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.



Between 1 January and 30 June 2020, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has documented hundreds of civilian casualties due to airstrikes, ground clashes, and shelling.

Eighty percent of these casualties have been attributable to the LAAF, with many civilian returnees dying from the explosion of landmines left by Haftar’s forces and Russian mercenaries before they retreated from Tripoli’s suburbs towards Sirte and Jufra in June of 2020.

Explosive ordinance has constrained citizens’ ability to access basic supplies and services, but also severely hampered humanitarian organizations attempting to reach Libya’s at-risk populations.

The geographic expansion of the conflict towards Tarhuna, and subsequently towards Sirte, has also generated waves of IDPs that are highly vulnerable to an outbreak.

More broadly, health facilities in both LNA and GNA-held territories lack the human and technical capacity to deal with the contemporary outbreak, with testing capabilities limited across the country as cases soared in July.

In keeping with its track record of abysmal governance, the GNA mismanaged the crisis response, appointing notoriously corrupt figures with no public health background to contain the spread. Moreover, lack of medical equipment at hospitals due to protracted import restrictions has also led to some medical staff boycotting their shifts at hospitals in fear of contracting the virus.

Health infrastructure has also not been spared the effects of war: on 7 April 2020, Al Khadra Hospital, a 400-bed facility in Tripoli that was tasked with treating Covid-19, was momentarily evacuated due to shelling by Haftar’s LAAF.

Indeed, the latter seemingly weaponized global preoccupation with the pandemic to scale up attacks on civilian suburbs in Tripoli. This behaviour has also galvanized other armed actors into taking control over utilities as a tool for collective punishment or a means of bargaining.

In April 2020, at a time where access to water is the most basic requirement for precautionary measures against Covid-19, a forced closure of the southern pipelines of the Man-Made River project by an armed group cut water to over 3 million people in Western Libya.

Much like in other countries, both of Libya’s authorities initially announced a suspension of all travel to and from Libya. In practice, the sudden decision left hundreds of Libyan citizens stranded in airports across the world.

These citizens were brought home in May through a generously funded – but badly executed – GNA repatriation plan which flew citizens to Libya’s East and its West. Soon after, Covid-19 cases began gradually increasing in Northern Libya, and a large cluster of cases was discovered in the Southern city of Sebha in late May.

Southern Libya – dubbed the Fezzan – is a historically marginalized region which neither of Libya’s authorities possesses genuine legitimacy and control over.

Neither the GNA nor the Haftar-aligned authorities focused on identifying virus cases across populations in the Fezzan, and their prioritization of the military build-up in Central Libya de-facto prevented the implementation of sustainable lockdowns in their areas of control, let alone in the sparsely populated South.

The discovery of Libya’s first cluster of Covid-19 cases in Sebha essentially spoke to the dysfunctionality characterizing the country’s divided public health response and the tragedy of those at its margins.

To make matters worse, instead of prompting Eastern and Western-based authorities to shift course and cooperate on managing the crisis, the event was used as part of pro-LAAF and pro-GNA media outlets’ war propaganda campaigns in which each party accuses the opposing one of being responsible for spreading Covid-19 inside the country.

All in all, Libya’s national-level authorities have not passed the litmus test of governance that the Covid-19 crisis has presented. Both have squandered lavish funds while failing to procure testing and medical supplies, let alone devise appropriate containment measures and sustainable lockdown strategies.

The lack of transparency that has characterized the securitized response of the LAAF’s and GNA’s bungled measures has fuelled the spread of destabilizing rumours, a factor which has undermined Libyan citizens’ willingness to comply with social distancing measures across the country.

Worsening living conditions are exacerbating social discontent, with fuel shortages and daily electricity cuts of more than 15 hours a

day also straining the capacity of decaying health facilities. Inflation and lack of liquidity are also forcing prolonged periods of social contact as lines for cash and limited costly basic supplies have become increasingly common.

If the spread of the virus is to be contained, it will be by neither the national authorities nor their foreign backers, but by local constituencies and – potentially – decisionmakers and armed groups affiliated with them.

Covid-19 Remodels Local-National Relationships

What is already being witnessed because of the dysfunctional response of national authorities to the virus’ spread is a fracturing of the tenuous relationships that existed between a self-serving political elite and local communities.

National authorities’ failure to govern had almost become an accepted reality across Libya, however, the spread of Covid-19 is not an event the country’s populace can merely endure or wait out without reaction.

Already, calls to protest governing authorities’ abysmal response are gaining traction. Moreover, what is often omitted about the Libyan landscape is that, despite the country’s social fabric having been torn apart by perpetual turmoil, familial bonds are still extremely strong.

The fact that Libya’s median age is around 28 years means that these bonds will not be spared by Covid-19. Indeed, cases of community spread are likely to increasingly involve young adults acting as pathogen vectors that will infect parents and grandparents.

In that sense, higher authorities’ incompetent response to the pandemic will represent an affront to family links. In the worst cases, the governments’ ineptitude will manifest itself as tragedies that will be felt inside Libyan homes.

This will fuel social discontent, catalyzing both the GNA’s and the LAAF’s loss of legitimacy while communities opt to mobilize independently at the grassroots level to contain the spread.

In other words, while bringing the governance and legitimacy deficit of national authorities to light, Covid-19 will also reconfigure relationships between local stakeholders and national authorities, with the former growing more autonomous against the backdrop of the latter’s gradual loss of popularity.

How successful this forced devolution of authority is at tapering the spread will depend on several factors, not least how cohesive the community is in these locales. Indeed, tightly knit communities will likely fare better at collectively committing to social distancing measures and at grassroots mobilization.

Depending on the context, this will be organized by local governance units such as municipalities, informal social and tribal councils, or even trusted community leaders.

Indeed, these stakeholders’ accountability and proximity to their constituencies outmatches that of any national-level structure. Yet, despite their best efforts, Libya’s centralized governance paradigm dictates that these actors will be constrained by national authorities’ policies anyway.

While they may choose to organize locally, they will still depend – to a degree – on resources allocated by the central governments and on the coherence of the policies they adopt.

In the best-case scenario, this dependence will prompt these actors to demand mechanisms for better cooperation or distribution of funds from the GNA and the Eastern-based authorities.

However, a more likely scenario is that this would prompt a resurgence of localism that would manifest itself as entire cities and towns closing themselves off to the rest of the country while hoarding resources to protect their own constituencies.

Whether the virus’ spread triggers coerced decentralization or protectionist localism, the dislocation of linkages between the local and the national level presents an opportunity for Libya’s panoply of local armed groups.

Indeed, either of these two scenarios would be used for these armed actors to present themselves as essential partners for Covid-19 response, whether by cooperating with national authorities or contending with them.

Some of these hybrid armed actors are already redefining their raison d’être as enforcers of curfews, an activity through which they are deriving funds by collecting fines and imposing taxes on merchants transporting equipment through their areas of control.

As the crisis protracts, others could leverage the relationship of dependency between them and national authorities to divert resources, medical equipment or worse, obtain official mandates that will grant them special powers and under a veneer of legitimacy which they are likely to retain in the long run.

Some of Libya’s armed actors in coastal towns will once again reconvert themselves into counter-migration partners, especially as Europe’s obsession with deterring migration from Libya is exacerbated by the possibility that migrant populations fleeing the North African country may be carrying the virus.

In sum, the spread of Covid-19 in Libya is likely to compound the fragmentation of its atomized security sector regardless of the policies adopted to contain the spread.


Libya’s conflict was already an internecine struggle before Covid-19 gripped the North African country and brought its citizens more suffering.

As elsewhere in the MENA region and beyond it, the pandemic is laying bare the shortcomings of governing authorities and is aggravating pre-existing political, social, and economic trends. However, nowhere else in the world did the pandemic merely dovetail as an added shade of desolation in an already depressing canvas.

The fact that even the real prospect of widespread contagion and pestilence is failing to bring Libya’s war to a halt speaks to the extent to which it has become a conflict driven by domestic and international actors that have little to no regards for the needs and aspirations of the country’s own citizens.

Egged on by opportunistic proxy meddlers, Libya’s political elite has once again abdicated its responsibility to govern in favour of plundering state coffers and pushing for war.

However, in pursuing cynical machinations driven by zero-sum calculations, they are rendering themselves irrelevant to their international backers while losing whatever negligible social legitimacy they possessed amongst local constituencies.

The result is an idiosyncratic situation – a war-equivalent of a tragedy of the commons – where Libya’s proxy meddlers drive the country to ruin as they intervene to prolong an unwinnable war their local allies have become insignificant to.

Ironically, by wilfully wasting the opportunity to devise functionable policies to address the spread of the virus, Libya’s competing national authorities are also becoming irrelevant to governance altogether.

While the flawed public health response to the pandemic is in line with Libyan authorities’ abysmal track record in service provision and crisis management, the social and economic fallout from the virus’ spread on Libya’s society is likely to force some change in governance.

Depending on the locale, this will either force decentralization or trigger protectionist localism – both processes which Libya’s wide array of armed actors will seek to capitalize on.

In a twisted turn of events, the pandemic’s similar devastating effects across the Libyan territory will highlight that the entirety of the country suffers from structural deficiencies, an event that will challenge the long-running idea that partitioning the North African state may resolve its long-standing tribulations.

Nevertheless, brought together by the shared misery inflicted upon them by proxy powers and institutional sclerosis, Libyans will have no choice but to disrupt the status quo.


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: The politics of pandemics: Evolving regime-opposition dynamics in the MENA region.

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