By: Alessandra Bajec
Libya currently has no single, central government, there is no security, oil revenues have halved, and weapons flow out of the country.
In the 6th year since the NATO-led intervention in Libya resulted in the toppling of long-time dectator Moammar Gadhafi, the North African country has descended into a noticeably worse position amid political chaos and a growing extremist threat.
Libya currently has no single government or central authority which controls the whole nation, there is no security, oil revenues have halved, and weapons flow out of the country. Libya is torn apart by a civil war between rival militias which has been raging since 2014, after the internationally-recognized government relocated to Tobruk in the east, with General Khalifa Haftar as top commander of the armed forces, and Libya Dawn – an Islamist-dominated coalition – set up a rival government, known as the new General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.
By the end of February, hopes for peace vanished again after members of the parliament in Tobruk were reportedly “prevented” from voting on the make-up of a new unity government under a U.N.-backed plan aimed at bringing together Libya’s warring factions, which they said they supported. Since it was signed by some elements of the two opposing groups on Dec. 17, 2015, in Morocco, the U.N. plan has been opposed by hard-liners on both sides and suffered repeated delays.
Not even the logic of a power-sharing agreement has worked, said Dr. Khaled Hanafy Aly, a researcher in African affairs at Al-Ahram Center, referring to the peace deal that followed other U.N.-mediated efforts at creating a Government of National Agreement (GNA).
According to Karim Mezran, resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, there are a few thousand militias fighting each other, each linked with some political attache. “Fragmentation” is the first word that comes into his mind to define the situation in Libya. The senior fellow described the country’s political outlook by first noting that in the east, while the majority within the parliament backs the U.N. accord, other lawmakers alongside powerful army chief General Haftar oppose the deal.
“A large number of parliamentarians in Tobruk would be happy to have the unity cabinet, but Gen. Haftar keeps pushing for a military solution, not a political one,” said Mezran, who is also professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “Haftar and his allies are the strongest voices, and they’re the ones who can spoil the agreement,” he added.
In the west, the head and members of the rival Tripoli-based GNC also oppose the deal. Its affiliated government, led by Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghweil, has no intention of relinquishing power to the new GNA, as the Middle East fellow hinted.
To add to this, a third government led by Faiz Siraj hangs over the two rival administrations, which has the backing of Western powers. However, it is not recognized by any of the major powers inside Libya, and the international community looks paralyzed on what to do.
“The problem is not only the multiplicity of governments but the impasse in which conflicting interests make the existence of a central government difficult,” Dr. Aly stated.
In the midst is the Islamic State group, which has capitalized on the power and security vacuum to set a foothold in Libya by establishing its presence around the central coastal city of Sirte, hometown of former Libyan leader Gadhafi. The extremist group has briefly seized territory in Sabratha, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, and threatens to destroy what’s left of the country.
For Aly, the Islamic State group merely feeds on the east-west divisions without which it would be doomed to failure. He believes social and tribal grievances on the ground need to be addressed properly in order to prevent and stop affiliation of local militants with the group.
Yet, with media reports giving inflated numbers of Libyan fighters who have fallen to Islamic State group ranks, joined by foreign jihadists coming from Tunisia, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere, the group’s strength in Libya has been somewhat overestimated.
In Mezran’s view, the Islamic State group threatens more that territorial gain; it intends to completely destabilize Africa’s oil rich state. “It’s by no means territorial expansion in Libya,” he argued. “ISIS’ (Islamic State Group) strategy there is to have a base where from it launches sporadic attacks to hit oil fields and Libyan cities like Tripoli and Benghazi.”
The professor specified that the Islamic State group aims to destroy, not conquer, Libya’s oil facilities so as to prevent any possibility for a recognized government to draw from the oil industry, the key pillar of Libya’s economy, as well as reconstitute a state army and rebuild the country.
Libya’s oil production has collapsed to around 20 percent of its 2011 level. The country is at its most critical juncture since the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime with Central Bank reserves dwindling. Caught in the instability, the average Libyan has to put up with increased prices, lengthy fuel and power cuts and medicine shortages.
Libya is largely a quasi-failed state. “It’s not one big mess, it’s a whole set of many messes,” Rafik Hariri Center fellow observed. “There are institutions functioning in certain areas, then it’s total anarchy in other parts of the country.”
Libya has also turned into a battleground for foreign powers, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the UAE, giving open military backing to Haftar’s armed forces while Turkey, Qatar and Sudan are believed to have helped arm the Libya Dawn forces in Misrata.
For their part, Western governments, namely the U.S., Germany, the U.K., France and Italy have been considering direct military intervention against the Islamic State group in Libya. The new unity government, which Washington and its European allies are pushing to ratify, would effectively have the authority to call in international support, paving the way for a new NATO-led military intervention in Libya under the pretext of combating the Islamic State group.
“The West bears responsibility for today’s Libyan crisis,” the Al-Ahram Center researcher pointed out. “Failing to secure the country after Gadhafi’s death and disarm militias has turned Libya into a lawless state.”
Dr. Aly maintained that Libya today poses a threat to regional security. In his opinion, nonetheless, another foreign intervention will attract many risks for two main reasons. The Libyan elite does not seem keen on inviting foreign military forces. Second, an international operation may create more problems than intended and could lead to an even more complex scenario.
Mezran thinks the Libyan crisis needs to be resolved before fighting the Islamic State group, which, he feels, should not be overblown as “the issue.” “If [the] Western approach is just to hit ISIS (Islamic State Group) and forget what goes on in Libya, they’re trying to kill an octopus,” the senior researcher noted.
Five years after the NATO intervention in Libya, which has created a genuine disaster, another intervention is being prepared against the North African state. Whether that will materialize or not, failure to achieve political unity with an inclusive, participatory approach, could risk turning Libya into a failed state in future.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her work has appeared in rt.com, CounterPunch, IRIN and the European Journalism Centre’s magazine among others.