Supply and demand: the paradox of private security companies in Libya

While many foreigners working in Libya are genuinely interested in helping the country move forward towards a more stable future, it seems very unlikely that this is the case for these western mercenaries.

It is common knowledge that Libya's transition from dictatorship through revolution to fledgling democracy has not been an easy one. Libya held its first free general elections in July 2012, but since then the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has faced many challenges, the biggest of which has been the current instability which is plaguing parts of the country. The state is weak and has struggled to reign in autonomous militias who are unwilling to relinquish their power to Libya's national army and police force. This is a concern for many international organisations looking to invest in the new Libya, especially for oil companies working in remote locations in the desert.

Libya needs foreign investment to develop, but foreign companies need reassurance that their employees will be safe before they will invest. As a result, Libya's new leadership have given permission to some private western security firms to provide companies with protection, thereby filling the security gap which the state is not yet strong enough cover.

In theory this makes sense in areas which are particularly unstable such as the southern Fezzan region with its porous borders, far from the reach of the central government in Tripoli.

However, it is harder to justify the presence of foreign security personnel in areas where the state is relatively strong, where there are few security concerns and where there are hardly any direct threats against foreigners. The employees of these private security companies are for all intents and purposes mercenaries, people who are not nationals or parties to a conflict but who are motivated to take part simply by the desire for private gain. This is where the role of these companies becomes extremely questionable in Libya.

To begin with, Libya is no longer a conflict zone. Most of the western private security personnel I have met whilst in Libya are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: yet Libya is not at war. These are men (so far I haven't met any female security personnel) who have been trained to react in extremely hostile environments, where they, and the people they are protecting, are the target of enemy forces. But, despite instability and the existence of militias, Libya is nothing like Iraq or Afghanistan and it is unethical, not to mention dangerous, to treat it as if it were.

Libya's capital is a case in point. I work for a Libyan organisation in Tripoli and am (luckily) unhindered by draconian security restrictions. I move around the city on my own and in the year and a half since I returned, I have experienced no threats or security incidents. This is not to say something couldn't happen of course, but in my experience living in Libya's capital post-revolution is the same as living in London or any other big city (actually I feel much safer in Tripoli at night than I would in certain areas of London). Common sense tells me not to act inappropriately, not to walk around alone late at night and to avoid certain areas. I find it difficult to see why my activities should be restricted based on the advice of ex-military men who have been trained to operate in conflict zones, not cities in peacetime, and who have a vested interest in making the city seem more unsafe than it really is.

However, many foreigners in Tripoli are not so lucky. They are locked away in compounds with strict curfews and daily security briefs. They are driven around in heavily armoured vehicles and accompanied at all times by armed guards. Many foreigners would like to be free of these security personnel, but their organisations say otherwise. Instead they are required to ask security guards to accompany them to do the most mundane activities, such as buying food at the local shop or going for a jog.

This brings me to the most damning issue regarding private security companies: it is in their interest to make Libya seem as unsafe as possible. It is a simple case of supply and demand. If Tripoli were deemed safe for foreigners, then security firms would be out of a job. It is therefore in their interests to exaggerate the security threats and insist that their presence and input is required at all times. Such actions have a two-fold effect, both of which are negative for Libya.

The first is that by constantly bombarding foreigners with warnings and chaperoning them around the city, these people are denied the chance to appreciate how unthreatening daily life in Tripoli really is. As a result, the message they communicate back to their home countries is one of daily restrictions and security threats, further entrenching the idea that Libya is not safe and therefore ensuring the continued demand for private security companies.

The second is that the effect of seeing overtly armed and aggressive foreign security personnel around the city is likely to make a largely benign population become more hostile and reactive towards westerners. Libyans living in Tripoli know that there is no real threat to foreigners there and although most appreciate that caution is necessary, it is understandably both insulting and provocative to Libyans be treated as potential threats simply because they are Libyan.

While many foreigners working in Libya are genuinely interested in helping the country move forward towards a more stable future, it seems very unlikely that this is the case for these western mercenaries. Their job is to provide protection in violent, hostile environments so unless they want to be out of a job, they will keep reinforcing the image that even the safest places in Libya are instable, dangerous and not to be visited without the 'unbiased' advice of security personnel.

About the author

Rhiannon Smith works to foster economic development as a trainer, researcher and translator in Tripoli.

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