Irene Fernández-Molina


In Libya, domestic authority fractures have become a constant in the midst of a fluid conflict. The practices of international recognition of governments pursued since 2011 have faced dilemmas stemming from three dichotomies:

(a) international vs domestic recognition;

(b) legitimacy vs effectiveness; and

(c) coherence vs inclusivity in conflict mediation and peacemaking.


Twelve years after the spark of the revolution and the international military intervention that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel of protracted turmoil and intermittent civil war.

Parliamentary and presidential elections were planned to take place on 24 December 2021; however, three days earlier, the High National Election Commission suspended the entire process.

Agreed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), this electoral roadmap provided some hope for Libyans to overcome conflict and fragmentation. Since its failure, the country has seen a new government split along the lines of the authority fractures in 2014-15 and 2016-21.

Two parallel cabinets are operating again in Tripolitania (West) and Cyrenaica/Barqa (East) since February-March 2022, with the ensuing increased risk of return to violent conflict.


Background and analytical reconsiderations of the Libyan conflict

Over the past 12 years, Libya has gone through the overlapping upheavals of revolution, international military intervention and civil war in three episodes (February-October 2011, May 2014-December 2015 and April 2019-October 2020), as well as relatively quieter interludes devoted to stabilisation, political transition, security sector reform (SSR) and state-building attempts (October 2011-May 2014, December 2015-April 2019 and October 2020-now).

Yet, at no time have the latter efforts resulted in a sustainable conflict settlement. Against a backdrop of deepening political fragmentation and hybridisation of security governance in the country –due to the blurred boundaries between state and non-state actors–, the failure of conflict resolution has been conspicuously associated, at the institutional level, with recurring authority splits and international recognition contests.

The 2014 fracture stemmed from a controversy over the extension of the mandate as a legislature of the 2012-elected General National Congress (GNC), as well as the validity of the results of the elections that were held to replace it by a new House of Representatives (HoR).

The two rival parliaments ended up operating in parallel from Tripoli and Tobruk, respectively, with each of them sustaining its corresponding appointed government. Furthermore, as Libya’s second civil war (May 2014-December 2015) broke out, each of them received armed support from armed non-state actors remobilised around the coalitions Libyan Dawn (pro-GNC) and Operation Dignity (pro-HoR), the latter led by the military strongman Khalifa Haftar and what the HoR would designate as the ‘Libyan National Army’, also known as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).

A second government recognition controversy emerged just as this one drew to a close. In late 2015 a Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli under the terms of the UN-led Libyan Political Agreement.

Yet, while backed –and arguably created– by a strong international recognition consensus, the GNA’s domestic recognition was never complete, impaired by the denial of consent from the HoR and its armed allies.

As a result, an eastern parallel government and administration remained in place operating from Bayda, though with a decreasing political salience compared with Haftar, his LAAF and the HoR itself. The third and last government split is the one that has signalled the deadlock of the transition roadmap following the end of the third civil war (April 2019-October 2020).

The unification and exclusivity achieved by the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) designated in March 2021 by the LPDF, under the leadership of Abdelhamid Dabeiba, were short-lived.

A new eastern competitor came up just one year later amid disagreements over the irregular prolongation of the GNU’s mandate in the absence of parliamentary elections, as the HoR appointed former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to form yet another government.

This pattern of divisions and polarisation at the executive and legislative levels has become a constant in the midst of a fluid conflict whose core cleavages and framing have significantly changed since 2011.

While the collective identity and purpose of most armed non-state actors  was primarily local in origin and reliant on their ‘social embeddedness’, their larger-scale positioning within the broader game of the conflict owed much to the external recognition and support they received at different points in time.

This applies to the revolution vs the Gaddafi regime framing of the 2011 civil war, which translated into a revolutionaries vs counterrevolutionaries dichotomy in the post-war transitional politics, as well as to the overlapping West vs East and Islamists vs secularists oppositions that have prevailed since the 2014-15 civil war.

The latter discursive framework, in particular, was always in fact less reflective of the actual makeup of the two sides and armed alliances –both of which have comprised an assorted range of non-Islamist and Islamist forces– than the ideological leanings of the regional backers of each side, ie, Turkey and Qatar for the GNC/Libyan Dawn and later the GNA, and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia in the case of the HoD/Operation Dignity and Haftar’s LAAF.

In fact, the most fundamental and longstanding political cleavage shaping the post-2011 confrontation in Libya has been one between horizontal and vertical modes of authoritarian governance.

Tripolitania has been dominated by a form of authoritarianism ‘populist in character and often portraying itself as revolutionary’ that ‘allows space for horizontal arrangements between rivals and a small degree of tolerance for political initiative on the part of citizens and local leaders’.

On the other hand, in contrast to this relatively more pluralistic and unpredictable governance, the alternative model consolidated by Haftar and his supporters in Cyrenaica is a ‘more vertical’ one, ‘which tolerates almost no contestation, even moderate’.

When it comes to the violent conflict dynamics, it is similarly useful to reconsider the analytical lenses through which the international community has approached Libya over these years in at least two ways.

First, while this is certainly an internationalised civil war, and one that has become more conspicuously so in its 2019-20 iteration due to the overt foreign (para)military intervention of Russia –through the Wagner Group– and Turkey, describing it as a proxy war is inaccurate and misleading inasmuch as it underrates domestic agency.

In fact, rather than acting at the initiative or on behalf of regional or global powers, Libya’s ‘local actors played a key role in internationalising the conflict by soliciting and manipulating foreign support for their own interests and agendas’.

From a political economy perspective, the autonomy of such local actors, including armed non-state actors, has been preserved and reinforced thanks to the persisting rentier nature of the Libyan state and its institutional bits and pieces.

Oil and oil revenues managed by the Central Bank of Libya have kept flowing even in the shakiest conditions to all sorts of (para)state and double-hatted local actors.

Secondly, rather than pigeonholing the country into the problematic category of failed states, the outcome of Libya’s deepening fragmentation may be better understood as the consolidation of multiple areas of limited statehood.

Defined as ‘parts of the territory or policy areas in which the central government lacks the capacity to implement decisions and/or its monopoly over the means of violence is challenged’, the point about areas of limited statehood is that they are ‘neither ungoverned nor ungovernable’,[4] and not always necessarily associated with violent conflict.

International government recognition dilemmas and pitfalls (2011-19)

One further aspect of the international involvement in post-2011 Libya that deserves closer attention is the broad range of practices of international recognition of governments that have been pursued during the course of this conflict, ranging from the macro to the micro level, and from highly formalised procedures with legal implications to purposefully unofficial modes of interaction.

The repertoire includes declaratory, diplomatic, informal engagement, intergovernmental cooperation and support practices. 

First, the mismatch between international and internal recognition has been prominent in situations where the former has preceded the latter, yet the externally-backed government has proved eventually unable to achieve a viable social contract with all the key societal groups and political stakeholders inside the country.

This domestic recognition deficit has affected, to a greater or lesser extent, all the successive internationally-recognised governments in post-2011 Libya. It was already a concern for the National Transitional Council (NTC) established in Benghazi upon the anti-Gaddafi uprising in February 2011.

Originally conceived as a tool of rebel diplomacy vis-à-vis the international community, the NTC, in parallel, had to provide governance in areas under rebel control during the 2011 civil war, and eventually became the country’s government for nearly 10 months after the civil war came to an end.

Tensions between the two roles were inevitable. Still, the NTC mitigated them thanks to a mix of revolutionary legitimacy and the legal effects of its increasingly formal international recognition, which enabled it to secure access to some of Libya’s frozen assets abroad and thereby continue to pay state salaries at home.

The gap between international and domestic recognition was greater in the case of the GNA established in late 2015.

The reason for this was the rush that pushed a powerful range of international actors –including multilateral organisations such as the UN, the EU, the Arab League and the African Union– to ‘pledge [their] support’ for this would-be unified central government even prior to the actual signature by Libyan actors of the Libyan Political Agreement (Skhirat agreement) that founded it.

The urge mostly came from the Western crisis approach to both the capture of the Sirte region by the Islamic State (IS) group and the increase in migrant sea crossings from the Libyan coast to Italy.

A regular Libyan government was needed as a partner for international anti-terrorism and anti-migration cooperation efforts to be effectively, and legally, boosted. Yet, the initial strong international and EU endorsement of the GNA was not met with a similar level of domestic sanctioning.

The power-sharing elite deal was spoiled as the HoR –the country’s (transitional) legislative authority in accordance with the Libyan Political Agreement– denied consent to the GNA.

Besides a new West-East government split, the GNA’s domestic recognition shortage was reflected in its very struggle to physically set foot in and operate from Tripoli, exerting effective rule over the armed non-state actors that controlled the capital’s security.


Irene Fernández-Molina is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of Exeter


Elcano Royal Institute

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