Foreign Policy Blogs

Libya: Still a Fractured Land

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The experience of ordinary civilian life without a functioning government in Libya in the years since the fall of its erratic dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would not have surprised the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, much of whose work focused on demonstrating the need for a strong central authority to avoid the evils of anarchy and civil war.

So it is ironic in a way then that Libya’s main problem today seems to be too many governments rather than none at all. Along with nearly 2,000 private militias whose commanders hold the real power on the ground, the North African country initially boasted three main groups purporting to be its rightful government at the start of this year.

A civil war between militias aligning themselves with an Islamist-dominated ‘National Salvation’ government based in the capital Tripoli and an internationally recognised parliament based in the eastern city of Tobruk had rumbled on inconclusively for years.

The resulting chaos allowed Islamic State militants to gain a foothold in parts of the country, galvanising the international community into making an effort to suppress the group and rebuilt a centralised authority in Libya.

A UN-brokered accord in late 2015 created a new ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA) which had an inauspicious start but eventually assumed control of Tripoli. It has yet to persuade the internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk to recognise it however.

Currently Libya is still torn between two sides, with each one appointing different heads of various institutions. Another major part of the paralysis affecting Libyan peace efforts is lack of agreement over how money from the country’s oil, which represents 98% of the revenue of the government, should be distributed.

Libya needs to pump a minimum of 800,000 barrels of oil a day under its current economic model in order to be able to pay public sector salaries, invest in much-needed infrastructure and maintain its collapsing economy.

But plans to return the country’s oil sector to operation and end a series of damaging blockades remain vulnerable to a myriad of government, militia and tribal rivalries at every stage of the production process, not to mention the threat of recently displaced Islamic State fighters mounting a sabotage campaign against oil facilities.

Libya also boasts a $67 billion sovereign wealth fund but much of it has remained frozen until a functioning national unity government can be established, in order to guard against the funds being stolen or misused.

The GNA has made some progress in unifying the state under one system of civil administration; one of two men claiming the chairmanship of the fund announced his resignation this month and Libya’s two national oil companies reached an agreement in early July to unite.

While hardline factions in the eastern-based House of Representatives continue to resist GNA Prime Minister Fayez Seraj’s authority overall there has been a modest accumulation of power to the UN-back regime since it was forced to travel to Tripoli by boat from Tunisia this spring.

But the major weakness of the new administration remains that it lacks its own national armed forces and still has to rely upon cutting deals with various militia groups in order to function. Thus the GNA, which was was meant to unify the country’s fighting forces, largely finds itself drawing fickle support from militias in the west where it is based instead.

Meanwhile in the east Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are backing a controversial Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces aligned with the eastern government in Tobruk and exerts a strong influence over the anti-GNA parliament there.

Haftar, who is remembered for his past associations with Gaddafi and his suspected later association with American intelligence, is widely reviled in the west of Libya as a dictator in waiting. His numerous enemies, such as influential militia leaders from the north-western city of Misrata, have recently hardened their opposition to his future participation in Libya’s government recently.

But General Haftar is thought to be holding out for a key role for himself any new army under the national unity government for example, and prepared to sabotage peace proceedings until he gets his way.

His forces and militias from the city of Zintan both have the ability to cut off oil pipelines which the GNA depends upon getting working as part of its often-delayed plans to revive Libya’s moribund economy and public services.

Meanwhile the deals which the GNA makes with groups such as the Misratans or Ibrahim Jathran, whose Petroleum Facilities Guard controls the oil ports at Ras Lanuf, Sidra and Zueitina which the nascent government needs for exports, leave the authority of the Tripoli based regime looking powerless, compromised and weak.

With the dispersal of Islamic State forces for now, a renewed clash between the Petroleum Facilities Guard and General Haftar’s forces is being mooted, as is a resumption of the east-west conflict.

Lacking a Libyan army to support and train, inserting international forces themselves seem like an obvious answer to separate the warring sides, even if the reality on the ground is likely to be much more complex than a few UN peacekeepers quietly monitoring a ceasefire on some well defined frontline.

But there is an analogous situation to Libya’s unstable patchwork state where a UN presence has had a longstanding positive stabilizing influence, albeit a partial and highly imperfect one, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The nearly two decade long mission of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has seen the UN take on a variety of tasks during its time there, including battling rebel groups with or without the Congolese army, overseeing the demobilization and disarmament of private militias and even trying to curb the more dictatorial tendencies of the DRC’s squabbling elites.

MONUSCO’s task is a thankless one and replicating this type of expensive multinational task force in Libya would be a monumental challenge. But it would be a better alternative to direct Western intervention, revelations of which had parts of Libya up in arms against the GNA earlier this summer.

Meanwhile drawing up a MONUSCO-type force from non-Western countries would also be an improvement over an earlier idea to deploy 5,000 troops from Libya’s former colonial master Italy. Any new force could also take advantage of the current dispersal of terror networks to establish itself in parts of the country where the GNA is in control and gradually expand from there as the UN’s roadmap to peace is restarted.

Neither backing one side or the other in an ongoing civil war nor abandoning the country to its turmoil look like good ideas to Western governments after the experiences of the last three years.

With the likely arrival of Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, Libyans will also have an American leader who knows the country and has skin in the game; the international community and Libya’s leaders should therefore seize this moment to push their ideas on the new shape of Libya’s government forwards before momentum is lost again.



Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.