Canan Atilgan / Veronika Ertl / Simon Engelkes

A Country of Regional Contrasts

The country’s social divide is crucially important for understanding the political fragmentation in Libya. The east, Cyrenaica, is dominated by tribal groups with links to Egypt and is characterised by a social and religious population that tends to be more conservative.

The west, Tripolitania, is more cosmopolitan and oriented towards the Mediterranean. The south, Fessan, is Libya’s sparsely populated hinterland, inhabited by Tuareg and Tubu people who today fight for control of the lucrative border trade, the oil fields and military facilities.

Long before the start of the civil war, the depoliticising of public life in Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya triggered a strengthening of the tribal structures in the regions. The power vacuum after the end of the revolution further encouraged the rise of armed tribal groups and local militias.

In addition to the historical territorial partitioning of Libya, geographical divisions are based in particular on the distribution of national oil reserves. The majority of the oil reserves are located in the “oil crescent”, which stretches from Ras Lanuf in the east through the central-northern city of Sirte to Jufra in the south. Irrespective of this, for decades the revenue from the oil sector flowed to Tripoli, thereby giving rise to the sentiment in the east and south of being cheated out of their legitimate income. Since the oil sector makes up around 97 per cent of the Libyan state revenue, control of oil exports represents an important strategic variable for the future of Libya and the influence of various groups.

In the negotiations and implementation of the LPA, it is predominantly the divisions between east and west that play a central role. The rejection of the agreement by important factions and key protagonists from the east can therefore in large parts be attributed to the perception of a power imbalance in the negotiations and the structure of the newly created system in favour of western forces. Because of this, instead of working to establish peace in Libya within the framework of the LPA, General Haftar and his allies tried to cement their position of power in the east and expand their territorial control, in part by co-opting militias and replacing elected communal councils with military governors.

The takeover of the strategic oil crescent in autumn 2016 is a clear example of these ambitions, and an important means of political leverage against the GNA.

The Effects of a Lack of State Structures on Regional Security

The context of a lack of state structures offers a fertile breeding ground, especially for the proliferation of extremist groups and, in connection with the country’s uncontrolled and porous borders, for increased and irregular migration flows. The consequences of these dynamics in the form of escalating instability therefore constitute a huge challenge for the future of Libya, but also for regional and international stability. State Without Borders Libya is traditionally a country of migration and, prior to the revolution, accommodated an estimated two to three million legal immigrant

workers from neighbouring countries and the wider continent of Africa.11 Irregular migration, albeit at a much lower level than at present, was regulated under Gaddafi by a system of selective allocation of unofficial control over border sections and smuggling routes. Following the revolution, these agreements were rendered void and the increasing destabilisation of the country contributed to the rise in the number of irregular migrant flows to and through Libya, as well as to a rapid expansion and professionalisation of smuggling, which had suddenly become deregulated.

Accordingly, 95 per cent of the 85,183 people who reached Italy between January and June 2017 via the central Mediterranean route had set out from Libya.12 In addition to the vacuum of state control in Libya, the aggravated conditions on the eastern and western Mediterranean routes put the country at the centre of migration flows in the Mediterranean area.

While UNHCR data speaks of approximately 40,000 people registered in Libya (asylum seekers and refugees), the actual figure is estimated to be considerably higher at between 700,000 and one million people. In the present situation, neither the GNA nor other state or non-governmental groups have the capacity to effectively put a halt to smuggling activities. Both the 1,770 kilometers long Libyan coast, as well as the 4,348 kilometers

long land borders with neighbouring countries remain porous. A higher concentration of smuggling activities are evident in the south of the country, where there is a lack of state control and alternative economic activities. Therefore, the southern borders and coastal regions in the west of the country form an easy point of departure for smugglers due to the collapse of the former security structures and the GNA’s lack of capacities. Since the revolution, this has become a hotbed for smuggling networks to expand, for whom control of this increasingly important economic sector means not only resources, but also securing territorial zones of influence as well as consolidating influence in this volatile power structure.

After the fall of Gaddafi, irregular migration to and through Libya grew enormously.

At the end of 2016, the EU and UN began to train the Libyan coast guard in carrying out rescue missions, combatting smugglers and upholding human rights; and provided them with the equipment to do so.14 What is problematic, however, is that the Libyan coast guard has emerged from revolutionary militias from the Libyan civil war and has no professional staff. According to a UN report, in some cases the units themselves are involved in criminal smuggling schemes.

In July 2017, the number of migrants reaching Italy from Libya fell by half to 11,459 people and, in August, this figure fell again by approximately 80 per cent. The causes for this dramatic decline are not clearly identifiable. According to various press reports and expert opinions, the expansion of the activities of the Libyan coast guard and their approach against the search and rescue missions of humanitarian aid organisations might have led to this.

The withdrawal of international aid organisations has, however, resulted in the operations in Libyan waters becoming even less transparent to observers. International observers and experts accuse the Italian government of supporting an agreement between the GNA and militias that allows for some armed groups to be financed so as to avoid further crossings, and to already intervene on the mainland. Therefore, this decrease appears to be merely linked to the interception of migrants.

This does not, however, provide a sustainable solution; and may have the opposite effect with the emergence of alternative migration routes. A challenge of particular urgency is the precarious legal and humanitarian situation of migrants in Libya, which has been documented and criticised time and again by reports from international organisations.


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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