By Y. Abulkher

As springtime temperatures rise, the Libyan capital area of Tripoli heads into a new season of longer electricity outages.


This year, a blockade imposed by pro-LNA factions on all crude-oil extraction in protest of the GNA-backed Turkish intervention may exacerbate the electricity crisis even further compared to previous years.

Indeed, some power plants require fuel to operate at a time when domestic refineries are shuttered and imports become subject to stricter budget limitations.

Moreover, reduction in economic activity due to Covid-19-related measures may prove insufficient to yield appreciable relief on the households’ front.

Against 2020’s unusual backdrop, this policy brief dissects the main dynamics of the nine-year-long electricity crisis affecting Tripoli. In doing so, it provides an overview of how the crisis has been politicized, exploited and exacerbated by Libya’s civil war and illicit economy actors.


Since April 2019, Libya’s civil war – between the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the eastern- based Libyan National Army (LNA) – has worsened living conditions in the capital, Tripoli.

The electricity infrastructure has been one of the collateral victims of Libya’s conflict while, in general, public assets and their maintenance have been neglected for years.

This policy brief looks at the electricity crisis affecting the greater Tripoli area, where the mismanagement, exploitation and politicisation of Libya’s third-largest industrial sector has had serious consequences for the safety of its citizens and the country’s economy.

At this time of year, power outages are relatively tolerable in Libya. Going into the summer, however, temperatures will rise and blackouts will last longer and become more frequent.

Even if the lockdown currently in place in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic causes a reduction in electricity consumption by industries and businesses, the risk of long outages remains.

Moreover, the almost-complete blockade on oil exports since mid-January, imposed by pro-LNA factions in protest against the GNA-backed Turkish intervention, is likely to create severe shortages of diesel and other refined products needed to run some of greater Tripoli’s power plants.

Tripoli’s electricity crisis has its roots in infrastructural deficiencies resulting from the halt of development projects and direct and indirect attacks on electricity installations. It affects a considerable portion of the industry and has links with illicit activities.

This document begins by providing an overview of the infrastructural and administrative weaknesses leading to the crisis. It then shows how the crisis is linked to the conflict per se and analyses how it is exacerbated by various actors.

It also refers to a parallel and associated health and environmental crisis due to the piles of rubbish that have accumulated since the beginning of the civil war in April 2019, before concluding and providing recommendations.

An Overview of the Infrastructural and Administrative Deficiencies

Libya’s electricity infrastructure has been in decline since the 1990s, when international sanctions made it difficult for Gaddafi’s regime to hire foreign engineering companies.

Between 2004 and 2010, Tripoli became less isolated and its finances improved. However, the Libyan authorities did not seize the opportunity to carry out the drastic overhaul that the country’s electricity grid needed.

By February 2011, Libya had entered a period of uncertainty, fragmentation and conflict, which is ongoing.

Many components of Libya’s infrastructure, including its electricity grid, have received minimal maintenance for decades. They have also been damaged by the various bouts of warfighting.

What is more, hardly any development projects were undertaken to compensate for damage to the sector and increasing demand due to the refusal of foreign contractors to operate in Libya’s security environment, especially since the abduction of Turkish electrical engineers in 2017.

According to the General Electrical Company of Libya (GECOL), Libya’s public electricity monopoly, there is a power deficiency of approximately 25 per cent – with production averaging 5,800 megawatts (MW) against maximum consumption of 7,500 MW.

With consumption projected to double to 15,000 MW within the next 10 years, these stagnant production levels are expected to cause an irreversible failure nationwide.

Power outages in Tripoli typically last five hours per day during spring and autumn and for up to 40 hours at a time in the peak summer and winter months.

This results in drastically reduced productivity and revenue, the death of newborn babies in hospital incubators, the spread of respiratory difficulties attributable to ubiquitous power-generator smoke, and the undermining of morale among the capital’s citizens.

Since 2011, our initial civil and political rights’ demands have disintegrated to no more than the basic rights to safety, cash liquidity and electricity,’ said one Tripoli resident in an interview.

GECOL adopts a programme of power load shedding, i.e. rationing power outage hours in a manner that is proportionate to electricity consumption per area.

However, Tripoli – home to over half the country’s permanent and displaced population – bears the overwhelming and often sole share of power load shedding in the entire western region.

The cities of Janzour and Tajoura, on the outskirts of Tripoli, refuse to fully take part in the programme, and cities such as Zawiya, Misrata and those in the western mountains often take no responsibility for alleviating the nationwide power crisis.

Over and above illegal power connections, theft of copper wires, sabotage of transmission towers and destruction of power stations by petty criminals and armed groups, institutional corruption is a major contributor to the crisis.

The Libyan Audit Bureau has accused GECOL – which has received approximately 8 billion Libyan dinars (€5.1 billion) over the past eight years – of serious administrative negligence and operational mismanagement estimated to have reduced output capacity by more than a half.

Engulfment in the Illicit and War Economies

Infrastructural and administrative deficiencies aside, the Tripoli electricity crisis is a prime example of the gradual, and often accidental, exploitation of public infrastructure weaknesses in the politics of the ongoing civil war – through two main mechanisms.

First, power generator dealers and other profiteers recognised that they could exploit the continuing crisis by selling alternatives to public electricity and increasing the price of diesel in the black market.

Since 2011, household and commercial electricity generators, often of a much poorer quality than advertised, have flooded the country, promoted via sponsored social media advertisements by dealers with access to foreign currency.

Several testimonials collected in interviews point to the involvement of illicit economic actors attacking energy infrastructure or control room operators in Tripoli, leading to outages until generator stocks are sold out.

Because the generator market is so lucrative, and because most generators run off diesel, diesel is often removed from fuel stations to private warehouses – mostly in Libya’s western coastal region and during the peak consumption months – where it is sold on the black market at 12 times the official rate.

The second mechanism has been the control or disruption of the power supply for leverage, protest, retaliation or the exertion of influence.

Outside of Tripoli, stronghold districts and cities that are far less militarily fragmented than the capital refuse to pick up any power load shedding hours, often by force.

A recurring source of disruption comes from the city of Zawiya, where in 2017 gas gauges from its power station were closed in protest at the kidnapping of local people in Wersheffana. This resulted in a total blackout and the nationwide electricity network being compromised.

Last July, armed groups from the city cut off the south’s power supply, to which southern armed groups retaliated by forcing the Libyan Man-made River Authority to disrupt the water supply to western and central Libya for weeks.

Subsequently, control of the power supply is influential on the premise that it offers an opportunity for patronage, as was true for the commander of the Abu Slim force in central Tripoli.

For years he threatened the nearby control rooms against administering any (high) power outages in the district. This made him popular with local residents and gave him legitimacy, despite public consensus against irregular armed groups in the capital.


Y. Abulkher, a Tripoli native, is now a PhD candidate based in the Netherlands and has previously worked for international missions and public administrations in Libya.


Clingendael – the Netherlands Institute of International Relations – is a leading think tank and academy on international affairs. Through our analyses, training and public debate we aim to inspire and equip governments, businesses, and civil society in order to contribute to a secure, sustainable and just world.



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