Canan Atilgan / Veronika Ertl / Simon Engelkes

Ex-U.S. President Barack Obama once described the United States’ and its allies’ lack of success in ensuring stability in Libya following the fall of the Gaddafi regime as one of the biggest failings of his time in office. Indeed, the country is sinking ever deeper into chaos.

Now, the action plan by Ghassan Salamé, the United Nations’ new Special Representative for Libya, is expected to revive the peace process. If this does not succeed, the security situation risks escalating further – with far-reaching consequences both for neighbouring countries and Europe.


Six years after the former Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi was overthrown, hopes of democracy, stability and growth in Libya have not come to fruition.

The country is descending into chaos. Politically and territorially fragmented, with a plethora of rival state-run and non-gov-ernmental actors and alliances, porous borders and little prospect of imminent stabilisation, Libya represents a security threat for its neighbouring countries, the wider Mediterranean region and Europe.

The UN-led peace process, which resulted in the Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015 under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has so far been unable either to consolidate its control over Libyan state territory, or to make noticeable improvements to the living conditions of the Libyan people.

Furthermore, the government’s authority is openly contested by both of the other self-proclaimed parliaments in Libya – the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk in the east of the country and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli – as well as by a number of non-governmental armed factions. De facto, there is no government that controls the whole of the Libyan territory.

In the absence of a united national army, various actors are competing for power and resources. Armed factions are gaining a foothold at the local level. In many cases, this is accompanied by control over illegal economic activities, especially the smuggling of goods and people.

This all creates a situation that offers room for manoeuvre for extremist organisations too, such as the group known as Islamic State (IS). These organisations recognise and exploit the national power vacuum as a convenient opportunity to expand their activities and even local territorial control in Libya.

Political and Territorial Fragmentation

Looking Back: Revolution and Civil War

In contrast to the rebellions in the neighbouring countries of Tunisia and Egypt, the 2011 protests in Libya escalated within the space of a few days and developed into an armed conflict between the forces loyal to the regime and those rebelling against it. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, which was accelerated by the support of the international powers, gave the loose consortia of rebels no opportunity to develop their organisational structure or a programme for the future of Libya and the transition process.

The absence of influential, political and civil society leaders who could have filled the power vacuum after the fall of Gaddafi, contributed to the chaos following the revolution.

The government elected in 2012, the GNC, likewise failed to stabilise the security situation. Instead, the armed groups were integrated into a form of parallel security sector and from that point on received salaries from the state to prevent an escalation of the security situation. To date, none of the three Libyan governments has succeeded in curbing the influence of these informal armed groups and transferring control to a state-controlled security unit.

Libya does not have a unified, nationally controlled army.

Nonetheless, further escalation of the simmering conflicts was prevented until 2014. The fragile stability ended with the parliamentary elections in June 2014, which, marked by violence and low voter turnout, meant a clear defeat for the Islamist forces and which were subsequently annulled.

The elections took place in the context of the simmering conflict between General Khalifa Haftar’s groups from the east, consolidated under Operation Dignity, and the Libya Dawn coalition from the west formed as a counter-response. The confrontation culminated in a civil war that claimed thousands of victims, turned almost half a million people into internally displaced persons and brought the country’s economy to a virtual standstill.

After the defeat of the Operation Dignity coalition around the strategically important airport in Tripoli, the elected parliament, the HoR, moved back to the eastern city of Tobruk. Meanwhile, the GNC reconstituted itself as a rival government in Tripoli.

Libyan Political Agreement” and Perspectives

The negotiations in favour of a political agreement for the creation of a unity government that would end the conflict between the rival parliaments began in January 2015 under the direction of the UN. This government was set up to guarantee the drafting of a new constitution and the holding of elections; and to act as a trusted partner in the fight against IS.

The process resulted in the signing of the “Libyan Political Agreement” (LPA), which envisaged the creation of a Presidential Council that would assume the formation of a Government of National Accord and, until then, would replace the existing governments. The intention was to involve members of the Tripoli based GNC in a newly created advisory institution: the High Council of State. The HoR in Tobruk was to remain in existence as the single national parliament.

A binding Cabinet agreement by a parliamentary vote of confidence was determined in order to secure democratic legitimacy for the new government. However, some central questions remain unanswered, especially as regards the regional balance of power and the configuration of the security sector.

Due to the ongoing deterioration of the economic and security situation, the danger posed by the spread of IS as well as international pressure on account of increased migration flows, a speedy signing was ultimately preferred to further negotiations. In the following months, these unresolved questions led to a loss of legitimacy of the Presidential Council and the newly formed government.

To date, the HoR has not given the vote of confidence necessary for legitimising the new government. Both General Haftar and the GNC withdrew their support for the GNA unity government, established themselves as rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli respectively, and consolidated their respective power bases through military initiatives by loyal, armed groups.

Meanwhile, the new government also lost public support in the face of the worsening living conditions in the country. According to UN estimates, 1.3 million people, a fifth of the Libyan population, are dependent on humanitarian aid, while the number of internally displaced persons is rising. Ongoing displacement, a collapse of the markets, and plummeting production have made the food shortage more acute; and electricity and water are also only available in limited quantities across the country.

Additionally, the healthcare system has collapsed: 60 per cent of the infrastructure functions only in part or not at all and there is a lack of medicine and clinical equipment. The public administration has almost completely crumbled and the banks experience a shortage of cash. Due to the unstable security situation, most humanitarian organisations are forced to operate from the neighbouring country of Tunisia and aid services often do not reach all those affected. These daily challenges fuel the conflict further.

More than one and a half years after the signing of the LPA, the implementation of the “Political Agreement” appears to be infeasible in its current form. Renegotiations of the key elements with the involvement of those actors who have so far been neglected, seem unavoidable in order to overcome the political blockade and prevent further escalation of the conflict.

This realisation has sparked a new willingness to negotiate.6 To the surprise of many international observers, a meeting between the GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj and General Haftar on 25 July 2017 brought about an agreement to hold a ceasefire, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections at the start of 2018.

It is assumed that a structural change to the Presidential Council underlies the agreement, which would reduce the institution to three members and secure Haftar a central role in Libya’s political system along with al-Sarraj and HoR President Agila Saleh.

At the end of September 2017, the new UN Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, presented a new action plan for reviving the peace process. The plan envisages a revision of the “Libyan Political Agreement” by a committee, before a national Libyan conference votes on the individuals responsible for the new executive.

The conference under the direction of the UN Secretary-General will aim to bring all previously excluded or under-represented stakeholders to the table. Members of the High State Council and Islamist-spectrum militias allied with the GNA had feared marginalisation within the framework of a renegotiated LPA. It now remains to be seen how successful the renegotiation of the balance of power in Libya will be.


Dr. Canan Atilgan is Head of the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Veronika Ertl is Research Associate at the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediter-ranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Simon Engelkes is Project Coordinator at the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.


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