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Ticking timebomb: The race to reintegrate Libya’s militias

Thousands of young Libyans who joined armed militias across the country are facing an uncertain future regarding their employment prospects.

Over the last decade, huge numbers have signed up to fight for militant groups with various political affiliations in return for an income after being unable to secure other work.

However, these groups are targeted for termination, with plans to reorganise, reform, and unify the military and security sectors in Libya.

Official stances have been at odds with each other on the question of dismantling these paramilitary formations.

Whilst a “comprehensive plan to reform and assimilate the armed formations” has been announced, Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah is still overseeing the graduation of new batches of armed cadets from military colleges.

The most recent of these graduated earlier this month and was sent to join an armed brigade in Tripoli affiliated with the government.

Libya’s civil war sees vast civilian recruitment

The protracted armed conflict in Libya originally opened the door for scores of young male civilians to sign up to temporary training courses at camps in the east and west of the country, in return for a stipend, which many hoped would at some point transform into a fixed salary, according to Libyan security specialist Syed Abdul Hafez.

The exact number of civilians who belong to these armed groups is unknown, however, they are estimated to be in the thousands.

Abdul Hafez explained to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication, that the former regime under Muammar Gaddafi dismantled the formal institution of the army decades ago, but large numbers of youth started to join these militias as regional fanaticism burgeoned in Libya at the outset of the bitter conflict the country has been living through for the last decade.

“In the meantime,” he says, “it has become the only option for many young men looking for a job in the midst of the economic stagnation which the country has suffered for years”.

Saleh Boukhamada joined one of these armed formations in Ajdabiya, eastern Libya, before joining a battalion known as “Infantry 192” which he is still in. Prior to this, he had studied computer programming and found a job as an administrative coordinator for an IT company.

However, as the demand for fighters rose with the major losses incurred on the battlefronts, Boukhamada felt forced to “respond to the call and join the fighters in Benghazi at the end of 2017”. He says that he and most of the battalion’s members receive lump-sum payments and do not hold military ID cards.

Rabi al-Atiri is from Zintan in the far west of Libya and has a similar story. He has a degree in economics and is eager to return to civilian life. He says he’s happy he doesn’t have a military ID and is pinning his hopes on the possibility that reintegration programmes for the fighters will be rolled out, with special training courses provided to ease their re-assimilation into civil society and work.

“We’ve heard a lot about plans to reorganise the military and reintegrate unofficial fighters, like the idea of providing loans so they can start up small economic projects,” he says.

However, both he and Boukhamada fear these plans will not come to fruition or could be limited in scope, leaving them and others excluded and facing unemployment.

Reintegration plans stalled since 2012

The Libyan interim government which came to power in 2012 after the fall of the former regime failed to implement its plans concerning the integration of unofficial fighters into civil state institutions.

This was in part due to the unremitting levels of violence across the country and the subsequent proliferation of weapons which led to the militarisation of the state and saw warlords seize control in various parts of Libya.

The Warriors Affairs Commission (WAC) was set up by the National Transitional Council (NTC) in 2012 and aimed at reintegrating the members of armed militias back into society.

Abdul Manam Suwaid, a former official at the commission says that although it instigated several programmes, including the Ifad (“dispatch”) programme, which aimed to send 150,000 young people abroad to study and the Tumuh (“aspirations”) programme; designed to provide job opportunities by supporting small and medium-sized business projects for the fighters and others, it ultimately failed to achieve its aims.

This was a result of deep divisions between the armed factions and the biases they displayed towards the different political players who emerged after the former regime fell, resulting in an ongoing tug-of-war for political influence which has prevailed since 2013 and continues today.

The fact that many of the armed fighters are civilians and have never been registered with the military (one proof of official army membership is holding a military number) was evidenced when the government froze salary payments to armed fighters at a camp in east Libya stating they would no longer pay them until their military numbers were provided.

The decision sparked controversy and contributed to a governmental flare-up between al-Dbeibah and his deputy Hussain al-Qatrani last October.

Qais Qami, a graduate in petroleum engineering who enlisted in an armed brigade in Janzour, West Tripoli, has not been paid in five months.

However, he is determined to remain in the militant group – considering himself to be a “son of the army” even though he is a civilian and doesn’t have any military ID papers. At the same time, he acknowledges that “the cutting of our salaries is a source of constant anxiety for all the fighters I know”.

A ticking timebomb

Despite the urgency of disbanding the armed groups and integrating their civilian members back into society through civil projects, sociology researcher Abdulaziz al-Oujli is fearful that these projects will most likely falter.

“The consequences to this situation will likely be dire. The first scenario is that the government will be incapable of providing viable alternatives like designated projects [to guarantee training and employment],” he says.

“However, even if such projects were provided, they’d need to have large amounts of funding and supervision in order to be successful and convince the militia members they will be a feasible option. Furthermore, if they aimed at guaranteeing solid employment, which means providing fixed salaries, this would have a big impact on the public sector workforce and escalate issues of masked unemployment”.

Al-Oujli ends by issuing a warning: “The fact that young people have been involved in armed groups for an extended period and grown used to using weapons, and probably benefitted financially from the criminal activities of some of these groups, could ultimately act as an incentive for them to enter into organised criminal gangs”.

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