After riveting the world in 2011 with a revolution that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, Libya has largely receded from the public eye. The revolution there quickly turned into chaos, fueled by external interventions that have hampered the fragmented and tribal nation’s transition toward a more democratic trajectory.
The United Nations’ newest special envoy for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, has recently attempted to reinvigorate support for a stalled election process by launching an initiative that would ostensibly end the country’s political stalemate after more than a decade of conflict and divisions.
In 2021, a UN-sponsored process successfully led to the formation of a new Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU), headed by businessman-turned-politician Abdul Hamid Dbeibah; but his legitimacy was thereafter challenged when elections, initially scheduled for December that year, were indefinitely delayed because of disputes over their constitutional basis and voting rules.
In response, the House of Representatives, a rival government based in Benghazi in the country’s east, appointed its own prime minister, former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, and the country was once again pulled apart by dueling administrations, each claiming power and legitimacy.
In a last-ditch effort to get parties to adopt a roadmap for elections in 2023, Bathily will establish a high-level steering panel to provide a forum for opposing Libyan stakeholders to come together and agree on a legal framework, mechanism, and timeframe for holding presidential and legislative elections, ensuring broad national ownership of the process.
But while organized and democratic elections are necessary to reconfigure Libya’s political and economic institutions, a true resolution to the country’s troubles must start by rebuilding trust, not only between Libyans and their government but also between citizens themselves. Indeed, Libya’s relative peace at this time may be the best guarantee to prevent partition and further chaos, which would threaten the security and stability of the entire North Africa region.
Local Tensions and Foreign Meddlers
In the roughly 12 years since Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya’s stability has been rocked by fragmentation, warfare, external rivalries, and the proliferation of innumerable abusive armed militias operating with impunity.
Violence spiraled further in 2014, when renegade commander of the Libyan national Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar, a one-time CIA asset who had directed military opposition to Qaddafi, launched an offensive that left him in control of large swaths of territory in the east.
After disputed elections the same year, the country’s governance broke up into two administrations, the Tripoli-based internationally-backed Government of National Accord, led by former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and primarily reliant on Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, and another government based in the east and under the de facto control of forces loyal to Haftar, with support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia, France, and others.
Divisions intensified, especially after a second Haftar-commanded attack on Tripoli in April 2019 that laid siege to the city before eventually being driven back with Turkey’s intervention. With the continued postponement of elections, Libya is again gridlocked over the legal basis for said elections and over the nature and composition of a new political arrangement.
The security vacuum created by the 2011 intervention in Libya was quickly filled by regional and international powers and foreign mercenaries.
Meanwhile, the security vacuum created by the 2011 intervention in Libya was quickly filled by regional and international powers and foreign mercenaries, transforming the country into a site of great power competition, exacerbating instabilities, and prolonging the crisis.
While the UAE and Russia continue to support Haftar’s LNA, a ragtag mix of military units and regional armed and tribal groups, Turkey is on the side of the UN-recognized government. Being motivated by a combination of ideology, geopolitics, and commercial interests, no powers have shown any inclination toward retracting.
Indeed, Turkey has significant financial interests in Libya that predate the uprising and thus stands to profit from future reconstruction efforts. It also hopes to benefit from a controversial maritime deal on energy exploration that would allow it to exploit resources in Libya’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean.
Russia, which is aspiring to play the role of power broker in the region, has maintained a military footprint in Libya through the Wagner Group, the de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is notorious for its cruelty and predatory acts. As many as 2,000 heavily-armed Russian military contractors have been deployed, and a large number of Syrian mercenaries have been hired by both Russia and by Turkey, playing combat and non-combat roles and providing security services, training, and battlefield expertise.
Russia today still retains a vast amount of leverage in Libya, wielded through a sophisticated combination of hard and soft power: a network of military airbases and camps and spies on the ground on the one hand, and the use of disinformation and diplomacy on the other, enabling rogue actions such the illegal injection of Russian-printed banknotes to the LNA, which helped bolster its operations and keep it afloat and independent of the Libyan Central Bank.
Russia has particularly penetrated the oil-rich portions of the country, expanded its influence within or around significant oil installations (including the country’s largest, the El Sharara oil field) to secure key facilities, future hydrocarbons concessions, and a naval base in Benghazi granting it a Mediterranean outlet.
In the process, Russia has established the ability to apply a stranglehold on strategic oil production and export facilities. This underscores how little control local actors may have over their foreign patrons, regardless of how keen they might be to solicit and sway foreign support for their own ends.
While efforts have been made over the course of the conflict to quell foreign intervention by reducing foreign arms transfers, including by the 2011 UN embargo on the supply of arms and military equipment to and from Libya, such attempts failed to stick, and foreign powers continued to equip and bolster allied militias at great cost to Libyan civilians.
There is well-documented evidence of unrestrained air, land, and sea shipments of illicit items to opposing sides, including drones, aircraft, missiles, artillery, and armored vehicles. Meanwhile, the US has adopted an approach that has been at best inconsistent, if not confused, remaining on the sidelines of any solution to the crisis.
Libya’s Economic Outlook
Prolonged instability and conflict in Libya have led to severe human rights abuses, massive destruction of infrastructure, a displacement crisis that is aggravated by every spell of violence, and tremendous civilian losses.
Economic decline has disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, especially internally displaced persons and migrants who face poverty, widespread shortages, and rising prices on essential goods. Inflationary pressures, which have been exacerbated by the Ukraine war, have led to a corrosion of household security and welfare.
Poverty rates in Libya today are extremely high, and in the absence of social protection systems, around 800,000 people are deemed in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Citizens struggle daily with extended electricity cuts, as well as fuel and water shortages.
Rising unemployment, last estimated at around 20 percent, though at more than 50 percent among youth, mostly impacts the public sector, which employs the majority of the population.
Libya’s private sector, which was decimated by Qaddafi-era socialist-style economic policy and was largely overshadowed by a large oil revenue-fueled public sector, barely functions.
While the country’s production of crude oil has recently risen again to a robust 1.2 million barrels per day, the economy remains in disarray, hampered by poor governance, bureaucratic restrictions, and ravaged infrastructure.
The splintering of the Central Bank in 2014 along the country’s broader political fault lines has also hindered the development of a unified monetary policy, leading to differing exchange rates, liquidity shortages, and swelling public debt, all of which further damage Libya’s beleaguered economy.
Despite a rebounding of Libya’s trade balances in 2022 due to a jump in oil production and prices, the country’s economic outlook has been hindered by persistent political volatility leading to deteriorating living conditions.
Oil: The Battle for Libya’s Chief Resource
Libya’s resource wealth has been one of the most powerful factors contributing to the protracted nature of the conflict. Libya sits on the African continent’s largest crude oil reserves (48 billion barrels), and the hydrocarbons sector is the country’s main source of income.
Prior to 2011, oil revenues accounted for 95 percent of export earnings and 96 percent of the government’s income. The abundance of hydrocarbons had always been a tool to either control or fuel tensions stemming from the country’s intricate social fabric.
But the importance of oil became especially tangible after the outbreak of the civil war and the country’s division into separate spheres of influence, with the realization taking hold that whoever controls the oil also holds political power.
The battle to dominate energy sources fueled tensions between belligerent factions, including the slew of militias seeking to take advantage of the country’s fragmentation.
Because of the ongoing centralization of oil revenue distribution (and therefore of economic power) in the capital, ruling over Tripoli became equated with access to valued assets, thereby incentivizing factions to try to seize control of it, or at least of some critical infrastructure, such as oil or water pipelines, that would provide leverage over Tripoli.
In the east, this most prominently took the form of the domination of the oil crescent and other oil infrastructure by armed groups who, as they routinely blockade pipelines or shut down oil terminals, have become more and more powerful. And as long as control of Tripoli remains a means to influence the distribution of oil revenue, the incentive to resolve the conflict continues to lessen, making any agreement between parties improbable.
Elections: A Panacea for Libya’s Ills?
Despite controversies over voting eligibility and substantial legal and constitutional disagreements, the international community has continued to brandish elections as an opportunity to bring peace and stability to the battle-scarred country.
During the last attempt in 2021, Dbeibah, who was supposed to unify competing cabinets and oversee a transitional national unity government in Tripoli, clung to power after the failure of elections.
Now the country is once again stuck in a standoff between rival executives in the western city of Tripoli and the eastern city of Sirte, with no consensus on the way forward.
The persistent failure of the international community to resolve the crisis has considerably undermined both the legitimacy of imposed transitional entities like the GNU and the value of the political process itself. Accordingly, the perspective that elections will not fix the country’s woes, let alone Libya’s deep-seated corruption and economic dysfunction, has regained currency.
For now, Libya has come full circle from brutal dictatorship to a new kind of despotism by scores of militias that are on the state payroll simply because of the danger they pose, leading to unprecedented embezzlement of state funds.
The most attractive job for young Libyans since the eruption of the civil war has been to join militias, which employ more than 10 percent of the country’s workforce.
The continued political stalemate has seen militias grow stronger as they simultaneously hold governmental office, terrorize civilians on the street, and engage in illicit and lucrative activities such as the smuggling of people, drugs, and fuel, and in the process impede the state’s ability to deliver public services.
Hope for a Resolution?
More than a decade of war in Libya has entrenched an elite that is operating with no accountability and that has no interest in altering a status quo that guarantees it unfettered access to state resources.
And while this and myriad other factors—including the role and agendas of foreign actors, and more mundane bickering on elections rules and processes—are disrupting the possibility of a political transition, the reality is that all institutions and actors embodied by this political elite have lost the faith and support of a population that is simply fed up. Libya’s citizens have intermittently but increasingly expressed their anger and discontent by demonstrating across the country against deteriorating economic conditions, the collapse of public services, and an endless unstable status quo.
Here, the opaque management of the country’s wealth, the inequitable distribution of resources, and the lack of basic services are especially pertinent for any movement toward greater political and economic welfare.
To find a way out of the current stalemate, Libyans need to agree on a vision for their country.
Libya’s fundamental political crisis indeed reaches all the way to the hidden debate on its existence as a unitary state—and oil revenues and economic structures further exacerbate the political dilemma.
Beyond the critical issues of weeding out dysfunction and corruption, in order to find a way out of the current stalemate Libyans need to agree on a vision for their country that overcomes the fears and factors that split Libya up in the first place.
Until then, national unity governments and ensuing power-sharing arrangements can introduce temporary fixes. But they ultimately overlook the necessary precondition for a political resolution: the need, after decades of a deliberate weakening of the political framework by a cruel and frivolous dictatorship, followed by years of survival within a dystopian collapse, to rebuild trust between citizens and government, but also among and between Libya’s citizens themselves.
Even though the current power configuration of rampant warlordism fueled by misconceived external interference can be expected to resist, deflect, and subvert any attempt at reform—including through meaningful elections—Libya’s saving grace may ultimately be in its resilience in opposing systematic efforts to dismantle it.
The only way to extract Libya from its conundrum is through a long-term incremental approach that empowers those very Libyan actors who are invested in a citizen-centered Libya focused on advancing the interests of its people.
Patricia Karam is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. She held multiple senior managerial positions in nongovernmental organizations over the past 20 years, working at the nexus of problem analysis, policy formulation, and impactful program implementation aimed at social and policy change in a range of complex, conflict-ridden settings across the globe.
Most recently, Karam was Middle East North Africa (MENA) Regional Director at the International Republican Institute, where she was responsible for the strategic oversight and leadership of a multimillion-dollar portfolio of programs focused on citizen-responsive governance, political party development, legislative strengthening, and civil society capacity-building.