Transitions in Focus: Libya

On October 20, 2011, the death of Libya’s longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi at the hands of rebels in his hometown of Sirte put an end to the revolution that erupted in February of that year, and ushered in a new political and military elite. This new leadership was supposed to guide Libya through a transitional period that would lead to the establishment of a democratic republic. That is far from being the case.
In September 2017, on the sidelines of a gathering of global leaders at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Libya Ghassan Salame presented an “action plan” for Libya that aimed to surmount Libya’s political stalemate and address persistent instability. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed optimism at the General Assembly regarding the crisis in Libya, calling on all parties to “seize” the moment to move the country forward. However, one year later the situation in Libya is characterized not by progress, but by further deterioration and insecurity.
On the night of September 11, 2012, the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi was attacked and burned. The US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, who was visiting Libya’s eastern city, and three other US citizens lost their lives. At first, the attack was thought to have been carried out by a mob angry about a video made in the United States that mocked Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. It was later determined to be an act of terrorism.

Six years have passed and Libya remains mired in chaos. The crisis has sharpened in its severity in the years since the ouster of the North African nation’s longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi, by rebels backed by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom in 2011. The United States—weary of foreign entanglements—has decreased its attention toward Libya.
There is no denying that Libya is in a far worse state than at any time since the 2011 revolution. In a country of vast oil and gas wealth, basic services are frequently interrupted as armed gangs control the capital in the west. In the east, once feared leaders like Khalifa Haftar find their forces cornered in an uneasy truce with militias that were the corner stone of his quest for power. Meanwhile, southern Libya is now overrun by Touareg and Toubou migration as well as African mercenaries. In short, Libya is not one failed state, but more closely resembles three failed states with dozens of groups vying for control.
On the night of September 2nd, most of the personnel from the Italian embassy in Libyathe only operating embassywere quickly evacuated on a ship bound for Malta. Only a handful of diplomats remained to ensure minimum efficiency. The fate was the same for most of ENI’s technicians, the Italian oil giant that has been active in Libya for decades and one of the few remaining private companies in Libya after 2011. These are clear indications of the increased perception of danger that members of the international community felt after the clashes that have occured in the Libyan capital after August 27th when a militia from the city of Tarhouna launched an attack against the cartel of militias that control Tripoli in order to assure for itself a controlling position in the city.
Debate over Libya currently focuses on whether elections should be held in advance of a political agreement or to move forward in the absence of one. This debate is irrelevant. There are no governments or political leaders in Libya with the authority to conclude a political agreement that militias will recognize, nor are those same militias going to respect the results of an election in 2018 any more than they did in 2012 or 2014. Militias are the only groups with any authority in the country, and any solution will have to be negotiated with them. Militias’ main concern is money; therefore, any solution to their fighting over resources—primarily oil revenue and criminal rackets—must be primarily economic.
Whereas the ambitions of competing warlords fan the flames of conflict and consume the country’s oil resources, envoys from the UN and West to Libya continue to congratulate themselves for having said much but done little. In the balance hangs not only the success of those diplomats’ missions, but also the very future of Libya as a functioning state.
In the wake of Libya’s 2011 revolution, militias built a powerful role for themselves by filling the security vacuum left by the overthrow of strongman Muammar Qaddhafi. Armed groups emerged in all corners of Libya, but the complexity and prevalence is especially noticed in and around the capital, Tripoli.