Tarek Megerisi

Thirteen years after its revolution, Libya is divided between east and west, each with its own respective administrations, foreign backers and tribal rivalries. Since the 2011 revolution, Libya has been in a spiral. Its domestic politics, security situation, and international relations are stuck in destructive cycles, eroding Libya’s economy, social fabric, and overall prospects with each iteration.

Thirteen years on, the country is deeply divided, and not just by the military line dividing east and west. There are parallel administrations, rivalling international interventionists, and rifts within and between cities, tribes and regions. Attempts by different Libyan groups and international actors to wrest Libya out of this spiral and stabilise it as the democratic market economy many Libyans once hoped for, or the client dictatorship many predators long for, have, at best, failed and at worst, supercharged the spiral.

Today, many of these cycles are concurrently coming to an end. The political lifecycle of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, appointed in 2021 to lead Libya to elections, seems to be crashing. Security setups are fracturing, and the economy is breaking down. Foreign forces are ominously accumulating, and the UN Special Representative has just resigned.

After years of neglect, the broader international community is renewing its interest in a Libyan political process, but it is seemingly gearing up to repeat all its past mistakes. It is an ominous moment for the North African lynchpin, given concerns over how many more of these cycles Libya can endure. But the end of these cycles also presents the opportunity for something new.

Dbeibeh’s rise and fall

Like all his post-revolutionary predecessors, Dbeibeh rode into office on a wave of false optimism and false promises. Appointed via a UN process designed to end in elections after just ten months, countries sponsoring that process considered his upcoming administration a vehicle for stabilisation and change, despite him allegedly presenting them a two-year governance plan—for his 10-month mandate—with a conspicuous lack of electoral planning.

The representative of a Libyan family who present themselves as construction moguls but are accused of corruption (which they, of course, vehemently deny), many hoped Dbeibeh would at least get business flowing. With a presidential running mate hailing from the same eastern tribe as Libya’s national hero Omar al-Mukhtar and a behind-the-scenes deal with eastern Libya’s military general Khalifa Haftar to secure his appointment, many believed the country would finally be reunified.

Given that he had flown to Cairo before the ink was dry during his appointment and that his family had good ties with Turkey, the UAE, and the UK, it was considered that the international competition around Libya would finally end. However, none of these hopes came to fruition.

Dbeibeh’s greatest achievement in economic reform was to systematically take over the various financial controller offices which lubricate Libya’s monstrous public sector. Despite spending no less than $20bn a year, he has little to show for it beyond superficial maintenance projects. His deal with Haftar stayed true to its foundational nature. The public benefits never materialised as the surly dictator claimed Dbeibeh broke promises by refusing Haftar control over Libya’s ministries of defence and finance—the keys to the kingdom.

Yet, behind the scenes, the families have cooperated on various financial projects, often brokered by Abu Dhabi and often focused on Libya’s oil sector, rotting the heart of Libya’s economy. These range from the emergence of shady brokers for crude sales along with shady new developments, reselling existing concessions, creating new energy enterprises, and most notoriously of all a fuel-for-crude swap-system that shrouds Libya’s most crucial, and lucrative, enterprises (the sale of crude and purchase of fuels) in opaque transactions.

As a new order ossified and Libya’s shadow economy continued brutally cannibalising the regular economy, those who were left outside the order started to rankle. A moment that traditionally marks the end of a new cycle’s hopeful era and its descent into rancour.

By 2022, the Dbeibeh family’s economic colonisation was fomenting resentment. Outsiders of the patronage network formally known as the Government of National Unity (GNU) tried to counter, and mimic this by appointing their own prime ministers. Attempting to manufacture a civilian face and parallel patronage network to administer and financially irrigate lands under Haftar’s military domination.

Meanwhile, militias throughout Libya constantly try to co-opt or counter this new status quo as Haftar and Dbeibeh continuously seek to one-up each other. Today, Dbeibeh is more politically isolated than ever before, while relations have broken down with the other oligarchs of western Libya. Most damningly of all, Libya’s central bank governor has cut off the profligate prime minister, citing his need to protect Libya’s economy as a liquidity crisis, currency crisis over forged notes, and high price inflation concurrently wrack Libyans.

Secured insecurity

These political, economic, and security dynamics have simultaneously roiled under the surface throughout the current political cycle, becoming apparent in public skirmishes that plot the descent from the post-war security order of 2020 to a more fragile consolidation under the new status quo and now, the disorder Libya is descending into.

Haftar’s post-war consolidation was marked by mass-arrest campaigns against local tribes disgruntled at Sirte’s transformation into the new frontline city of their post-war order under Russia and as Haftar’s son Saddam moved to dominate lucrative smuggling routes across Libya’s borders. Consolidation and expansionism were entirely dependent on Russian military muscle.

In western Libya, militias around Tripoli attempted to consolidate by leveraging Dbeibeh’s reliance on them to capture the state and then attempt to progressively colonise armed groups in the towns and cities bordering Tripoli and beyond. This new order strengthened after they defeated attempted putsches by a coalition of groups from Libya’s western coastal region, with crucial assistance from Turkish drones. Demonstrating that just as Russia underwrote Haftar’s consolidation, Turkey was maintaining Dbeibeh’s new order.

Typically, for these security cycles, initial alliances and consolidations failed to manufacture, let alone keep any real peace. Tribal and other forces continue to plot against the Haftars and challenge their order across the cities and borderlands from the southwest to the northeast. 

Despite projecting the image of strongman stability to the world, the Haftars’ anxiety is evident in the detention and murder of prominent civilians who challenge their narrative and a battle in their capital, Benghazi, after a prodigal former defence minister Mehdi al-Barghathi simply mis-choreographed his return to the city. This skirmish was a massive overreaction involving an Israeli-style telecommunications blackout.

Though it ended in a victory, Saddam was left embarrassed, given the overwhelming force required to beat a considerably smaller and weaker actor in a conflict instigated by his own insecurity, which unnecessarily ended with torturing and murdering al-Barghathi and his kin. Meanwhile, the deterrence of Dbeibeh’s drone power is clearly waning, as seen by recent challenges to his authorities across the regions west of Tripoli from the nearby town of Zawiya to the border with Tunisia.


Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His work mainly addresses how European policymaking towards the Maghreb and Mediterranean regions can become more strategic, harmonious, and incisive – with a long-term focus on Libya.


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