Salma El Wardany
More than a decade after the US, European and Arab governments helped Libyans to overthrow their tyrannical ruler Moammar Al Qaddafi, the country remains beset by periodic crises and bloodshed.
United Nations-backed efforts to reconcile the oil-rich nation’s two competing governments have stalled. And war in Ukraine is pushing Libya’s plight down the international agenda, draining impetus from the peace process. All the while, basic public services are fraying and living standards declining amid galloping inflation.
1. What lies behind the years of turmoil?
Libya’s state institutions crumbled during Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship and his overthrow left a vacuum that was filled by myriad militias, many based on tribal affiliations.
A division emerged between the country’s wealthier west and the east that’s home to much of Libya’s oil production.
Following elections in 2014, Libya was split in half, with a UN-recognized administration based in the capital, Tripoli, clashing with General Khalifa Haftar and a coalition of troops and irregular fighters known as the Libyan National Army in the east.
An internationally brokered cease-fire in October 2020 led to a new transitional government under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was supposed to guide the country toward elections in late 2021.
But the vote was postponed amid legal disputes and Dbeibah stayed on in the role. This angered parliamentarians in the east, who appointed a rival premier, Fathi Bashagha, based in the central coastal city of Sirte.
2. How unstable is the country?
The 2020 ceasefire led to a period of relative calm. However, in May 2022, Bashagha tried to enter Tripoli and press his claim to lead the country, leading to violent clashes that forced him to withdraw.
There were more battles in late August that raised fears of a return to all-out war. Neither of Libya’s governments have managed to fully restore order in their territories or confiscate weapons looted during the overthrow of Qaddafi.
In the far south, a power vacuum has allowed fighters aligned with Islamic State to shelter and stage intermittent attacks on security forces.
Nonetheless, trade, family life and schooling continue. Government services such as education and transport, while relatively limited, are provided by ministries that are generally above the political fray and are funded by the Tripoli-based administration.
3. Who holds political power now?
Dbeibah, who has vowed not to step down until elections are held, benefits from Turkish backing and has cemented his control of the capital by ousting militias who could threaten his rule.
Bashagha, a former security chief, is pressing his own case for domestic and international legitimacy. Haftar still controls eastern Libya and is able to mobilize a sizable fighting force. The eastern area’s parliamentary speaker, Aguila Saleh, has been a vocal opponent of Dbeibah.
Finally, the son of Libya’s former autocrat, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, has his own ambitions to lead the country. He re-emerged in late 2021 to mount a Russian-backed bid for the presidency, though it’s unclear how much public support he has.
4. What role does the international community play?
Libya’s conflict has been, in part, a proxy war between some of the Middle East’s powers. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates back Haftar in the hope he can defeat Islamist groups in Libya, including a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey, which had close ties with the Brotherhood, found common cause with the Tripoli administration. Russia also joined the fray as it tried to challenge Western interests in weak Arab states.
The dynamic shifted in the past year, as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and to a lesser extent Egypt patched up their ties with Turkey. As for European nations, Libya’s vast oil reserves — Africa’s largest — and its location just across the Mediterranean have given them a stake in the outcome.
But they’ve shown little appetite recently for the kind of sustained engagement needed to resolve the crisis.
European governments appear most concerned with stopping Libya being used as a stepping-off point for African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.
5. What’s happened to energy production?
Libya’s oil reserves give it ample resources to pay for a national reconstruction effort, if only its political squabbles can be resolved. Production is a fraction of what it might be, with militias and political protesters regularly shutting down oil fields, pipelines and ports to push their demands.
Output plummeted from April amid the latest power struggle. It later recovered after the state-owned National Oil Corporation’s management was overhauled and an agreement reached to ease tensions between the NOC and the oil ministry.
The dysfunction is obstructing efforts to overhaul the country’s antiquated and poorly maintained energy infrastructure.
All the same, companies including France’s TotalEnergies SE, Eni SpA of Italy and Royal Dutch Shell Plc stand ready to invest billions of dollars to exploit Libya’s oil and natural gas reserves, as well as its potential for solar power.