By Wolfgang Pusztai
The start of the Battle for Tripoli in April 2019 marked the beginning of a new dramatic phase in Libya’s ongoing civil war.
This war began in 2014 with the ousting from Tripoli of the then internationally recognised government together with the elected parliament by the Islamist-led Operation Libya Dawn, and with Khalifa Heftar’s Operation Dignity in Benghazi, which aimed to end a bloody Islamist assassination campaign.
Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has been struggling to regain stability.
Various international initiatives to stabilise the country have not brought the anticipated results.
Today Libya is a failed state. But what are the different factors contributing to the current situation? It is crucial to understand the key factors of instability as a precondition for defining a new, more successful approach to the stabilisation of Libya.
II- Key factors of instability
Those factors can be grouped into six areas, namely governance, international relations, demography, economy, social standards, and security, which are all interrelated.
II-1 Governance and domestic political factors
Libya’s three historic regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan – have developed more or less separately for thousands of years.
The territory of today’s Libya was only united through the Italian colonisation of 1911. But while Tripolitania was finally subjugated in 1923, resistance continued in Fezzan until 1930 and in Cyrenaica even until 1931, a fact that the people in the south and east are very proud of.
Once independent in 1951, the Kingdom of Libya had Tripoli and Benghazi, the largest city in the East, as twin capitals and had a federalist constitution.
After oil had been discovered, the constitution was amended in 1963 and Libya became a more centralised state. With Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 the constitution ceased to have any practical significance.
The east and the south were neglected by the regime, as most of the income of Libya’s tremendous oil wealth was funnelled towards coastal Tripolitania, a situation well remembered in Cyrenaica and Fezzan.
After the revolution, many easterners saw some good reasons to anticipate that nothing would change. This reinforced federalist tendencies in the Cyrenaica.
The work of the administration under Gaddafi was always characterised by an inefficient bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure and wasteful government spending.
It was a principle of Gaddafi’s leadership to change administrative boundaries and entities every couple of years and to thus prevent the establishment of any firm social, administrative or political structures and relationships which could eventually challenge his rule.
There was no noteworthy civil society and no culture of dialogue. Conflicts between tribes were settled by the regime and any form of opposition was violently suppressed.
The only exception was Saif al-Gaddafi’s reconciliation process with jailed members of the radical Islamist ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ (LIFG), which ended with the signature of the so-called ‘Jihadi Code’ and the renouncing of violence by those (former) jihadists.
But despite these – ultimately failed – efforts, there is a lack of experience in dialogue and conflict resolution practices. With the notable exception of mediation by tribal elders in some local conflicts, there is simply no culture of dialogue to solve conflicts.
There has been no continuity in leadership whatsoever since the ouster of Gaddafi in 2011.
Nine (!) persons have been prime minister of Libya, or at least have claimed to be. Currently, there are three prime ministers and two parliaments that could be considered in some way legitimate.
Abdullah al-Thinni is the prime minister of the Interim Government (IG), appointed by Libya’s internationally recognised parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), which was elected on 25 June 2014, although merely 15% of the population of voting age participated in the elections.
Al-Thinni was internationally recognised until December 2015 and serves on as a prime minister of the IG. After al-Thinni was ousted from Tripoli in September 2014 by ‘Operation Libya Dawn’ He moved to the eastern cities of Al Beida.
On 6 November 2014, Libya’s Supreme Court ruled – under heavy pressure from Islamist militias – that the June elections were unconstitutional and the HoR must be dissolved.
Based on this decision, Libya’s first elected interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), reconstituted, albeit with fewer than 80 of the original 200 members.
It appointed the Islamist-leaning National Salvation Government (NSG), ultimately led by Khalifa al-Ghwell. The significance of the NSG had faded away by October 2016, although al-Ghwell still claims to be prime minister.
The UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, confirmed the HoR as Libya’s internationally recognised parliament and institutionalised a Presidential Council and a Government of National Accord (GNA), both led by prime minister Fayez al-Serraj, who was hand-picked by then UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon.
Furthermore, a High Council of State (HCS) based on the remaining elements of the GNC was established as an advisory body.
Although recognised by the UN Security Council by 23 December 2015, the GNA was never elected by the Libyans or appointed by a legal Libyan institution.
An endorsement of the GNA by the HoR, as foreseen by the LPA, never took place.
In fact, the GNA has been hostage to local militias in Tripoli without any real freedom of action since its arrival in March 2016. The level of corruption in Libya has always been very high, but now it is entirely out of control.
In the west as well as in the east, the situation is far worse than it was before the revolution. There are some cases in which companies have been awarded contracts for a specific project despite not having any experience of relevance.
At times, bidding periods are cut short with no warning notice in order to prevent serious bidders from forwarding their offers in time. Policies designed to reduce corruption have been introduced but are far from efficient.
Libya’s Interim Constitutional Declaration (2011) guarantees freedom of media and expression as well as civil rights, but the rule of militias and threats by Islamists as well as some of the practices of Marshall Heftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) undermine these rights in most parts of the country.
In 2013-14, civil rights activists and journalists were priority targets of the Islamist assassination campaign in Benghazi together with the security forces.
At least 23 journalists have been murdered in Libya since 2011,3 with many more harassed and jailed. There are severe shortfalls in human rights, in particular regarding the use of excessive force by militias and security forces on all sides, modern slavery, religious minority abuse and women’s rights.
Most of Libya’s prisons are under the control of one or the other militia. Conditions are widely terrible. Inmates are often subject to torture and remain jailed without a trial.
II-2 International relations
Several countries have important, some even vital strategic interests in Libya which motivate them to interfere in Libya by directly siding with one of the conflict parties through supporting international mediation efforts and/or through bilateral political and economic activities with one of Libya’s governments.
Most of the neighbours and nations involved in Libya pursue a combination of various complementary interests.
Security-related interests are mostly connected with the various Islamist groups, the ungoverned spaces and Libya’s porous land and sea borders, which allow all kinds of smuggling and human trafficking.
These facts and activities contribute to the destabilisation of Libya’s vulnerable neighbours in Africa but are also of concern for Europe.
Countries with security-related interests in Libya include all the bordering countries, Italy, France, the EU in general and – to a more limited extent – the United States.
In contrast, economic interests are primarily related to the hydrocarbon industry, revenues from this industry, and Libya as a place of work.
Economic interests in Libya are of particular relevance for Egypt, Tunisia, Italy and Turkey. But Russia, China and the US must not be forgotten.
Thirdly, value-related interests focus on the promotion of democracy or political Islam.
The main countries furthering democratisation are European. Qatar and Turkey support political Islam, whereas the UAE and Saudi Arabia are doing their best to counter it.
These interests led to Turkey’s and Qatar’s strong support for the international outlawed NSG when it was established in 2014. In line with these interests, the various stakeholders are supporting one side or the other – or both.
The GNA is strongly endorsed by the UN, Italy, the UK, Germany, Turkey, Qatar and in a more lukewarm way by the US and France. On the other side, the LNA is mainly backed by Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The most important military supporters of the warring factions are Turkey and Egypt. Turkey has very strong historic ties to western Libya, in particular to the city of Misrata.
Actions in and with regard to Libya are primarily driven by the support for political Islam and by economic interests. Erdogan’s troubled economy is in dire need of Libya as an important export destination and is seeking a major share in reconstruction.
The survival of the GNA and a leading role for Misrata are essential for Ankara’s economic interests in Libya.
Turkey has given permanent residence to several prominent former LIFG leaders, members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood (MB), prominent former Benghazi and Derna fighters and Libya’s Grand Mufti, the Salafist Sadekh al-Gharyani.
Their influence is utilised to pursue Turkish interests in Libya. Egypt has a particular role as a powerful neighbour heavily affected by the instability in Libya.
Having had major troubles at home with various Islamist groups, including the so-called Islamic State (IS) and MB, it wants to prevent a terrorist safe haven or even an Islamist government on its western border by all means.
But Libya is also of significance for Egypt for economic reasons. It is an important labour market for previously two million migrant workers (now about 900,000) and offers access to cheap energy.
Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security & policy analyst with a special focus on the MENA region. He has both a military and an academic background in strategy.