By Mohamed Eljarh

This chapter takes stock of six years of failed efforts to bring stability and political reconciliation to Libya, identifying major local actors involved in post-Gaddafi Libya and focussing on the primary internal barriers to stabilization and an effective transition.


Ten years have passed since a NATO-led military intervention in the midst of a popular uprising resulted in the overthrow and killing of Gaddafi on 20 October 2011.

Ten days later, NATO prematurely declared “mission accomplished”, setting the stage for the subsequent withdrawal of international actors and creating a political and military vacuum that turned Libya into a proxy battleground for competing internal and external interests.

Today, Libya is a fragmented and polarized nation mired in instability and insecurity. It is at risk of becoming a failed state because of the lack of a unified, representative and legitimate government that is able to exercise authority throughout the country and hold a monopoly over the use of force.

What Libya badly needs is a government that can provide stability in the post-conflict environment, take the lead in the disarmament and reintegration of militias, mediate between competing interests and power centres, and ensure a sustainable political transition while countering terrorism along with arms smuggling and proliferation.

This chapter takes stock of six years of failed efforts to bring stability and political reconciliation to Libya, identifying major local actors involved in post-Gaddafi Libya and focussing on the primary internal barriers to stabilization and an effective transition.

Given the nature of the Libyan conflict and ensuing crises, the chapter also highlights the role played by regional and international actors and their support for oppos-rivalries that continue to plague the political transition and reconciliation process.

Particular attention will be devoted to military, diplomatic and political developments since 2014, the growing fragmentation of the Libyan setting, the mounting rivalries between various Libyan militias and factions and the stalled process of implementation of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA or Skhirat Agreement).

This agreement led to the establishment of the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the emergence of three rival power centres in the Libyan context.

The chapter will end with a number of reflections on the major barriers to conflict resolution and political reconciliation in Libya, and on potential scenarios and trajectories for Libya in 2018. A number of policy recommendations directed at relevant internal and external stakeholders will also be provided.

Here a central focus will be placed on the need for multilateral frameworks that alone can provide a venue for competing internal and external actors in Libya to mediate disputes and agree on potential steps to help Libya transition towards a more stable and functioning state.

The path to failed state in Libya

One of the key obstacles that faced post-revolution Libya was the “interim constitutional declaration” – the country’s political roadmap for its transition to democracy.

Libya’s transition roadmap was drafted in May 2011, by the National Transitional Council (NTC), the umbrella authority that led the revolt against the Gaddafi regime and was recognized by the international community as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

Doubts about the constitutional process that started in 2011 were raised early on by many observers and experts. For instance, in his October 2011 assessment of Libya’s interim constitutional declaration, constitutional expert Zaid al-Ali raised concerns about the ambiguity of certain provisions and articles as well as the speed of its approval without proper consultation and participation mechanisms.

Indeed, the constitutional declaration proved to be poorly designed and overly ambitious. Elections were rushed through: held in July 2012, less than ten months after the official declaration of the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

After 42 years of dictatorship and one-man rule and eight months of bloody conflict, Libya was a weak and fragile state with almost non-existent political and civic culture and experience, and lacking institutions capable of leading the country through a delicate political transition.

On 8 October 2014, the then UN envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri, told Al-Hayat newspaper that one of the biggest mistakes in post-Gaddafi Libya was rushing straight to elections. Indeed, Libya had just come out of an eight-month armed conflict, and the country was awash with weapons while militias were mushrooming.

Libya’s transitional authorities were neither capable of exercising any effective form of sovereignty over the territory nor of holding a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.

Western countries that intervened in 2011 failed to put together plans for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of fighters who had taken part in the revolution, allowing them to turn into organized militias and thus hold considerable sway over subsequent political developments.

Libya’s interim governments since 2011 have attempted to integrate militias into the army and police, but successive transitional governments have failed to implement proper DDR or security sector reform processes.

Indeed, transitional authorities took, and to varying degrees are still taking, an appeasement approach towards the DDR process in post-Gaddafi Libya, and many militias were integrated wholesale into the armed forces. However, they tended to remain loyal to their commanders or financiers rather than to the state and its institutions.

Following the capture and killing of Gaddafi in October 2011, the only factor uniting Libyan factions against a common enemy ceased to exist and they turned their guns against each other, resulting in protracted conflict.

Libya’s revolutionary militias were divided along political lines, used as tools by political groups and parties to influence politics and push through legislation that benefitted them. Eventually, militias and their leaders grew too powerful, becoming a key obstacle to peace and state-building in post-Gaddafi Libya. In turn, militias soon turned their guns on the government when they did not get what they want.

Militias in Libya are usually categorized according to their Islamist or non-Islamist outlook and alliances. However, each of these broad categories also includes tribal, regional or city-based militias that are not necessarily ideological.

During 2012-2014, a number of militias were aligned with groups espousing various forms of political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and leaders of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and their respective political parties: the Justice and Construction Party (Muslim Brotherhood), the Nation Party (led by Abdelhakim Belhadj) and various power brokers from the city of Misrata.

Other militias were aligned with the National Forces Alliance led by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, army officers and units from the former regime, and the powerful town of Zintan in north-western Libya.

Two new coalitions were formed after May 2014. “Operation Dignity”, centred in eastern Libya, was led by army commander Khalifa Haftar, resulting in the formation of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The declared aim of Operation Dignity and the LNA was the defeat of Islamist extremist militias that controlled the cities of Derna, Benghazi and Ajdabiya in eastern Libya.

On the other side, a coalition of Islamist militias from western Libya dominated by militias from the city of Misrata created the “Libya Dawn” coalition. It supported Islamist militias in Benghazi and Derna, namely the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council.

Politically, Operation Dignity and the LNA were aligned with the

House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the Interim Government based in al-Bayda, while the Libya Dawn coalition was aligned with the former General National Congress and its National Salvation Government in Tripoli.

By October 2014, the political and military split in post-Gaddafi Libya was institutionalized with two competing governments located in Tripoli and Tobruk, each enjoying the support of powerful armed groups. The struggle for power and resources therefore led to the defacto partition of Libya, setting it on a trajectory of statelessness, fragmentation and instability.

Key institutions such as the Central Bank, the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority were also affected by the mounting political fragmentation. This institutional divide resulted in the near collapse of the economic and financial sectors due to the lack of regulatory frameworks and oversight.

Crippling financial dynamics ensued, including a liquidity crisis, a flourishing black market and a significant drop in the value of the Libyan dinar in the parallel exchange market leading to important price hikes.

The Central Bank of Libya warned in a statement issued on 25 November 2017 that Libya’s national debt had reached 71 billion Libyan dinars (equivalent to 52.2 billion dollars). Furthermore, the Central Bank Governor warned of the accumulating budget deficit since 2013, due to the decrease in oil production resulting from insecurity and ongoing political struggle for control over the country’s resources, as well as the fall in global oil prices.

Libya’s hastened return to elections

Libya held its first elections in more than four decades on 7 July 2012 to elect the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s legislative assembly that was supposed to pave the way for the transition process from the revolutionary state to a democratic one.

While the elections were successful, fair and transparent, they led to increased competition over National debt here refers to the amount borrowed by the various Libyan govern-power and resources, weak state institutions and the absence of an inclusive national reconciliation and dialogue process.

As a result, Libya went down the path of exclusionary politics and zero-sum competition among various stakeholders, further straining the transition process.

With a 62% voter turnout, the 2012 GNC elections provide some insight into the political preferences of Libyans. The nationalist National Forces Alliance (NFA) led by former wartime Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril came first, winning around 50% of the 80 seats allocated to political party lists.

However, 120 out of a total of 200 seats in the General National Congress were allocated via individual candidate races, where the NFA only own 21% of available seats.

In total, the NFA won 65 seats in parliament (with almost 40% coming from individual candidate races). However, for the initial period, the NFA was able to create a parliamentary bloc of 94 members by winning the support of smaller parties and independent members.

The Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Libya, won the second highest number of party seats with 21% of the popular vote. However, the JCP doubled its representation in the GNC by winning 17 seats in the individual candidate races, or 14% of the total.

Salafi parties performed poorly in the party-seat races, winning only 4 seats. But in the individual candidate races the Salafists outperformed the JCP and did nearly as well as the NFA, winning a total of 23 individual seats, or around 20%. The Salafists won roughly 85% of their seats via individual candidate races, going on to form what was known as the Martyrs Bloc within the GNC.

This discrepancy in the vote between party lists and individual candidates can be attributed to the voters’ lack of familiarity with the individual candidates’ political affiliations and backgrounds. When given a choice between political parties, by contrast, it was relatively easier for voters to distinguish between them.

The relative majority obtained by the NFA both within the GNC and in the national vote demonstrated that Libyans wanted to move beyond the “Islamists or autocrats” dichotomy, opting for a relatively progressive coalition in the first democratic elections in more than four decades.

The NFA was made up of figures of nationalist persuasion and former regime technocrats with strong support among important tribes in the country. However, despite its performance in the elections, the NFA was not able to rule due to coercion and intimidation by Jibril’s Islamist opponents and aligned militias.

In 2012, Libya lacked the political culture and institutional know-how needed for a complex transition towards democracy and representation.

A key defining moment in Libya’s failed transition was the adoption of the controversial political isolation law by the General National Congress in May 2013. This targeted thousands of technocrats and employees who had worked with the Gaddafi regime during its 42-year rule, including Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the NFA.

Reminiscent of the process of de-Baathification that took place in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, this law deprived the state of vital manpower and human resources necessary for running the country in its post-Gaddafi phase.

It also created huge rifts and divisions within society that led, along with other factors, to the de facto split of the country in 2014 and the protracted conflict that followed when the GNC failed to address the country’s economic, political and security problems.

Politicians and political groups neglected this deepening disillusionment, instead focusing on power struggles and the pursuit of narrow-minded political interests.

Popular discontent prompted nationwide demonstrations in early 2014, in which citizens demanded the dissolution of the GNC and called for early elections in accordance with the deadlines set out in the interim constitutional declaration.

The Islamist-dominated GNC at the time dismissed these demands and vowed to continue in power until the ratification of a new constitution.

A nationwide civil society initiative called the November movement, also known as the “no extension movement”, formed in response to an announcement by the Islamist-dominated GNC that it would extend its mandate by one year beyond the 7 February 2014 deadline set by the temporary constitutional declaration, the country’s political transition roadmap.

After several weeks of protests, the GNC yielded to pressure and agreed to hold new parliamentary elections in June 2014. The Islamists suffered a devastating loss at the ballot box. After the vote, they tried their best to delay the announcement of the election results, overwhelming the High National Election Commission (HNEC) with complaints about the electoral process.

They also upped the ante militarily by attacking and destroying Tripoli’s international airport and taking control of the capital militarily, hoping that the conflict would prevent the new parliament from convening.

In addition, the Islamist-dominated GNC refused to hand over power to the newly elected parliament and filed a legal challenge with the Supreme Court in Tripoli claiming the election was unconstitutional.

In October 2014, the Supreme Court issued its verdict that the election was indeed unconstitutional. The newly elected House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk refused to recognize the ruling and argued that the Supreme Court was acting under duress given that the capital Tripoli had been forcefully taken by Islamist militias loyal to the GNC.

Since the outbreak of violent intra-Libyan clashes in 2014, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) started political reconciliation efforts to mediate between Libya’s disparate political and military actors. After 18 months of talks and negotiations, the LPA was signed in the Moroccan city of Skhirat on 17 December 2015.


Mohamed Eljarh is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Libya Outlook Research and Consultancy. A non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council during 2014-2017, he is an associate expert at the Sahel-Maghreb Research Platform hosted by the Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen.


Source: Chapter 2 in SEARCH FOR STABILITY IN LIBYA: OSCE’s Role between Internal Obstacles and External Challenges. Edited by Andrea Dessì and Ettore Greco.



Related Articles