammad Menfi from the east to head a three-member Presidency Council comprised of Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Al-Lafi representing the west and south regions respectively.

The three represent the supreme commander of the army whose decisions must be taken unanimously as stipulated in the political agreement. This is the first time since 2014 that the country's three regions -- Tripoli, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan -- have agreed on a commander in chief.

Race for key defense positions

Political rivals in the east and west have been competing over the defense ministry, a key position for anyone seeking to control the army.

To pave the way for consultations on the matter, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh has temporarily headed the ministry until the Presidency Council settles on a candidate.

Dbeibeh promised to support the 5+5 joint military committee, which comprises of five representatives from the West and five representatives from the east to ensure the continuation of a cease-fire signed between the government and forces of renegade general Khalifa Haftar on Oct. 23 in Geneva.

One of the prime minister’s tasks is to unify the army soonest possible.

Change in west easier than east

Since the formation of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016 headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, the internationally recognized government has had two defense ministers and four chiefs of staff, the latest being Muhammad al-Haddad who has been the chief of staff since 2020.

In contrast, the situation in eastern Libya has been different with warlord Haftar commanding the army since 2014 with Abdul-Razzaq Al-Nazuri as the chief of staff of his militia.

Herein lies the difficulty of integrating the militias loyal to Haftar, known for their war crimes, into the unified Libyan army compared to the more disciplined brigades in the western region who are used to answering to a civilian authority.

Haftar biggest obstacle

As it stands, Libya’s army in the west has been led by al-Haddad while Haftar’s militias maintain control of the east.

Haftar has frustrated efforts by al-Haddad to build a unified and disciplined army and sought to use force to control the entire country since 2014.

However, Haftar’s militia spokesman Ahmed Al-Mesmari’s recent recognition of the Presidency Council as the supreme commander of the army reflects important progress towards the unification of the army.

Haftar has been forced to make a political retreat following threats of sanctions by the international community and the United Nations if he continues to sabotage the political agreement, as well as his failure in the offensive on Tripoli and fears of prosecution by the Virginia Court in the US.

However, this retreat could be a tactical move by the coup leader as suggested by his behavior in the way he received some of the leaders from the recently formed unity government.

Will Al-Nazuri replace Haftar?

In a meeting held mid-March, the tribes of Burqa in the eastern town of Al-Abyar surprisingly demanded that the new executive authority appoint Al-Nazuri as the chief of staff of the unified army.

Al-Nazuri, who is currently the chief of staff of Haftar's militia, has the support of Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk-based Parliament, and hopes that by forming an alliance with Saleh, he will secure the support of some of the largest tribes in the east.

This military-political alliance is trying to form a bloc parallel to Haftar, especially in the event Haftar left the political scene either because of illness or for failure to be appointed to the position of army commander or defense minister in the newly formed national unity government.

With their influence on tribes in the east that extend to the border with Egypt, an alliance between Al-Nazuri and Saleh is likely to isolate Haftar politically, particularly considering that tribes in the east consider Haftar and his entourage who hail from the Al Furjan tribe in the west as intruders.

In this case, if Al-Nazuri is appointed chief of staff, then the defense ministry will be given to a figure from western Libya, and particularly from Misrata since it has the largest military force in the western region. This means Haftar will not play any official role in the transitional phase.

Haftar’s absence from the political scene is likely to accelerate the process of unifying the army. However, his insistence to be the head of the unified military establishment is likely to complicate the whole process.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Ibrahim Mukhtar in Ankara

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