By Grzegorz Gil

This paper identifies three possibilities of the future development of this country (gradual stabilisation, Jihadisation and fragmentation) and considers the likelihood of each in characteristics and the international context.



On 17 February 2011 the revolution erupted with impetus in eastern Libya (Benghazi) and changed its political landscape. Qaddafi’s power base was located in the west of Libya. This explains why he lost power so easily in Cyrenaica but kept it in the west far longer.

Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, Libya was religiously homogeneous and had no strong Islamist groups, but there existed widespread dissatisfaction with corruption and the system of patronage, both exacerbated by 30% unemployment.

In eight months of revolutionary conflict Qaddafi resorted to extreme violence that further increased his illegitimacy in the eyes of both Libyans and the UN, which referred Libya to the International Criminal Court with charges of crimes against humanity.

Among the first tribes that disobeyed Qaddafi were Warfalla and Zawiya. While the former undermined the legitimacy of Qaddafi’s rule, the latter threatened to interrupt oil exports if Qaddafi continued to suppress the citizens.

The west reacted with a series of sanctions including an arms embargo, travel bans, the establishment of a no-fly zone, and the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians (UNSC Resolution 1973).

Subsequently, in July 2011 the International Contact Group on Libya formally recognised the main opposition group, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the legitimate government.

A month later the NTC formally transferred powers to the General National Congress (GNC). Nevertheless, foreign intervention of 2011 was an attempt to “liberate” Libyans from their tyrant and to ignite liberal state-building.

In fact, it prolonged civil strife as Qaddafi was able to easily put down the rebellion militarily and could have reformed Libya under his son and successor, Saif al-Qaddafi.

The humanitarian intervention nurtured the Arab Spring in the Libyan context and opened a Libyan Pandora’s box. However, being already engaged on two counterinsurgency battlefield, the United States was not the main driver.

Unsurprisingly, France and Britain and finally, NATO, took over command of operations in Libya. Leaving aside the moral justification, NATO air strikes were the coup de grâce for the staggering Qaddafi and laid the foundations for a new state to be born.

Thereafter, Libya’s political and economic prospects can be depicted in three acts after Qaddafi. One could easily notice a lack of real democratic tradition with a plethora of challenges to post-Qaddafi Libya.

Libya’s history of divisions gave credence to Qaddafi’s warnings in February 2011 that if he were ousted the country would disintegrate and Islamists would take over. Is this a real scenario? In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt Libya was a true revolution, that destroyed the entire apparatus of the state.


Libya’s Gradual Stabilisation

Getting rid of a dictator is always much easier than building a political and constitutional order. Elections to the constituent assembly were to be held within 240 days after liberation and the plan envisaged 90 additional days to draft the new constitution.

It was simply unrealistic given other transitioning states. Admittedly, Qaddafi’s reign left Libya with arguably the weakest state institutions in the Maghreb as well as a limited sense of nationhood.

On the other hand, some argue that it is better for a young democracy to build the state from scratch than to revive the remnants of a military regime.

As many Libyans had studied abroad, attaining the technocratic skills of state-building, they could understand modernisation. Yet the Libyan civil war resulted in the contraction of its economy by 62 per cent in 2011. However, it rebounded by over 100% the following year.

It is worth noticing that “stabilisation” does not necessarily mean exactly the same for interveners and Libyans, as the former officially saw Libya crisis in humanitarian terms.

Unexpected calm in Tripoli directly after the war resulted in a very limited international posture in post-conflict Libya as the feeling of its promising start prevailed. What is more, the 2014 edition of the Global Peace Index (GPI) identified Libya as among three top risers (to a “medium peace” situation), but since then the condition has seriously deteriorated.

In July 2012 optimism about Libya reached the summit when the first elections since 1965 brought to power a moderate, secular coalition government with turnout estimated at 60 per cent. Apart from technical level, the elections did not create a stronger government given the highly fragmented parliament.

As the result, new Libya’s first prime minister survived less than one month in office. As of the moment of writing Libya has had seven prime ministers since March 2014 and a dispute over premiership between Abdullah al-Thinni and Khalifa Ghweil.

To overcome this deadlock Libya needs to create a truly inclusive regime accepted by all tribes and provinces that offers access to state structures and divides the state’s natural resources in a fair way.

Wide acceptance of political and economic power distribution should be expected. Only then will state-design and allocation of money support further stabilisation.

In May 2013 a new law banning Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office was enacted forcing the then prime minister to quit. The passage of this law resulted in the loss of some of Libya’s most experienced bureaucrats and army officers, hindering administrative capacity and security sector reform.

A year later the new government revoked this law but civil strife escalated. Since June 2014 the country has been split as the east is under the control of an internationally recognized secular government based in Tobruk (HOR) and Beida (Operation Dignity forces led by General Khalifa Haftar) and backed by Egypt and UAE.

The west is controlled by the remnants of the Tripoli-based GNC backed by Islamist militias (so-called Libya Dawn military alliance), Sudan, Turkey and Qatar. Ghweil labelled them a “national salvation government”.

Consequently, today’s Libya seems to suffer two different state-building projects and no functioning police or army. What is more, the end of Qaddafi left Libya with a plethora of armed militias (katibas) with different backgrounds, capabilities, and intentions.

Under Qaddafi carrying weapons was banned but now almost everyone does it. In many regions and towns, during or shortly after the war, the rebel groups armed themselves and formed military councils that resembled some kind of localised authority.

Many of them refused to disband but in general they did not fight each other except for skirmishes in Tripoli. Secondly, some of them were included in the Ministry of Interior’s approach to absorb different revolutionary groups to a new Libyan state (the Supreme Security Committee).

In fact, this is far from effective as they are still autonomous. As the result, in the spring of 2014 the United States postponed a plan to train a “general-purpose force” of about 15 thousand in the coming years.

Yet, unlike heavily populated Egypt, Libya has a population of just six million and considerable hydrocarbon reserves that could support its stability and state-building.36 Libyan reserves are estimated at almost 47,1 billion barrels (2010) with relatively low costs of oil production.

The Sirte Basin Province with some forty huge oil fields accounts for about 80% of the country’s proven oil reserves and 90% of its production. This shows how crucial the need to rebuild infrastructure and to secure oil production will be in the future.

Although oil production recovered to 85% of its pre-war volume, since secessionists seized control over eastern oil ports in the summer of 2013, output has averaged only to 30% of pre-war levels (approximately 160,000 barrels per day).

That costs the Libyan government $130 million per day in lost revenue.38 The central issue for Libya will be to maintain the neutrality of its crucial state institutions, i.e. Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), which disburses government funds to both sides of the conflict.

On the other hand, a “resource curse” argument undermines post-conflict reconstruction as it exempts the government from institutional development thus contributing to state failure or autocracy.

In the near term, oil wealth also complicates demobilization and disarmament efforts as rebels expect well-paid state salaries that the new state cannot offer. Libya has to diversify its economy with the rise of tourism and oil services.

In addition to this challenge, oil exports are under fiscal pressure because of volatile production and weak oil prices. Undoubtedly, Libyans should pay for the stabilisation scenario as much as possible, but international society should also contribute.

The problem is that Libyan public administration is in very poor condition and probably any central government will have to face divisions and local resistance.

Despite significant military and political engagement to change Qaddafi’s regime, international actors have done little to date to support Libya’s post-conflict stabilisation.

In contrast to more robust multinational peace operations, both the UN’s (UNSMIL40) and the EU’s (EUBAM) missions are small and have no executive authority. A very limited role for the US and NATO cannot pave the way towards stability and security. However, at the beginning of 2015 international support has taken the form of UN-facilitated Geneva talks between two warring Libyan factions and rounds of political dialogue in Algeria and Morocco.

Undoubtedly, with no international peacekeeping force, the best way to stabilise Libya is to engage Libyans in a national reconciliation process. In the short run some form of decentralisation that empowers tribes or regions and bonds them with the country may be necessary. This debate will focus on several issues.

One of them concerns federal control over Libya’s investment budget with a centralised or fixed, region-by-region approach. Such an effort could give much needed security but needs to be inclusive.

Apart from the legitimacy rift between two Libyan governments, it is hard to imagine any proper political settlement without Islamists at the table. UN peace brokers also need to engage military leaders of both sides but this had not originally happened.

Thirdly, some representatives of local councils eager to consult should be invited to achieve a lasting solution. Talks could be supported by the impositions of oil sanctions on one side of the conflict but this would erase the neutrality of the UN or individual interveners and would only increase tensions that tend to further militarise Libyan affairs.

A part from these negotiations, given the regional security complex and the fragile situation in the Sahel, the central issue will be to reform Libya’s security sector and to establish an effective, modern border-management system that is only possible with international assistance.

However, it will largely depend on political will of western donors much limited by the recent financial crises, post-conflict experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, and electoral calendars. Apart from formal concerns, some observers also advocate deployment of a stabilisation force limited to Tripoli alone to deter conflict and defuse tensions.

The main object of such a mission would be to stabilise the capital, support confidence-building measures between militias, and provide security for key infrastructure. It could also support security sector reform and conduct small-scale counterterrorism actions.

This force would need 5,000–15,000 members. Asecond scenario would include stabilisation of other major cities along the Libyan coast (especially Benghazi but with a smaller presence in Misrata and Zintan) that should amount to 24,000 forces.

Finally, a third solution would take the form of a nationwide stabilisation operation and would require about three times more members and an enormous logistical effort.

Consequently, it could enable the Libyan government to “economise” local state-building. Any such effort would be politically risky, empowering spoilers, e.g., jihadists, opposed to Libya’s stabilisation. That risk goes hand in hand with mission’s size and capacity.


Grzegorz Gil – Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, Faculty of Political Science, Department of International Relations.



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