Libya: A Who’s Who and What’s What

Three and a half years since Libya’s popular uprising devolved into a civil war and culminated in a revolution with the ouster of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s transition has been characterized by political upheaval and deteriorating security. Despite the first round of parliamentary elections held in June 2012 that showed signs of promise, parochial interests and power struggles have escalated and threatened to derail the country from its incremental, shaky path toward democracy. Here is what is currently unfolding.

Who are the warring factions inside of Libya?

The conflict in Libya is at the core a political struggle for control over the country’s key resources and state institutions. The divisions are many, including along local and tribal lines, but they manifest under the shadows of two major blocs that dominate headlines today: Operation Dignity, led by renegade former general Khalifa Haftar, who launched his campaign against Islamists back in May 2014; and Operation Libya Dawn and militias from Misrata that coalesced in response.

The polarization intensified with divisive rhetoric, initially employed by Dignity leadership that failed to distinguish between rogue extremists and moderate Islamists who were interested in participating in the political process (labeling them all “terrorists”). Feeling threatened and perceiving a systemic effort to marginalize them, Islamists accused Qaddafi loyalists of penetrating Dignity ranks, thus justifying their objective of preserving the revolution and, subsequently, ensuring their own survival.

The alliance between these armed factions and political blocs adds another destabilizing layer to this dynamic. The House of Representatives, elected in June 2014 and operating out of Tobruk, has formally thrown its support behind Haftar, saying Operation Dignity is part of the Libyan national army. Meanwhile, the Libya Dawn and Misratan brigades in control of Tripoli have revived the old parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), which in turn have appointed a government led by Omar al-Hassi that challenges that of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.

The rival administrations now challenge each other at every turn. The House asserts little authority beyond Tobruk but has named committee heads, established its own news outlet, and declared its intention to meet in various towns to demonstrate it is not isolated from large swathes of the country. Tripoli, meanwhile, has reportedly begun disbursing funds to municipal councils and has named several of its own ministers. A great deal of uncertainty pervades over who truly controls the ministries. Development projects have effectively stopped and expenditures merely cover salaries and overhead.

What is the status of the oilfields?

Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) has not published any recent data on production, though reports estimate output at around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), at most. This marks a sharp decrease from September when output reached 900,000 bpd—not quite at the pre-revolution level of 1.6 million bpd but significantly higher than the average 200,000 bpd this past spring and summer months. Recent clashes have resulted in field shutdowns, severely hampering output. The major El Sharara oilfield, which produced up to 200,000 bpd, closed this month amid clashes when armed brigades supporting Operation Dawn reportedly took over the oilfield in the first such move by the rival government. Ibrahim Jadhran, the self-styled federalist leader who backs the Tobruk-based government and whose supporters control three critical oilfields, has rejected an offer from Operation Libya Dawn to hand over control of the ports in exchange for money and power and has even threatened secession should the international community recognize the rival government in Tripoli.

To date, the NOC has maintained some neutrality despite growing pressures on state institutions to declare their support for one government over the other. Nonetheless, the oil sector remains vulnerable to the fluid political and security situation in Libya, with many oilfields having been intermittently shut down due to protests over salary and demands for redress for political and cultural grievances.

What happened with the Supreme Court decision? What impact does it have?

On November 6, after several postponements, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict that was as stunning as it was confusing. Up until that point, observers had understood that the judges were investigating the constitutionality of the location where the House of Representatives held its sessions (in Tobruk rather than its mandated seat in Benghazi). However, the court rejected the very constitutionality of the February Committee that had drafted the roadmap leading to the parliamentary vote in June, effectively nullifying the election of the House.

The verdict heightened tensions and further entrenched the rival parties—with the House defiantly rejecting the decision and the rival Omar al-Hassi administration in Tripoli feeling emboldened—but did not fundamentally change the political dynamic. There court ruling has brought more pressure to bear on state ministries to declare their support for one side or another. At the same time, it has revealed internal divisions within these institutions, affirming that neither side has fully persuaded the Libyan constituency of its legitimacy. Libya remains in a state of polarization and political violence, with two major blocs competing for power and control.

How is the international community staying engaged to resolve the crisis?

International efforts are led by UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon who, with the support of special envoys from western countries, has been shuttling back and forth between meetings with Libya’s warring political blocs in an effort to forge consensus for a mediated solution to the conflict. Amid these negotiations, the international community offered an ambivalent response to the Supreme Court ruling, saying it was “studying” the decision—in an apparent effort to avoid undermining the court as a state institution, despite concerns that the ruling was issued under duress. Instead, without abandoning the House of Representatives, it appears that officials are expanding their outreach to more Libyan stakeholders to be more inclusive and stem accusations of taking sides.

In light of joint declarations of support having been issued emphasizing the need for a political solution to the crisis, there appear to be disparate attempts by regional neighbors to lead a dialogue process. Algeria and Sudan have both stepped forward separately, offering to host comprehensive negotiations, though it is unclear how much they are coordinating with the UN and how much progress they are making. At the same time, other states in the region have reportedly become more directly involved—with claims that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are behind airstrikes on Islamist strongholds and accusations of Qatar and Turkey supporting Operation Libya Dawn. The fallout has included bomb attacks on the Egyptian and Emirati embassies in Tripoli and threats by Operation Dignity against Turkish and Qatari citizens to evacuate.

Such developments have prompted the United States to consider unilateral sanctions on Libya’s factions to prevent the proxy conflict from escalating into a civil war. Such a measure would be distinct from the potential UN sanctions targeting individuals or groups involved in the fighting. Just this week, the UN Security Council blacklisted two branches of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, subjecting them to an arms embargo, global travel ban, and asset freeze. Washington says the extremist faction was behind the September 2012 assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Meanwhile, the current crisis has indefinitely put on hold intentions to train Libyans for a General Purpose Force. Great Britain, which was training cadets, effectively halted its program after several Libyan trainees were charged with sexually assaulting locals in Cambridgeshire where the base was located. Overall, such efforts serve little purpose and have practically no impact in the absence of a negotiated, consensus-based political roadmap for Libya’s transition.

Has the Islamic State established a presence in Libya?

The power vacuum, resulting from the absence of national unity and political leadership, has inevitably created an opening for extremists. More recently, supporters of Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) pledged their allegiance to IS in the eastern port city of Derna. Over the last few months, Islamic extremists there have set up religious courts, carried out public punishments, forbidden certain subjects from being taught in schools, and segregated male and female students. A Yemeni militant sent from Syria, according to local activists, now runs the city and three activist bloggers and an Operation Dignity soldier have been beheaded.

The fact that ISIS has gained a foothold in Libya represents a dangerous escalation in insecurity that threatens stability in not only Libya but also its neighbors. Militants could potentially target Egypt, which has alleged that extremists trained in Libya are to blame for attacks on its security forces, and Tunisia, where a promising transition has nevertheless weakened the state’s capacity to deal a decisive blow to growing numbers of extremists.

What are the humanitarian consequences?

Ongoing clashes since the summer months have driven hundreds of thousands of Libyan civilians into displacement. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), close to 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled the violence gripping cities like Benghazi and Obari, as well as Derna, where the Islamic State asserts control. More than 100,000 of them left their homes in the last month alone. Many of the towns hosting IDPs face tremendous challenges in absorbing the population influx, with food and medication in short supply. Despite the best efforts by the Libyan Red Crescent, aid organizations, including UNHCR, are limited in their operational abilities due to the ongoing violence.

As the security situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, a second humanitarian disaster continues to unfold. With its vast, porous borders largely unmonitored, Libya has become a transit point for thousands of African migrants seeking refuge in Europe. UNHCR estimates that over 3,000 people have died trying to cross the waters to reach European shores. The fate of those detained by Libyan authorities remains unclear, as many detention centers are not under the control of a formal national security apparatus but rather autonomous militias.

Lara Talverdian is an assistant director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

Image: Black smoke billows in the sky above areas where clashes are taking place between pro-government forces, who are backed by the locals, and the Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries, an alliance of former anti-Gaddafi rebels, who have joined forces with the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, in Benghazi, November 17, 2014. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori