Interview with Wolfram Lacher

2024-05-30    |   

Interview with Wolfram Lacher

Wolfram Lacher’s research focuses on conflict dynamics in Libya and the Sahel region. He is the author of Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict (I.B. Tauris, 2020) and co-editor of Violence and Social Transformation in Libya (Hurst, 2023). 

In this interview, he discusses the reasons for the closure of the border post between Tunisia and Libya at Rad Jedir and the dynamics of political recomposition of a new ruling elite in post-Gaddafi Libya.


Legal Agenda (LA): Since the clashes of March 18 and 19, the border post of Ras Jedir, under the control of the Amazigh militias of Zuwara, has been closed. The Government of the National Unity (GNU) failed, so far, to impose its opening. What does this new crisis mean in terms of the balance of power between the government of Abdulhamid Dabaiba and the armed groups?


Wolfram Lacher: It’s not a question of the balance of power between the government and the armed groups – but of the balance of power between those armed groups [tashkilat musallaha] that are allied with the government, and those armed groups that perceive themselves as marginalized in the current political set-up. The GNU interior minister, who is one among several militia leaders that are closely allied with prime minister Dabaiba, wants units under his authority to take sole control of the crossing. But he faces resistance from Zuwara, and he also does not have the support of forces from Zawiya to take control of the crossing by force. So he is trying to pressure his opponents into submission by closing down the crossing – which, he calculates, will prompt the Zuwarans to back down sooner or later. But his actions strengthen the ranks of those who are disgruntled with the government, at a time when Dabaiba’s position is growing more precarious.

Overall, it’s important to bear in mind that Libya does not have security forces that are loyal to the state as a whole. Different units of the interior and defence ministries as well as units that nominally report to the Presidency Council, are allied with competing political actors in Tripoli, or even with the eastern camp led by [Khalifa] Haftar. You can call them armed groups or militias if you like, but they are growing increasingly powerful and organized, they have an official status as state security forces, and it’s likely that they will dominate Libya’s security landscape for a long time to come.


LA: You recently published a report entitled A Political Economy of Zawiya: Armed Groups and Society in a Western Libyan City. How could this case study shed light on the dynamics of political recomposition and formation of a new ruling elite in post-Gaddafi Libya?


Lacher: There are two reasons why I think detailed local case studies like this are important. The first is that power structures in Libya have been gradually consolidating over the past three years. For the first six or seven years after 2011, the political and military landscape in Libya was extremely chaotic, there were so many different actors, and very few who remained important throughout the past decade. Over time, an ever smaller number of militia leaders has emerged as increasingly powerful: they have both entrenched themselves in the areas they control, and they exert significant influence in state institutions. So it is worth looking in detail at who exactly these actors are and what exactly they built their power base on, what relationship they have with local society – even in a city like Zawiya, where this process of consolidation is still at a relatively early stage, because four main armed groups compete for influence there. 

The second reason is that the relationship between armed groups and society differs significantly from one location to another in Libya. Little had been written about Zawiya despite the fact that its armed groups are politically influential, so I thought it was worth shedding some light on the situation there.


LA: In your last book, Violence and Social Transformation in Libya, you examine how more than a decade of conflict has changed power and society in Libya. Could you explain to our readers the impact of violence on society, about which we rarely talk?


Lacher: In this book, Virginie Collombier and I brought together several contributors to look at a whole range of aspects in which violent conflict has transformed Libyan society. The short answer to your question is that violence has transformed every aspect of Libyan society – and this is common for countries that undergo civil war. The way people define their identity, for example by belonging to a particular city or region, has been shaped by conflict. Libya’s young generation has been socialized by conflict, for example by the fact that joining an armed group now offers one of the best avenues for upward social mobility. People have been displaced on a significant scale, the demography of entire cities or neighborhoods has changed because of violence. How women go about their livelihoods and social activities has also been influenced by the insecurity and economic downturn provoked by conflict. I could go on – there is no aspect of social life that has not been affected by violence since 2011.


LA: One main strategic importance of Libya for the EU is migration. European countries have financed armed groups to “combat illegal migration”. How has the institutionalization of these groups affected the trafficking of migrants?


Lacher: It may be exaggerated to say that European states have financed armed groups to fight migration. What is certainly the case is that the Libyan coast guard has received boats and training from the EU and its member states, and that Europeans provide the coast guard with the coordinates of boats carrying migrants. The coast guard then intercepts these migrants and surrenders them to Libya’s interior ministry, which incarcerates them under frequently horrific conditions. These European policies have encouraged armed groups along the western Libyan coast to enter into the business of countering migration. In some cases, migrant smugglers have reinvented themselves as counter-migration forces in order to gain government support and state funding, but also to evade the threat of international sanctions or prosecution by the Libyan Attorney General. In other cases, they move between both business models: facilitating migration or stopping it – depending on the incentives of the moment. The common denominator between those two models is the exploitation of migrants. Europeans are deeply involved in this system of exploitation of migrants, by asking and helping the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrants. 

From a European perspective, this policy worked for several years from mid-2017 onwards, but since 2021, it has worked less well, and the numbers of arrivals from Libya has gradually gone up again. 


LA: The current political situation seems both unfavorable to a resumption of the civil war and to the holding of elections. Is this how you see it?


Lacher: Libya is coming out of a phase in which the main players were fairly comfortable with the political stalemate, and the country is entering a phase in which tensions are gradually building up again. The financial arrangements that were in place between Dabaiba, the Haftar family, and militia leaders in western Libya have been slowly disintegrating since last summer. Dabaiba is now in a weaker position, as he has lost the support of the central bank governor and therefore has more difficulties in sustaining his government’s spending. And at the same time, two competing camps of armed groups are again emerging in Tripoli, with growing tensions between the Deterrence Apparatus [Jihaz al-Rada’] on the one hand and the Stability Support Apparatus [Jihaz Da’m al-Istiqrar], whose leader backs Dabaiba, on the other hand. It’s possible these tensions will escalate into open conflict at some point. But for now, these tensions are not at a stage where they would convince relevant players that the situation is unsustainable, and that a new arrangement has been found. And there is no convincing way forward: negotiating a new government would solve nothing, and elections are unrealistic – because the key actors are not willing to accept that their opponents could win.


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