Escalating tensions threaten to hurl the country back into civil war, and will have consequences for Europe and the wider international community.
Since February, the eyes of the world have been firmly fixed on the horrors unfolding in Ukraine. But while Europe’s attention has been consumed by the crisis on its eastern flank, the trouble burgeoning on its southern one in Libya has been largely ignored.
As escalating political tensions and recent outbreaks of violence now threaten to hurl the country back into civil war again, and the consequence will impact Europe and the wider international community. Dealing with the crisis in Libya can no longer be prolonged — and to do so, there is a clear path ahead.
Today, Africa’s most oil-rich nation finds itself in a state of total dysfunction and could be accurately described as a failed state. Since the civil war, which ended in 2020, it has effectively been split between an internationally recognized government based in Tripoli and the Russia-aligned Libyan National Army controlling the country’s east, and violence has been ongoing.
After a shoot-out erupted in the heart of Tripoli in May, between armed forces loyal to the Government of National Unity and those of the Libyan House of Representatives from the eastern city of Tobruk, videos emerged in June, showing a convoy escorted by tanks and artillery moving toward the capital from a base in Zintan. Two days later, the government’s mandate expired without any plan for new elections to replace it.
Libya’s problems aren’t just its own. Europe and Libya share the Mediterranean Sea: Alexander the Great, the Greeks, Romans and even the Normans have all exchanged goods, culture and ideas with Libya. But this proximity has also meant the country’s troubles often wash up on European shores.
For example, since the onset of the 2015 refugee crisis, desperate sub-Saharan Africans have used Libya as a casting-off point in their bid to reach the European Union. And as Europe finds itself in need of alternative energy sources — while it tries to cut itself off from Russian fossil fuels — Libya is the bloc’s closest alternative supply source.
Europe is already struggling to maintain unity on Russian sanctions, and if it doesn’t find abundant new fuel supplies, it might be forced to lift its oil embargo on Moscow. However, Libya’s enduring instability makes its supply largely inaccessible, as the vast majority of its reserves are under the control of the Libyan National Army.
This is just one of many reasons why the international community needs to stop overlooking the chaos in Libya and help it become a functioning state again.
Here’s how this can be done: First, we must establish a short-term transitional government, tasked with stabilizing the country enough to hold elections. This would be an apolitical, technocratic leadership, prepared to work toward building consensus between Libya’s competing power players.
This government must also be young, with no member older than the age of 45. Why? Because this would mean none of them would be tainted by associations with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, creating a clean break with the past. The government must also be small but representative of the country’s 13 geographical regions, which should be represented by one minister each, ensuring all Libyans can feel they have an equal stake.
In this setting, the only other decision makers would be the acting prime minister and their deputies. That’s it. No more.
Keeping the government small in this way would present fewer opportunities for graft and corruption, as each member would be in the spotlight. It would also help keep ministers focused because, ultimately, they would have a single goal — stabilizing Libya and organizing free and fair parliamentary elections. Nothing else. And once that’s achieved, this transitional government would be dissolved.
However, Libya needs the support of the international community – and I’m not talking about financial support. Unlike other failed states, Libya doesn’t have a money problem — it has a governance problem.
Currently, Libya has enough cash in its central bank to last several years, tens of billions of dollars in foreign investments, plus there’s all the oil — despite all the chaos, Libya is still able to produce over a million barrels of oil per day for export. But what the country doesn’t have is experience in building a functional state — this is where the international community comes in.
We need advisers who will sit side by side with their Libyan counterparts and offer expertise in state-building — ideally, former government ministers with specialized technocratic knowledge. It’s also essential these experts come from nations with no prior stake in Libya, such as Norway, Japan or Canada, as we must start with a clean slate.
These international actors must prevent other countries from meddling in our affairs too. The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Egypt and Algeria are currently all active in Libya, working with different local partners in pursuit of competing interests. This only serves to fuel tensions in a country where everybody seems to have their finger on a trigger, waiting for someone to fire the first shot.
This must change too — Libya needs to be disarmed.
Today, Libya is overflowing with arms, many of which are relics from the Gaddafi era, as our former dictator loved shopping for weapons. Oddly enough, however, he never constructed a single munitions factory, so most shipments are smuggled in by foreign actors over air and sea instead. If a major global power or international body could eliminate these supply lines, Libya’s warring factions would soon run out of ammunition and have little choice but to work toward a peaceful solution for the country.
Of course, none of this will be easy, but the status quo simply will not hold.
Europe and Libya are bound together by geography, culture and many centuries of shared history, which is why the Continent has about as much chance of cutting itself off from our problems as sailing away to the South Pacific. And the past has shown that when one of us thrives, the other does too.
Moin Kikhia is the founder and president of the libyan democratic institute.