By Wolfgang Pusztai

In the evening of February 15, 2011, the Libyan Revolution began with the first protests in Al-Beida, a city in the eastern region of Libya, the Cyrenaica.

The situation escalated very quickly. Gaddafi’s security forces used deadly force against the initially peaceful demonstrators. Nevertheless, the revolution spread within a few days almost all over the country. Al-Beida, Derna, Tobruk, and Benghazi, the capital of the East quickly fell under control of the “thuwar”, the revolutionaries. In Tripolitania, the western part of Libya, cities like Misrata, Zawia, and Zintan freed themselves from the oppression of Gaddafi…

The Revolution and its aftermath

But within days the pendulum swung back. In a ghostly speech on the capital’s Green Square during the night of February 22, 2011, Gaddafi promised to “cleanse Libya house-by-house” and to “kill all the rats”. He did his very best to fulfill the promise. Security forces dispersed demonstrators in Tripoli with machine guns, fired with tanks and artillery on residential areas, took back Zawia, sealed off Misrata and launched an offensive towards Benghazi.

On 19 March, Gaddafi’s mechanized forces were on the gates of the eastern capital. The dictator was on the way to succeed, when French fighter jets launched the first attacks of the international intervention and stopped the advance.

Eight months later, after the revolution was successfully concluded, there was widespread exaltation and optimism. Positions about a major international mission in Libya were clear. The Libyans rejected any foreign soldiers on the ground or any kind of major international support mission for state building. They asserted to have all the required skills themselves, a quite credible claim, keeping all the highly-educated exile Libyans in mind, who were now returning to their country.

On the other side neither the United States, nor NATO nor the European Union were eager to send troops to Libya after the negative experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN was overstretched and very cautious anyway. Consequently, the international community was very much willing to accept the Libyan rejection of a larger international mission. No such mission took place. In hindsight, this was a major mistake.

Unfortunately, the stage was already set for disaster. Most of the returnees had no credibility whatsoever, as they had spent decades abroad and did not share the burden of the Gaddafi regime.

In May 2013, the controversial “Political Isolation Law” (PIL), decided under heavy pressure from Islamist militias, banned anyone involved in the former regime at any time from assuming a political position, including senior diplomats and technocrats. That-time president of Libya’s interim parliament Mohammed Magariaf resigned before falling victim to the law. He founded the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a resistance movement against Gaddafi, in 1981, was sentenced to death in absentia and elected to the General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s interim parliament in the first free elections since more than 40 years in 2012 – but until 1980 he was Gaddafi’s ambassador to India.

Altogether, the PIL had very negative consequences on the political landscape of Libya.

The inability of the Libyan governments to impose their will and retain the monopoly on violence, the rising influence of radical Islamists, the legacy of the chaotic administration of the state under the Gaddafi regime, and the numerous century old tribal conflicts in several parts of the country were too much for the new Libya. It became more and more a failed state.


Whereas the United States had a leading role at the beginning of the international intervention in Libya, it took subsequently more a position in the background, allowing larger European countries like France, Italy, and UK, and particularly the UN to take the lead. After the murder of Ambassador Stevens on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, the American involvement decreased to some kind of “containment strategy”.

As there are no vital American strategic interests on stage directly in Libya, this is very much understandable.

The country is only of minor importance for the American economy. There are only peripheral value related interests regarding Libya. Organized crime in and from Libya, including human trafficking, drugs and smuggling of all kind of goods, does not pose a direct threat to the values of the American society. Value promotion is certainly still an American interest, but has currently very limited practical impact regarding Libya. Although the spread of values, like human rights and market-democracy, to Libya is on the agenda, this does not justify risking the life of American diplomats and soldiers to a higher extent.

America’s security related interests with regard to Libya are important, but not vital. The country itself is of negligible significance. However, peace and stability in Libya is indirectly of relevance because of its strategic location, close to the sea lines of communication from the Strait of Gibraltar through the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and its proximity to important allies like Egypt and the southern European countries. Therefore, as a minimum, it is important that no substantial threat emerges from Libya to the regions and countries mentioned above, which are indeed linked to vital American national interests.

On the other side, several European countries, including France and Italy, have vital interests of various kinds in Libya. Furthermore, the European Union has stated its ambition to stabilize its neighborhood several times. The United Nation Support Mission in Libya claimed the leading role in mediating a political solution to the conflicts.

Altogether, there were enough good reasons for the U.S. to remain in the back-seat and let the others lead the efforts in Libya.

Unfortunately, they failed miserably.

The current situation – a threat to American national interest

The House of Representatives (HoR) is internationally recognized as the Libyan parliament. It was elected in June 2014, albeit by merely 15 % of the Libyans eligible to vote. In September, it was forced out of Tripoli by the Islamist-leaning Libya Dawn militia coalition.

Two months later Libya’s Supreme Court ruled – under pressure from the victorious Islamist militias – that the June elections were unconstitutional and therefore invalid. This brought Libya’s first elected interim parliament, the meanwhile Islamist-dominated GNC back into the game. It reconstituted with about 80 members (originally there were 200), some of them newly “appointed” replacement members.

While the HoR designated Abdullah al-Thinni prime minister, the GNC named an Islamist to head the internationally by and large ignored “Salvation Government” (SG).

The current UN initiative to stabilize Libya does not deliver the expected results. The so-called “Libya Political Agreement” (LPA) or “Skhirat Agreement” (named after the location in Morocco where most of the negotiations took place) is about to fail. It was negotiated in 2015 by a group of Libyans more or less selected by the that-time UN Special Representative (UNSR), the controversial Spaniard Bernardino Leon.

The LPA confirms Libya’s democratically elected House of Representatives (HoR), and establishes a Presidential Council (PC) and a Government of National Accord (GNA). All three of them are meanwhile internationally recognized. Furthermore, a High Council of State (State Council -SC) was established as an advisory body. It comprises 145 out of the 200 original members of the GNC. The president of the PC and prime minister of the GNA Fayez Serraj was hand-picked by Leon, as well as – per the opinion of many Libyans – some other members of the PC.

Obviously, somehow each of these institutions can claim legitimacy.

On March 30, 2016, Serraj and a part of the PC arrived coming from Tunisia in Tripoli, or to be more precise, at the tiny Abu Sita Naval Base, heavily encouraged by Leon’s replacement, the German Martin Kobler. This move, seen skeptical only by a few analysts, was made possible by a “security arrangement” with the militias in Tripoli. In fact, this means that PC and GNA are fully dependent on the goodwill of several of the more powerful militias in the capital, some of them Islamist-leaning. Libya’s executive branch has no power on the ground whatsoever; it is not even able to protect itself.

According to the LPA, the HoR needs to approve the agreement and confirm the GNA to legitimate it, which it did not do up to today. There are various reasons for this, but among the most important is probably that the eastern leaders don’t want to subordinate themselves and the Libyan National Army (LNA) under a government dependent of the militias in Tripoli. Keeping the current mess in the capital and the powerlessness of the GNA in mind, it does not really come as a surprise, that many people in the east do not want to lay their destiny and that of the LNA into the hands of Serraj and his Presidency Council.

The situation in Tripoli is worrisome. While the living standards are deteriorating and the crime rate is skyrocketing, various militias are fighting each other. There are four overlapping lines of conflict. First and foremost, there is a fight for control of certain quarters of the city. Secondly, some Tripoli militias try to evict Misrata forces from the capital. Thirdly, there are religious conflicts. While different strains of Salafists are fighting each other, radicals are going after moderate Sufi groups and more secular people, and finally there is a conflict between militias supporting the GNA/PC and groups supporting the GNC/SG. The last one is often used as a “cover” for going after any rival groups. In fact, Tripoli looks increasingly like Mogadishu, Somalia in 1990-91.

The Islamic State (IS) has suffered a major defeat at the hand of brave fighters from Misrata, supported by American Special Forces and airpower. But their victory came at a very high death-toll. Almost one-fifth of the city’s fighters are dead or wounded. However, IS in Libya is far from crushed; the jihadists are no easy prey. Hundreds of fighters, maybe even a few thousand sneaked out of the city and are now about to conduct a guerilla-style campaign. Targets will not only include Misrata forces and the capital, but also the hydrocarbon industry of the country. As IS lost in Libya its main source of income – taxes extorted from the population in the controlled territories – they will look for new ways to finance their activities. This will include smuggling and abductions for ransom, already a “tradition” for various terrorist groups in North Africa.

In the northeast, the HoR, the LNA under its supreme commander, the controversial Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, and al-Thinni’s government are consolidating their power. But the LNA was not yet able to finally defeat the Islamists in Benghazi and other locations. Derna, an Islamist hotbed, can hardly be isolated. On the economic side, since the terminals of the Oil Crescent were occupied by the LNA last September, oil exports are increasing. Although Islamist groups tried already twice to take the terminals, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so without major support from Misrata, which is unlikely to materialize for various reasons. However, a real normalization of the situation in the east can easily be prevented by the means of terrorist attacks.

Realistically, this situation means that even a recognition of the GNA by the HoR would have only a very limited impact on the ground. Sometimes it seems that international diplomacy uses the recognition debate as something like a Placebo, as they don’t have any better ideas.

But “feel-good meetings” are not enough to stabilize Libya…

The role of international players

Although the current policy of the major western players in Libya is somehow understandable, it is, at least regarding the Europeans, short-sighted. Nobody is willing to take a higher risk and all of them fully rely first and foremost on the UN mediation process.

The French are aware that terrorism originating from Libya is still a major threat to their national interests in the region and at home, therefore they support various factions in their fight against Jihadist with covert operations. Human trafficking through Libya is not so much of concern to them. Probably the French are more worried that sealing off Libya´s southern border could lead to a backlog of migrants. This would destabilize some Sahel states, which are – like Niger – of utmost importance for the French nuclear industry.

The Italians still believe that their interests are served best by working with whoever seems to be in charge in Tripoli to secure the flow of oil/gas from western Libya and to have somebody to talk about human trafficking. As the Misrata militias guarantee the survival of the GNA, Italy shows its support by sending a field hospital to this city and by some other (covert) measures.

The British are very much busy with their own problems and rely, like the Americans, on containment. Germany will continue to support Kobler, even if he is still stubborn in following the LPA-PC/GNA approach without looking to the left or right.

In contrary to the United States, Russian involvement in Libya is on the increase. Officially, Russia is still supporting the LPA, but refuses to recognize the GNA as long it is not endorsed by the HoR. However, Moscow is still in talks with both sides.

The HoR, the al-Thinni government and the LNA feel widely left alone by the West in their struggle against Islamists. Consequently, they are looking to Moscow for support. As the vast majority of equipment of the LNA is of Soviet/Russian origin and many officers were educated in the former Soviet Union, this makes also sense from a military point of view. There are several Russian experts, including air force technicians and pilots working in eastern Libya as contractors. Allegedly, Russia is also supporting with spares, which are not available from other sources (e.g. for MiG-23 fighter jets).

Unfortunately, none of these approaches will lead to a stabilization of Libya. Some kind of “Somalization” is more and more likely. This means, the country itself is becoming an increasing regional threat, a threat to vital American interests in the region.

Opportunities – and what could the next American President do?

The reputation of UN, EU, and the major European powers is severely damaged, as they have put all their weight behind the LPA. Regional players like the Arab League and the African Union don’t have a real credibility in crisis management anyway. Egypt is being perceived biased, as are most of the other Arab countries involved in one way or another in Libya.

During the Presidential campaign the Obama administration’s approach towards Libya was characterized by trying to keep Libya out of the negative headlines, in order not to endanger Hillary Clinton’s ambitions for presidency. To this end and in line with the containment strategy, the U.S. supported the UN-led approach without launching any major own initiatives since 2014, when the training of a “General Purpose Force” failed.

The incoming administration of President Trump has no direct links to the previous American Libya policy whatsoever. This allows to launch an entirely new initiative unaffected from previous standpoints and commitments.

This new initiative should be based – in contrary to what was attempted up to now – on a bottom-up approach. This means regional stabilization, regional elections and regional reconstruction before trying to glue the country together again.

As the current constitution drafting process cannot be expected to deliver a new constitution any time soon, a slightly modified and amended version of Libya’s 1963 constitution, nullified by Gaddafi in 1969, should be re-activated to be the foundation of the process. Amendments should include a fair distribution of the income from the hydrocarbon resources. After a sufficient amount of stability is achieved, in a few years a new constitution should be elaborated and approved by a referendum. Maybe a federalist system is the best solution for Libya?

With the arrival of the Trump administration there is a chance for a new beginning of the American Libya policy. It would be a mistake not to use this upcoming opportunity to stabilize Libya, a mistake which would probably have serious consequences for future American foreign policy in North Africa, Southern Europe and eventually also the Middle East in the near future.

A first mistake was made in 2011, when there was no efficient follow-up to the military intervention. This was named by Barack Obama “the worst mistake of his presidency.”

A new mistake now would be much more regretted by the incoming American President in the years to come


Wolfgang Pusztai, Security and Policy Analyst – Former Austrian Defense Attaché to Tunisia and Libya (2007-2012) Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on U.S. – Libya Relations



Related Articles

Leave a Reply