Hafed Al-Ghwell

In the ever-shifting sands of Libyan politics, the mirage of stability remains just that: a mirage. The country’s political and security maladies, deeply ingrained and perpetuated by a confluence of internal power struggles and external interventions, have fostered an environment in which a permanent deadlock seems the most likely outcome.

The promise of the Arab Spring has wilted under the scorching sun of reality and Libya, once hopeful for a democratic bloom, now appears resigned to a barren status quo, even as oil continues to flow and open warfare has subsided.

The current political landscape and security dynamics in the country are a far cry from the aspirations that toppled a decades-old regime. Since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has oscillated between periods of tentative peace and outright conflict, with the hoped-for democratic transformation remaining elusive.

It is therefore unsurprising that Libya’s post-2011 legacy is a museum for the ruins of grand ambitions and shattered dreams, as the North African country seems to be slowly settling into a permanent stalemate that will only accelerate its total collapse, with ordinary citizens standing to lose the most.
The response of the international community, characterized by inconsistent policies and competing interests among foreign powers, has done little to help resolve the stalemate.

External actors have consistently resisted the coordination of UN-led stabilization efforts, in favor of prioritizing their own geopolitical and economic interests over Libyan sovereignty and democratic aspirations.

Persisting with such zero-sum games while Libyan factions become further entrenched within their respective domains allows them to continue operating with a level of autonomy that undermines any national authority, thereby cementing a corrosive deadlock.

This interplay of diametrically opposed interests and groups, coupled with the relative inaction of the global community, has led to the rise and proliferation of more-sophisticated “hybrid actors.” These entities, which blend the characteristics of non-state armed groups with those of conventional state institutions, now enjoy a near-permanent entrenchment within the sociopolitical fabric of Libya, often exerting considerable influence over resource-rich territories and key infrastructure.

The nation’s vast oil reserves have become a primary target for these groups as they seek to leverage economic power in pursuit of their self-interested objectives. The battle for control over oil has not only fueled conflict but also allowed armed groups to operate as quasi-state entities, collecting revenues and providing governance in the absence of a unifying national authority.

In the absence of a significant recalibration of national and international priorities toward a process of reconciliation and rebuilding, the rise of local strongmen has accelerated the fragmentation of governance in Libya, establishing the contours of a state frozen in transition.

Worryingly, a new political economy is slowly developing under a new ruling elite and growing political caste that is not motivated in any way whatsoever to relinquish control, given the wealth and prestige that comes with their positions. This dynamic is perpetuated by the lack of a robust international mechanism to incentivize political transition and enforce accountability.

Naturally, this situation places a burden on a traumatized populace that is weary of promises of change and skeptical of the intentions of the ascending political elite. The failure to hold credible elections, and the opaque management of the country’s wealth, have eroded public trust. Repeated delays and the continuing absence of a democratic mandate have left Libyans questioning the legitimacy of their leaders and the likelihood of any meaningful reform.

Beyond this enduring deadlock enforced by a disinterested and distracted global community, ordinary Libyans face daily hardships, including infrastructure decay, service shortages and a lack of economic opportunities, which exacerbate public discontent.

The protracted stalemate has not only stunted the country’s economic growth but turned Libya into a breeding ground for instability that threatens to spill over its borders, potentially destabilizing the entire North African and Mediterranean region.

For instance, Libya’s political woes and security failures have had near-immediate effects on neighboring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, both of which have experienced fluctuating security concerns directly tied to the deteriorating situation in Libya.

Socially, the sense of fragmentation is palpable as tribal and factional tensions are exacerbated. Such divisions deepen existing cleavages in society, with the result that the task of building a cohesive national identity is ever-more elusive.

The psychological toll is heavy as well, with the specter of violence and instability casting a long shadow over the population. Mental health issues, including trauma and a pervasive sense of despair, are on the rise, with few resources available for support or healing.

The effects of the deadlock are perhaps most tragically felt by Libya’s youth, who face a future in which education and employment opportunities are scarce. This lack of prospects will create successive “lost generations” that are vulnerable to radicalization or the perils of illegal migration, as evidenced by the harrowing tales of young Libyans who embark on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

Furthermore, Libya’s international standing is at risk. The longer the stalemate persists, the more isolated the country becomes diplomatically, which complicates the process of accessing international aid and support. This isolation only serves to compound the country’s troubles.

Amid the political and social turmoil, environmental concerns have fallen by the wayside, with the most immediate casualty of this being the tragedies in Derna last September, where nearly 5,000 people perished in floods and thousands were displaced.

With attention fixated on survival and conflict, pressing issues connected to an intensifying climate crisis, ranging from desertification to water management issues, are neglected, leading to long-term environmental degradation with consequences that might endure far beyond the resolution of any political troubles.

Collectively, these effects paint a grim picture of a nation in which the status quo is one of systemic dysfunction and despair. The consequences of a permanent deadlock in Libya carry the potential to reverberate through generations, necessitating urgent and focused efforts to break the cycle and pave the way to a more hopeful future.

While external influences have intermittently affected the conflict in Libya, the resolution will be fundamentally rooted in domestic action. Protests last year by the youth of the country underscored the kind of deep-seated domestic grievances and erosion of the social contract that will be critical to the rise of any movement to find lasting peace and restore governance.

Although the global community acknowledges that domestic recognition is vital for the legitimacy of governance, and that lack of coherence in international positions can hinder inclusive conflict mediation, inclusivity remains incomplete and susceptible to manipulation by Libyan elites resistant to change.

To escape the entrenchment of stalemate and public disillusionment, a robust international strategy that offers incentives and imposes sanctions is essential, alongside the establishment of legitimate state institutions through a government elected by, and accountable to, the Libyan people.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.


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