By Emadeddin Badi
Libya’s conflict was already an internecine struggle before Covid-19 gripped the North African country and brought its citizens more suffering.
The Covid-19 pandemic has overwhelmed some of the most developed and technologically advanced healthcare systems worldwide, in addition to threatening the global economy.
It has also triggered a tilt towards more autocratic policy options as even some of the most democratically leaning states have faced challenges in terms of securing the compliance of their populations to preventative social distancing measures.
In the MENA region, states’ pre-existing vulnerabilities in the economic, social, and political spheres have also been exacerbated. The region’s governing authorities’ have either failed the test of wielding tools of governance as their public health response foundered or are likely to retain and usurp the special powers they have deployed to contain the spread.
Libya, a divided state that has been decaying for the past nine years, is likely to be the theater of an idiosyncratic combination of both scenarios.
Libya’s healthcare system, already frail and underdeveloped during the Gaddafi era, has experienced continuous deterioration over the years that followed the revolution. The country was thus, by design, particularly vulnerable to a severe Covid-19 outbreak.
Without doubt, the contemporary spread of the virus is having devastating public health implications, with health across the country being already overwhelmed.
The pandemic has also negatively affected the country’s political and has exacerbated pre-existing social rifts that had already been laid bare by the civil war ignited by General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) with the launch of an offensive on Libya’s capital – Tripoli – in April 2019.
Amidst an already precarious situation characterized by scarcity of resources and supply shortages, Covid-19 has also brought to light institutional cracks that put populations such as migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people (IDPs) – already at the margins of service delivery – in even more vulnerable positions.
Libya’s first case of Covid-19 was identified on 24 March, 2020. Though the magnitude of the spread was somewhat limited in the first two months that followed, cases have exponentially increased since July, with over 29,000 total cases being reported in September 2020 as per Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
Of these, 460 have died and some 15,913 have recovered. Yet, official statistics do not accurately reflect the real number of cases, which are likely underreported owing to limited testing capacities.
Monitoring the outbreak in Libya is particularly challenging: a little under 50,000 tests have been conducted, with over half of these being in Tripoli.
Despite the number of Covid-19 laboratories having expanded from five laboratories in four municipalities in May to 15 across eight of Libya’s municipalities in August, the increased geographic reach of testing capacity has failed to translate into improved containment strategies.
Aside from the dearth in testing, which has hampered efforts to track the spread of the virus, citizens’ unwillingness to comply with containment procedures and curfews has also catalyzed the proliferation of cases.
Yet, despite its increasingly devastating socio-economic and health impact, Libyans’ experience with Covid-19 has unfolded almost in a world of its own, barely impacting the Libyan civil war and its dynamics. Instead, civilians across the country bear the brunt of the virus’ spread as authorities governing their areas fail to govern and usher in an appropriate public health response.
Ominously, the spread of the pandemic has also occurred against the backdrop of an unprecedented internationalization of the Libyan conflict, with foreign powers more directly involved in driving the conflict than ever before.
However, instead of triggering a concerted diplomatic effort to bring an end to the protracted violence, the concomitance of the virus’ spread with the globalization of the “civil” war has compounded Western indifference towards the North African country and undermined prospects for a peaceful resolution of its citizens’ plight.
As a global black swan event, the pandemic has also exacerbated domestic and international actors’ tendency to pursue policy choices driven by self-interest and zero-sum calculations at the expense of local populations.
The result is, quite literally, the war equivalent of a tragedy of the commons, a scenario in which neither Libya’s political elite nor their proxy backers are likely to win, but where Libyans definitely lose as disease and violence ravages their country.
Western Indifference, Oil Politics and Covid-19
The internationalization of Libya’s war since the launch of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive beginning 4 April 2020 on the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has had an impact on the ability and willingness of Libya’s authorities to respond to the pandemic.
The surprise offensive, green-lit by Washington and launched days before a UN-brokered Libyan national conference was organized, has placed Libya at the center of several overlapping geopolitical rivalries.
Western complacency in the face of a potential Libyan relapse into authoritarianism under Haftar betrayed a degree of duplicity permeating the foreign policy apparatus of most Western countries.
The failure to condemn the attack – let alone act against it – provided Turkey the opportunity to exert disproportionate leverage on the GNA, which it intervened to protect against Haftar, and more importantly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Moscow also capitalized on the West’s indifference to scale up its military presence in Libya by transferring jets and mercenaries to support the LAAF.
In this kaleidoscopic landscape, Covid-19 is but an added layer of complexity that – while having devastating impact on Libya’s socio-economic conditions – has not tapered the forces driving its conflict.
The ability of Libya’s domestic actors to pursue their zero-sum calculations and drive their own country to ruin in the process has been afforded by the unabated military support which they have received from their international backers.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has not diminished this trend, contributing instead to its exacerbation.
Overall, the pandemic was, by and large, perceived as a window of opportunity by proxy powers, one which they sought to utilize to advance their foreign policy agenda against their adversaries in Libya.
Indeed, even while Libya’s main proxy meddlers – such as the UAE, Turkey, and Russia – were domestically grappling with the virus’ spread, they significantly escalated their foreign-operated airstrikes as well as their transfers of weapons and mercenaries to Libya.
Yet, despite Libya’s military and political spheres gradually becoming the battleground for these meddlers to settle scores, they preferred direct intervention over propping up the capabilities of their local allies.
In that sense, while the dimensions and manifestations of the Libyan conflict grew more international, this did not translate into improved governance capabilities or a better public health response by domestic parties, which prioritized the war effort instead.
In addition, the global economic downturn that the pandemic has spurred, coupled with a drop in global oil prices, has also affected the behavior of local and international actors in the Libyan theater.
Foreign meddlers ironically intensified their interventionism in Libya at the same time they experienced a surge of cases and were confronted with economic woes back home.
Depending on their geostrategic calculations and perceived opportunity costs, foreign actors disregarded the financial burden of their involvement or the reputational risks their actions may engender.
For instance, the Turkish lira’s depreciation did not act as a deterrent for Turkey’s military entrenchment in Western Libya, a momentum which grew more apparent after the GNA’s capture of Wutiya airbase in late May.
Similarly, in July, the UAE – conspiring with Moscow – also wilfully disrupted a US-backed deal that would have seen Haftar’s six-month long blockade on Libyan oil exports lifted.
In other words, the pandemic prompted middle powers to capitalize on Western indifference to pursue expansionism; a policy choice achieved at the expense of Libya’s socio-economic wellbeing.
This further hampered the ability to coordinate a public health response, putting the onus on Libya’s divided, corrupt, feeble, and contending governing authorities to organize it themselves.
Dysfunctional and Divided Response
The confluence of these geopolitical calculations played into Libyan parties’ decision to shun German efforts to broker a ceasefire following the Libya-related Berlin Summit of January 2020.
The United Nations’ Secretary General appeal for a global ceasefire to help unite efforts to fight Covid-19 in vulnerable countries in early March also fell on deaf ears.
Instead, both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and authorities in eastern Libya – the House of Representatives, the Interim Government, and the LAAF – attempted to put in place curfews, closed educational institutions, and launched modest awareness campaigns to encourage social distancing in their respective areas of control, preferring a dysfunctional and divided response over a nationally-coordinated effort.
In Western Libya, the GNA was swift to create a US$358 million fund to combat the outbreak in March, but it did not specify where it would spend the funds, nor did it outline a viable crisis management plan.
The LAAF securitized the response to the pandemic by creating a Covid-19 committee headed by figures aligned with Khalifa Haftar, including his chief of staff. The LAAF committee was more concerned with stifling criticism over shortcomings in the public health response than with containing the spread.
However, in their attempts to compartmentalize their divided public health response from their respective mobilization for war, these actors undermined the former while prioritizing the latter.
Perhaps no image captures the contradiction better than one taken by Egyptian-Canadian photographer Ammru Salahuddien, which shows a GNA fighter in Tripoli’s frontline holding his rifle while wearing a surgical mask.
In line with the tragedy of the commons, domestic parties, egged on by their international backers, pursued narrow self-interests, inadvertently self-sabotaging their own country in the process.
In many respects, the pandemic has become merely another facet of Libya’s conflict. Across the Libyan territory are various vulnerable populations, not in the least citizens in Western Libya, particularly those in Tripoli.
Other vulnerable segments of society include migrants, refugees, IDPs, women, and children, all of which have faced several constraints in their ability to take precautionary measures against the virus owing to the ongoing war.
Emadeddin Badi Emadeddin Badi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Atlantic Council. He is a researcher and political analyst that focuses on governance, conflict and the political economy of Libya and the Sahel. He has worked with multiple development organizations as a consultant, with a focus on mainstreaming conflict sensitivity within the programming of post-conflict stabilization initiatives in Libya as well as providing analysis regarding local conflict dynamics in the country.
Source: Chapter 1: The politics of pandemics: Evolving regime-opposition dynamics in the MENA region.