Libya today is a failed state, plagued by hollowed or nonexistent institutions, a collapsing economy, endemic violence, and the rise of localized, subnational identities.

Five years after the overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, it is hard to recall the initial optimism, even euphoria, that greeted Libya’s revolution in 2011. It was violent to be sure, but it was not prolonged. At the time, Libya was seen as a “best-case” example: an oil-rich country with a small, urbanized population that was geographically accessible and relatively homogeneous in its ethnic and sectarian makeup.

The first half of 2012 seemed to bear these arguments out. The state was brittle, but relatively stable. Western embassies and businesses returned, civil society flourished, and oil production rebounded more rapidly than anyone had expected to near-prewar levels of around 1.6 million barrels per day.1 But the clearest marker of success for many were the parliamentary elections held on July 7, 2012, which outside observers deemed transparent, fair, and, with scattered exceptions, free from violence.

Today, the Libyan state has failed. The country is split between two rival groupings beholden to a dizzying array of militias tied to towns, tribes, and local power brokers. Foreign embassies and companies are gone. Civil society activists have fled, too, or have been murdered or cowed into silence. Oil production has dropped to 300,000 barrels per day as of October 2016.2 The Libyan dinar has collapsed, leaving ordinary Libyans at the mercy of the black market to purchase medicine and basic foodstuffs, both in dangerously short supply.

Factional fighting has destroyed vast swaths of Benghazi, the seat of the revolution, and has displaced thousands of people. In the capital city of Tripoli, where a UN-backed unity government clings tenuously to power, garbage collection has stopped and entire neighborhoods suffer from ten-hour blackouts. Far to the south, crime has soared and human traffickers ferry tens of thousands of African migrants across the desert and onward to Europe.4 Meanwhile, the Islamic State managed to embed itself in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, adjacent to the strategic “oil crescent,” and in pockets elsewhere in the east and west.

How did this happen? Libyans like to quip that Libya cannot be considered a failed state because there was never any state to fail in the first place. Qaddafi had bequeathed them a hollowed-out country, bereft of governing institutions. Nowhere was this institutional vacuum more consequential than in the security sector. Qaddafi had long marginalized the regular military, fearing its potential to organize coups, and instead concentrated power in a few elite security brigades commanded by his sons. After the revolution, the loyalist brigades and security services all but evaporated and their place was taken by a multitude of militias.

In the following years, the militias’ ranks swelled and their power grew. They took control of ministries, airports, armories, oil fields, and customs posts as economic spoils and political leverage. With no means of its own to police the country, the transitional government started diverting salaries to the militias, placing them under the loose authority of the interior and defense ministries. But these ministries were themselves captured by competing factions.

The reality is that the anti-Qaddafi uprising had always been more fragmented than many realized: between the long-neglected east and the more developed west; between towns and tribes that had enjoyed Qaddafi’s favors and those that had been denied them; between dissidents, especially Islamists, who were imprisoned or exiled and technocrats who had accommodated the regime or tried to reform it; and between the older officer class that sought to preserve the structure of the army and the younger revolutionaries who wanted to demolish and remake it. On the periphery, long-repressed ethnic groups such as the Amazigh, Tabu, and Tuareg demanded greater rights in the new order.

By mid-2013, a new form of exclusionary politics had taken hold, epitomized by the push by some Islamist and revolutionary factions for a sweeping Political Isolation Law that would ban ex-regime functionaries from future public employment. A year later, Libya was in a full-blown civil war between two loosely constructed factions, each with its own government: the Dawn, representing Islamists and revolutionary strongholds in the west, such as the commercial powerhouse of Misrata; and the Dignity, representing remnants of the military, eastern tribes, and federalists, as well as a few western towns such as Zintan.

Regional meddling, present since the revolution, helped fuel the conflict. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates started funneling arms and advisers to the Dignity faction’s military leader, Khalifa Haftar, a virulently anti-Islamist Qaddafi-era military officer who had defected from the regime in the 1980s.5 For its part, the Dawn faction received arms and money from Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey.6

By December 2015, a UN-brokered agreement had halted open fighting between the two sides and created a new unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), whose members installed themselves in Tripoli in March 2016. But in August, the recognized parliament in the east, the House of Representatives, voted no confidence in the GNA.7 Segments of the population in the east, and to a lesser extent the west, remain hostile to this government; the two sides have battled over access to the Central Bank and oil revenues.8

Western governments had hoped that the threat of the Islamic State would serve as a rallying point for the two sides. It did not. GNA-allied militias from Misrata—some of them Islamist—have borne the brunt of the fighting in the Islamic State’s bastion in Sirte, while Haftar continues to battle Islamic State militants fighting alongside other Islamist militias in Benghazi. Western special operations forces have supported each faction against the Islamic State, which has had the unintended consequence of heightening their mistrust of one another.

The fragile GNA faces daunting threats to its survival. Even in Tripoli, it is unable to completely secure itself against the many militias that hold sway, let alone offer sufficient guarantees for foreign diplomats to return. Beyond this, it must find an equitable mechanism for the distribution of oil revenues and political power with the east and the south, bolster municipal-level governance, and control its borders. Most critically, it must chart a path forward for building cohesive military and police structures. This includes a process for demobilizing young men from the militias and offering them jobs, scholarships, or entry into the state’s security sector.

Providing opportunities to young Libyans will entail a massive, and probably generation-long, reform of the economy to bolster the private sector while lessening dependence on hydrocarbons, which account for more than 90 percent of government revenue.9 Despite the decline in Libya’s oil production and the drop in world oil prices, public-sector spending—the primary source of income for most Libyans—continues to be high. The country is burning through its foreign currency reserves at an alarming rate.

Libya seems headed for a period of prolonged decentralization within the framework of a very loosely unified state. Towns and municipalities will be left to their own devices. A few, such as Misrata, Tobruk, and Zuwara, have achieved some normalcy through arrangements among tribes, militias, elected officials, businesses, and even organized crime. But in most areas, especially those with mixed populations or strategic resources—for example, Benghazi, Tripoli, the Nafusa Mountains, and the Sirte Basin—the future is likely to bring simmering conflict.

Despite these tensions, it seems doubtful that Libya is headed for full partition. Conflict is often highly localized, between towns and groups within historically defined regions (for example, Barqa, Fezzan, and Tripolitania). The biggest challenge is fixing governance and power imbalances within these regions rather than detaching them from one another. Such tasks are daunting, but not insurmountable. Libyans have already shown the capacity to act forcefully against the Islamic State, eroding its power in Sirte and other footholds. This resilience, combined with a renewed Western and regional commitment to assist, could help start the country’s slow recovery.


1 Robert Tuttle and Saleh Sarrar, “Libya Oil Flow Rebounds From 10-Month Slide; Field Starts,” Bloomberg, January 6, 2014,

2 Benoit Faucon and Hassan Morajea, “Libya Plans to Load Oil at Long-Closed Port,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2016,

3 Alessandria Masi, “Libya’s Black Market Foreign Currency Exchange: From Healthcare to What’s on the Table, When the Exchange Rate Dictates Every Area of Your Life,” International Business Times, November 10, 2015,

4 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2312 (2016), October 6, 2016,

5 “Libya’s Haftar Confirms Military Support for Operation Dignity From Egypt and UAE,” Middle East Eye, January 30, 2015,

6 Fehim Taştekin, “Turkey’s War in Libya,” Al-Monitor, December 4, 2014,

7 “Libya’s UN-Backed Government Gets ‘No Confidence’ Vote,” Al Jazeera, August 23, 2011,

8 Suliman Ali Zway and Declan Walsh, “Militia Seizes Libyan Oil Terminals in Challenge to Government,” New York Times, September 11, 2016,

9 “Economic Diversification in Oil-Exporting Arab Countries,” International Monetary Fund, April 2016,


The Source: Carnegie report “Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts” by Perry Cammack, Michele Dunne, Amr Hamzawy, Marc Lynch, Marwan Muasher, Yezid Sayigh, and Maha Yahya

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