By Jonathan M. Winer

In the 42 years preceding the 2011 uprising, Gaddafi controlled all power in Libya. Since the uprising, Libyans, fragmented by geography, tribe, ideology, and history, have resisted having anyone, foreigner or Libyan, telling them what to do.



Although micro-skirmishes over territory are common, at a macro level Libya achieved some stability under the first 36 months of the GNA, despite growing criticism, especially of Prime Minister Sarraj’s dependence on militias in Tripoli.

However, that near-term stability did not resolve the issues over grievance, greed, power-sharing, separatism, and personalities that have fractured the country since Gaddafi’s fall.

An example of that type of violence took place at the end of August 2018, when competing militias attacked one another in Tripoli’s suburbs with heavy weaponry, killing dozens of civilians, prompting international warnings, and leading to a call for a ceasefire by PM Sarraj with uncertain results.

The ability of the prime minister and his government to maintain their presence in Tripoli continues to be put at risk by such violence. The legitimacy of every major actor and institution in Libya is built on shaky ground.

In any circumstance – if militia violence forces Sarraj out of Tripoli, renewed fighting breaks out in the oil crescent, conflict erupts over the Sharara oil fields in Libya’s southwest, or elections take place whose outcomes are not honored – it is likely that the legitimacy of Libya’s institutions will wither further over time amid deepening functional failure that invites competing forces to establish new facts on the ground.

That, in turn, risks the escalation of broader civil conflict, as threatened to engulf the country in 2014, and which was averted when international actors, as well as Libyans, pulled back from the brink.

As of early 2019, there are signs General Hifter may again be thinking about trying to take over the country through a mixture of conquest and popular acclamation, in the grand Gaddafist tradition.

At best, such a restoration would require repressing alternatives, with all that entails, and risk the unintended consequence of giving new oxygen to terrorists.

Beyond grand conflict, failure to move forward politically threatens further exerted now by the Sarraj government. With no one seen to be in charge, territorial disputes among militias and warlords are likely to escalate.

Criminal and terrorist groups, already exploiting weak governance, could well look for opportunities to enhance their positions, through capturing territory or placing Libya in a situation where security in many areas becomes a choice between unelected and unaccountable warlords and terrorist groups.

In this environment, Libya would likely again see a breakdown in oil production, amid a return to energy hostage-taking through extortion to shut off pipes or block terminals. Sustained conflict over energy would put not only the entire sector, but also the entire economy at risk.

That, in turn, would further threaten nationwide infrastructure failure (electricity and water), governance failure (cash, food, and health), and a downward spiral of atomization, emigration, migrant trafficking, and terrorism, east to Egypt, west to Tunisia and perhaps Algeria, and north to Italy, while worsening conditions to Libya’s south.

In this scenario, it is hard to imagine Italy and Egypt, for example, allowing Libya to export chaos and threaten their own security. The national interest of all of these countries, as well as of Europe generally and of regional actors, is to ensure that the nightmare of Libya coming actively apart does not come to pass.


Libyans are experts at boycotting initiatives designed to help them achieve progress in governance. No one within Libya has had the ability, the position, and the will to act as a convener of a national process.

Whatever chance the UN has to do this depends on international actors convincing Libyans that a negotiated settlement and elections are the only viable way forward, rather than a military dictatorship, partition, or holding on to the shaky status quo.

To succeed, any deal will need to address political, security, and economic issues simultaneously. While the tracks can be separate, progress is required on all three for any of them to work in the long run.

For diplomatic efforts to produce results, internationals must work together to prevent any illegal oil exports, acting within the UN as needed to secure authorizations for measures to stop any such exports, if necessary on the high seas.

The U.S. boarded and seized one such ship carrying oil that had been grabbed by easterners, the Morning Glory, with UN approval on March 17, 2014, and united action by the UN Security Council resulted in the deflagging by India and return to port of a second such vessel on April 26, 2016.

These actions were critical to countering eastern secessionist efforts and reducing the risk of a broader war over resources. Those who have been political winners under the existing system, either by obtaining control of state expenditures or support from foreign patrons, have demonstrated they are willing to see Libya as a whole decline so long as they maintain their own power.

The country will not get beyond its current impasse unless outside actors with Libyan clients ensure those clients accept compromises to enable the government to move forward.

For a political settlement to be possible, there must be continuing unified foreign support for the Salamé-led UN process with countries withholding backing to anyone responsible for missing deadlines.

The first step in this is insisting that representatives of all factions meet together somewhere in Libya to discuss reforms and to agree, at least, on the scheduling of elections to give the Libyan people their first opportunity in five years to vote on and thereby select their leaders.

Should elections actually take place, there must be unified foreign support for whoever is elected to run the country, whether as prime minister by parliamentary agreement under the current system, or by direct popular vote as a result of enactment of a presidential system by constitutional declaration or a permanent constitution.

To provide stability, Libya’s leaders would need to be elected with a strong national mandate, govern with competence and inclusiveness, initiate economic and security reforms early, and secure comprehensive and rigorous international support from the outset.

Any gaps in these foundations would be likely to lead to cracks in any new government’s legitimacy, effectiveness, and stability, engendering contests for power, and the risk of renewed conflict.

One notable feature of the draft constitution is that whoever is elected president by direct vote of the people also becomes commander in chief, subjecting the military to civilian control.

A popular referendum on a constitution would enable the Libyan people to support or reject a permanent legal framework for their government. The HoR would need to vote to set the date for such a referendum, and set out a clear road map for the contingency that the Libyan people reject it.

Getting all of this done would be very hard. For this reason, it appears the UN has now recommended postponing the proposed referendum on a permanent constitution and instead moving to another interim government, through getting the HoR to pass another constitutional declaration amendment which would set the rules and the date for elections.

Even this simplified plan requires overcoming a number of obstacles, starting with the fact that any meaningful elections will threaten the patronage networks of Libyan’s existing leaders.

Whatever their promises in principle, such figures often prove loath to give up power in practice. For progress to be made, all of these constituencies and more must receive some share of Libya’s wealth.

Elections, therefore, are not alone sufficient: sharing resources is essential. For elections to have legitimacy, Libyans must agree on the structure of the government and measures to ensure its inclusiveness.

Geographic balancing is likely to be essential in practice for elections to move forward. An obvious compromise would be to distribute some key national functions to Benghazi, historically Libya’s second city, where security is now provided by LNA forces, as well as some other key agencies such as the NOC headquarters.

There has been little visible progress on any of this since the May 29, 2018 Paris agreement. A conference hosted by Italy in Palermo on November 12, 2018 was supposed to ratify the commitments made in Paris, but ended without further substantive agreement on anything.

Italy, like France before it, treated General Hifter like a head of state, even as he engaged in a semi-boycott of the event, attending at the last minute at the behest of Egypt and refusing to participate in meetings with political opponents.

To achieve security for the long run, Libya requires national security institutions that include a national army as well as local police forces to supplant militias. Building these necessitates further reconciliation between the forces assembled by General Hifter in the east as the LNA, and other members of the Libyan Army who served under Gaddafi but who have been located elsewhere.

Some form of military council would promote inclusion and alignment, accompanied by some additional force to reduce the risk of a coup. Militia members willing to give their allegiance to the state should be allowed to join local police or the national army on an individual basis.

One could create incentives to make this possible by introducing a salary differential for those entering legitimate state institutions in lieu of militias, and then phasing militia salaries out over time.

Inflation, through the devaluation of the Libyan dinar, can assist in this process. One fundamental barrier to such plans is that it is unlikely to be in the interest of any of the leaders of Libya’s militias, or those who rely on them.

There are economic reforms that would make a huge difference for the Libyan economy and create jobs and opportunity for the Libyan

people. Libya should devalue the formal exchange rate until it reaches equilibrium with the black market rate.

The government should:

(a) eliminate fuel subsidies to counter smuggling and the black market;

(b) make cash payments to individuals and families who have been verified through the national ID system to offset the loss of money due to the elimination of subsidies;

(c) increase salaries of those who actually do real jobs and who agree to accept the civilian authority of a new president;

(d) agree on a formula for revenue sharing with municipalities on a per capita basis to give them a stake in a united, productive Libya; and

(e) undertake new contracting activity to rebuild national infrastructure and to provide jobs and opportunities.

A government taking these steps would see Libya’s economy rapidly grow and foreign investors and companies return. More oil could be identified and extracted; natural gas resources could be properly exploited; and Libya’s location and comparatively smaller population would again enable it to become a destination for workers from neighboring countries in need of jobs.

Effective implementation of the UN road map including national elections on whatever date by which there is sufficient Libyan consensus on an accompanying package of reforms, could lead to the creation of a unified country and a better functioning government.

Failure to do so will continue to provide an environment in which warlords and would-be-dictators will plot less democratic, and riskier, paths.

Libya remains riddled with landmines from past wars, both literally and metaphorically.

When these landmines blow up, they serve as reminders of just how much must be overcome for Libya to successfully navigate the path to security, stability, and peace.


Jonathan M. Winer has been the United States Special Envoy for Libya, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and counsel to United States Senator John Kerry. He has written and lectured widely on U.S. Middle East policy, counter-terrorism, international money laundering, illicit networks, corruption, and U.S.-Russia issues.


Middle East Institute

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