By Alexander A. Decina, Darine El Hage and Nathaniel L. Wilson

Libyans need new elections to produce a competent and electorally legitimate government that the international community can support in navigating the myriad challenges the country faces….That said, elections themselves present a major risk.



The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist Factions

If they fear losing standing in the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood may well attempt to instigate protests and violent reactions among more extreme followers.

Although the Islamist-dominated GNC is no longer a meaningful entity, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a player in Libya. Today it likely has a substantial, if not dominant, faction within the High Council of State.

Indeed, the HCS voted for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khaled al-Mishri to be its president in April 2018. Given this position, the Muslim Brotherhood may have influence—if not veto power—on the election laws that an HCS and HoR joint committee is tasked with drafting.

The Muslim Brotherhood may also have some influence through its informal relationships with Salafi jihadist and Islamist militias, in the past funneling logistical support to these fighters in Benghazi and elsewhere.

In addition, pro-GNC, pro–Muslim Brotherhood militias still exist—mainly in the west—and continue to oppose the GNA, but the Muslim Brotherhood has not demonstrated ability to control them.

Because the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist political figures have no control over any militias, they cannot directly conduct violence to inhibit elections. However, if they fear losing standing in the elections, they may well attempt to instigate protests and violent reactions among more extreme followers.

Given that the Muslim Brotherhood has reportedly received support from Qatar and Turkey, these powers may have some influence and ability to pressure it to support rather than disrupt the electoral process and other state-building efforts.

– Salafi Jihadist Groups, the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda

Various Salafi jihadist groups are likely to remain outside of, and may attempt to disrupt, the political process. Although some of these groups have received indirect support from the Islamist-dominated GNC, they have consistently rejected any central government—regardless of whether it is controlled by secularists, the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other faction.

The most prominent include, but are not limited to, the following:

The Islamic State has taken and subsequently lost multiple swaths of territory since it emerged in Libya in 2014. That September, the group took control of much of the eastern city of Derna, holding it until April 2016, when it was driven out by a combination of Haftar’s offensives and attacks by competing jihadist groups.

In the spring of 2015, the Islamic State took control of the central city of Sirte from Libya Dawn, holding it until December 2016, when Misratan militias and the GNA-affiliated Petroleum Facilities Guard retook the city.

In early 2016, the Islamic State took control of parts of Sabratha in western Libya, but competing militias recaptured the city in October 2017. Although the Islamic State has lost most of its territorial control, it continues to operate clandestinely in areas across Libya, conducting attacks against multiple factions.

One such attack, when two suicide bombers targeted the High National Election Commission’s headquarters in Tripoli and killed at least fourteen people on May 2, 2018, underscores how serious a threat the Islamic State and other jihadist factions pose to elections and to Libyans working toward peace writ large.

Al-Qaeda exists in two main capacities in Libya—al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and loosely linked groups that emerged out of the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

AQIM, along with a handful of groups that have splintered away from it, operate in southwestern Libya in cooperation with Tuareg tribes and other interstate factions, taking advantage of the porous borders and operating lucrative smuggling networks in the Sahel region.

Because of its distance from Libya’s main cities and vital infrastructure, AQIM has been relatively removed from the current conflict. Al-Qaeda’s loosely affiliated groups in the northeast that broke away from the LIFG, however, have been far more involved.

The most prominent of these, Ansar al-Sharia Libya, operated in Benghazi and led the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council to fight Haftar from the summer of 2014 to the spring of 2017.

These groups in the northeast largely collapsed after Haftar’s operations in Benghazi and either joined the Islamic State or formed the Benghazi Defense Brigades.

The Benghazi Defense Brigades are an assortment of Islamist fighters—many of whom are connected to the now-defunct Ansar al-Sharia Libya—who fled Benghazi after Haftar’s military operations there.

The brigades mainly operate in parts of central Libya and briefly took control of key infrastructure in the oil crescent and Jufra farther south before Haftar’s forces drove them out.

The Benghazi Defense Brigades are at odds with the GNA but have had a cooperative relationship with some Misratan militias.

The stated objectives of most of these and other jihadist groups include the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and the implementation of sharia (and indeed many of these groups do implement some version of sharia).

Their more immediate objectives, however, have been to dominate patronage networks outside those that would fall under a state apparatus and to accrue power and money.

Successful central governance is a profound threat to the success of these groups, and to prevent such an outcome they are very likely to disrupt HNEC activities in the lead-up to and during elections.

Interests and Grievances

An understanding of competing interests and grievances at play in Libya offers insight into the nature and intensity of violence expected before, during, and after elections.

Interests at stake center around the state institutions needed to capitalize on Libya’s oil resources and sovereign wealth.

Grievances include polarization over the role of former and current Gadhafists, perceived Gadhafists, and Haftar; the secular-Islamist divide; and localized divisions, sometimes within camps and tribes, across the country.

Control over Resources and State Institutions

That the winner of the next elections may gain control of the Investment Authority and access to Libya’s frozen assets makes the elections all the more contentious.

Since Gadhafi’s fall, Libya’s militias and political factions have fought over Libya’s lucrative oil fields, production facilities, terminals, and the institutions needed to monetize these resources—the National Oil Corporation, the Central Bank of Libya, and the Libyan Investment Authority (Libya’s sovereign wealth fund).

Although these three institutions are all under control of the GNA, Libya’s most lucrative oil fields and terminals, which span from Es Sidre to Zuetina, are under LNA control, complicating Tripoli’s efforts to export.

Following the political division that resulted from the 2014 parliamentary elections, the HoR established and attempted to operate its own rival National Oil Company, Central Bank, and parallel sovereign wealth fund, but throughout 2014 and 2015, oil sales were significantly reduced and inconsistent.

Although the parallel institutions have not formally disbanded, the HoR and the LNA have come to deals with the GNA’s National Oil Corporation to sell oil via Tripoli, and, since the GNA was established, Libya has been able to increase its outputs, reaching 1.05 million barrels per day in April 2018.

Despite these improvements, the situation is highly precarious—most recently demonstrated in a succession of contestations over eastern oil terminals in June and July 2018 by Haftar, elements of the Petroleum Facilities Guard and the Benghazi Defense Brigades, and the competing oil companies.

The summer 2018 issues have since been resolved, but the situation remains fragile. Control over Libya’s oil resources and related institutions will be hotly contested in the next elections.

Beyond capitalizing on Libya’s current and future oil sales, Libya’s $67 billion sovereign wealth fund is also at stake. The Libyan Investment Authority is intended to control this fund, but most of it was frozen by the United States and European countries in 2011 to prevent theft and abuse by competing Libyan factions.

The Investment Authority has been a source of consternation and is a focal point for potentially violent competition. In August 2018, the body accused the nominally pro-GNA militia that was tasked with guarding it of extorting and coercing its employees. As a result, it was forced to relocate to an undisclosed location.

That the winner of the next elections may gain control of the Investment Authority and access to Libya’s frozen assets makes the elections all the more contentious.

Anti-Gadhafi Sentiments and Policies, and Divisions over Haftar Another source of tension lingering in the post-Gadhafi era is that of Gadhafi himself and former regime figures.

Since the uprisings, Misratan and Islamist factions have seen the NFA and eastern factions (which now dominate the HoR) as being littered with former Gadhafi officials.

In May 2013, the Islamist-dominated GNC pushed through the Political Isolation Law to prevent any members of the former Gadhafi regime from holding office.

In February 2015, however, the HoR revoked the law. Any attempt to reconstitute another version of this policy will likely be a trigger for violence. Concurrently, attempts by Gadhafists to run for the presidency and parliament will also be a trigger for violence.

In addition to anti-Gadhafi sentiments, strong anti-Haftar sentiments also exist among Libyans—especially those in the west who fear Haftar will attempt to retake all of Libya by force, as he has vowed to do. 49 Should Haftar run for or win the presidency, he indeed could provoke a violent reaction from his opponents.

Secular-Islamist Divide and Libya’s Proxy War

Most Libyans are fairly conservative Muslims, but many are divided into ostensibly secular and Islamist factions. Those in the secular camp are for the most part aligned with the NFA and LNA and, having performed well in the 2014 elections, dominate the HoR.

Those in the Islamist camp formed the Muslim Brotherhood and, having come to dominate the GNC, remained with it and Libya Dawn militias during the HoR-GNC standoff.

Libya’s Islamists have also had connections with harder-line Salafist militias, many of which operated outside the GNC’s security apparatus.

These Islamists have promoted a range of governance models for Libya, from a constitution based on Islamic law to harsher variations of Islamic governance. Tensions between secular and Islamist factions are expected to manifest in the next elections and may well result in violence.

A secular-Islamist divide, however, is not the best framing for Libya outside discussion of the foreign involvement that these inclinations attract.

Although these labels can be used to identify two broad domestic camps in the conflict, major disputes have largely centered on control of state institutions and patronage networks rather than religious or irreligious policies, and neither Islamist nor secular ideology has been an overriding factor in determining alliances.

Nonetheless, these camps have attracted foreign support on the basis of their purported ideologies. The secular camp has reportedly attracted support from the UAE and Egypt, and the Islamist from Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan. That these external actors’ competitions have manifested in proxy conflict has complicated and intensified Libya’s conflict.

This competition is likely to continue into elections, because external parties will want to ensure that their Libyan proxies take control of state institutions and resources and diminish the influence of their competitors.

Divisions Within the East, West, and South

Although Haftar’s LNA dominates the east, and Misratan and other Tripolitanian militias largely dominate the west, divisions exist within these areas.

Violence in each of these areas presents major obstacles to the High National Election Commission’s elections and current and future governance efforts.

In eastern Libya, tensions within the LNA and Operation Dignity have grown far more acute since the defeat of Ansar al-Sharia.

In late March 2016, elements of the Petroleum Facilities Guard defected from the LNA, opting to support the GNA, and even began cooperating with former opponents in Misrata to fight the Islamic State in Sirte.

Since then, the Petroleum Facilities Guard and the LNA have clashed over oil infrastructure and territory in the oil crescent. Other militias and key figures who were once supporters of Haftar have also reportedly defected since the GNA took its seat in Tripoli.

Within the rest of the LNA are rifts between the regular LNA units and the Special Forces, tensions among tribes, and tensions between native eastern tribes and Haftar.

In the west, divisions exist in and around Tripoli among pro-GNA militias, militias supporting the remnants of the GNC, and tribal factions, and these sides have clashed periodically.

In October 2016, this fighting came to a head as pro-GNC militias attempted a coup against the GNA. In Misrata, tensions simmer between hard-line and more pragmatic militias.

Misratan divisions have not often lead to open fighting—especially during the height of the current conflict when Misratan militias stayed consolidated to face Haftar—but the city’s militias are by no means in lockstep.

As they do in the east, geographic, tribal, and ethnic rivalries pervade in the west. The Misrata-Zintan rivalry saw fierce clashes over Tripoli in 2014, and though factions reached a reconciliation agreement in March 2018, friction between them likely persists.

Clashes in Tripoli between Misratan and Tripoli militias supporting the GNA have mainly been over the presence of Misratan forces in the capital.

This fighting was most prominent in March 2017 and resulted in a tenuous ceasefire that month. In addition, Sabratha has seen fighting between local clans and GNA forces, discord between Arabs and Berbers continues, and tensions are high between Misratan militias and localities seen as pro-Gadhafi—most notably Sirte and Tawergha.

Although eastern and western cities and towns along Libya’s coast have commanded most observers’ attention, significant divisions are also present in the south.

These include tensions among Arab, Tebu, and Tuareg tribes over oil resources and smuggling networks, as well as tensions among factions in the south that have aligned with the LNA, the GNA, or the GNC.


Alexander A. Decina is an Amman-based analyst and Boren Fellow focused on conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa with particular attention to factional dynamics, security and political developments, and diplomatic efforts in Libya and Syria. A Middle East and North Africa consultant, he conducts predictive and diagnostic analysis on conflicts across the region for private-sector clientele.

Darine El Hage is a regional program manager for North Africa at USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Nathaniel L. Wilson is a program officer covering Libya for USIP, leading its programming in rule of law and local reconciliation peacebuilding initiatives.





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