Foreign Policy Blogs

Chaos deepens in Libya

Tripoli, Nov. 2013. Photo Credit: Magharebia

Tripoli, Nov. 2013. Photo Credit: Magharebia

One might think that Libya could have a greater chance of succeeding at the Arab Spring, given its tiny population and vast oil resources. The OPEC nation is spared the economic woes of cash-strapped Tunisia, the heterogeneity of war-torn Syria or the demographic challenges of Egypt. But the country has been mired in unrelenting violence and political turmoil since the ouster of Muammer Qaddafi almost three years ago.

Three weeks after ex-rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, often described as a rogue general, launched a vigilante campaign against Islamist militias in Benghazi, the country is reeling under dual cabinets vying for control. Dozens were killed earlier this week in the latest bout of fighting between Islamist militias and Haftar-led forces. Seventy-six people died in mid-May when Haftar launched the so-called “Operation Dignity” against armed Islamist groups blamed for a rash of attacks and kidnappings.

As militias square off for the control of Benghazi in the east, political jousting is unfolding in capital Tripoli. Outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani refused to cede power to Islamist-backed businessman Ahmed Mitig, who was elected by the General National Congress (GNC) earlier last month. Al-Thani only served a few weeks in office before announcing resignation after attacks on his family. The outgoing premier, however, rejected Mitig’s election as void and formed a rival cabinet.

Elected by the Islamist-dominated GNC, Mitig has struggled to assume control since then. His election was disputed by the Justice Minister and finally ruled “illegal” by the Supreme Court on June 5. The power struggle reached ridiculous proportions earlier this week when the two contenders convened parallel cabinet meetings. One Libyan bitterly noted on Twitter that “Libya is so pluralistic, it has more than one government.”

While the Supreme Court tried to bring a closure to the political standoff on Thursday, its ruling is unlikely to douse the dispute in a country where rule of law remains a distant dream.

The power quandary is emblematic of deep structural problems embedded in Libya’s unstable polity.

Libya’s fundamental nation-building challenges are often interpreted as a corrosive legacy of Qaddafi’s rule and absent state institutions. But it is a combustible mix of abundant oil resources and easily available weapons that make the country especially permeable to conflict.

Academics argue that oil invites conflict. According to political scientist Michael L. Ross, “resource wealth causes ethnic or regional conflict.”

“Resource extraction may promote or exacerbate ethnic tensions, as federal, regional, and local actors compete for mineral rights. These disputes may lead to larger military forces and less democracy in resource-rich, ethnically fractured states,” he writes in “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?”[i]

In the restive aftermath of Qaddafi’s ouster, oil production plummeted to only 165,000 barrels per day from more than 1.5 million barrels daily in 2012. But the violence-wracked country still sits on $100 billion of currency reserves, which makes it an attractive bounty for both internal and external predators.

Critics maintain that Haftar’s true ambition is a power grab, inspired by the Egyptian scenario. He returned to Libya after almost 20 years in exile in the United States to take part in the rebellion but was denied leadership in the rebel army and placed second behind Abdelfattah Younis, who was assassinated in July 2011. This February, the former Qaddafi ally turned rebel commander attempted to undertake a coup but was largely ridiculed.

Militia leaders accuse Haftar of pursuing political goals. In an attempt to frame his offensive as a part of the global fight against terrorism, Haftar is obviously appealing to external audiences. “We are now fighting not only on behalf of Libya, but on behalf of the whole world,” he told the New York Times.

The ex-rebel general may be courting the West to win backing for a future political role. He may also be relying on support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Islamist-averse military government in Egypt. State-controlled media in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed Haftar’s offensive.

Meanwhile, Mitig is reportedly backed by Qatar and Turkey who are traditionally behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Divisions over support for the Islamist party surged to the fore at the latest GCC summit in Kuwait, which pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar.

With its deepening fractures and escalating battles for power, Libya may well turn into a proxy battlefield for the sparring rich nations that seek to carve out a greater role in the Arab Spring countries.

Meanwhile, the country’s border porosity is a growing concern for neighboring states. Algeria closed all border crossings with Libya after sending forces to evacuate its ambassador to Tripoli. One of the region’s most notorious terrorists, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, found refuge in Libya’s lawless south. The Algerian led last year’s deadly attack on the In Amenas gas plant which resulted in the deaths of 38 hostages. He fled to Libya from the conflict-stricken northern Mali, cementing Libya’s reputation as a sanctuary for extremists. The country is also the epicenter of illicit arms trade in the region and beyond, according to the U.N.

The volatile situation in Libya can destabilize the entire Maghreb region, while powerful states are hedging their bets. Haftar’s campaign unleashed long-percolating divisions and acrimonies into an all-out conflict without a clearly defined endgame. The duality of power may portend state fragmentation or even partition, or regional powers may tilt the balance of power and turn Libya either into a praetorian state or an Islamist bastion. In any of these scenarios, Libya is headed toward an uncertain future of power struggles and protracted conflict.




[i]  Does Oil Hinder Democracy? World Politics, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Apr., 2001), pp. 336



Ilyana Ovshieva

Ilyana Ovshieva is a digital journalist and writer who works as a senior editor for a Washington DC-based news edition that covers North Africa. She contributed to Tunisia's first English-language news site after the revolution, Tunisia Live. She also freelanced as an Arabic translator and researcher for the UNDP and the UN Volunteers. Her writing on Tunisia's hip-hop music, identity and activism appeared in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. She also published for and the World Policy Journal.
Ilyana holds an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University.

Follow Ilyana on Twitter: @ilyana_ov