Bottom Line Up Front:
• Nearly three years after the collapse of Muammar Qadhafi’s regime, Libya has become a failed state, reaching levels of instability never before experienced in North Africa and the Sahel
• More than 1,700 competing clans, regional and Islamist militias are vying over control of what remains of the state; some radical groups are gaining ground amidst horrific and anarchic violence that has spilled over into neighboring states (Egypt, Tunisia, Niger, Algeria, and Mali); and regional powers are exploiting the disorder to pursue their own interests in the country
• Libya’s economy, overwhelmingly driven by oil and gas revenues, has collapsed; energy sector exports have plummeted, and GDP has declined a stunning 10 percent during the past year
• International efforts to stabilize Libya have been wanting; the United States warns that some new and some old players in the region—Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—are undermining diplomatic efforts to bring reconciliation among partisan groups with their activities in the country.
Since the NATO-backed revolt against Qadhafi in 2011, Libya has descended into extraordinary disorder and threatens regional stability. Municipal, regional, and clan-based conflicts that had been stifled during Qadhafi’s 42-year rule have exploded, producing a proliferation of militias staffed by young men who refuse to lay down their arms. A weak new government headed by Abdullah al-Thinni has obtained international recognition but little else—it’s “new parliament” has been forced to meet in the eastern city of Tobruk and has issued appeals for external military intervention to restore order. The capital city of Tripoli remains in the hands of Islamist umbrella group Libya Dawn, while the Sunni extremist group Ansar al-Sharia has taken control of Benghazi.
The government has been hamstrung by ideological and political disputes, and al-Thinni has recently announced an alliance with Khalifa Bilqasim Haftar, a Qadhafi-era strongman and former major general with previous links to the Qadhafi regime. Haftar has promised to restore order by crushing violent extremist groups and the political factions he accuses of empowering them.
Haftar has impressed Egypt’s military-led government, which has bolstered him materially and politically, even deploying aircraft to support his effort.
It’s likely that Egypt and Algeria would have become more involved in attempts to determine political outcomes in Libya regardless, because the ongoing chaos in Libya increasingly threatens the stability of their own regimes. In particular, the capture by Islamist and armed jihadist forces of the operational terrain of the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica, which borders Egypt, puts them in a position to launch attacks into both Egypt and Sudan. Egypt’s escalation of participation in the Libyan quandary has apparently galvanized al-Thinni to expand his activities. Recently, he launched a series of airstrikes against Libya Dawn that he claims were the start of an offensive to retake the capital city.
Algeria is also reactively expanding its engagement in Libya, understanding that a failed state in Libya will negatively affect both Algeria and Tunisia. Algeria has the most effective intelligence services and military in North Africa, which means that their coordination with Egypt, if effective, could possibly change the military dynamics within the country.
The UAE has become more involved in bolstering ant-Islamist and anti-jihadist forces not only in Libya, but also in Egypt. The UAE was extremely upset with the ouster of Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011, and Hosni Mubarak’s Vice President Ahmed Sahfiq—who lost in a close election to Mohamed Morsi—now resides in the UAE. UAE aircraft based in Egypt have also launched attacks into Libya and the country has liaison points in Libya who are engaged in discussions with Haftar to coordinate operations. It is expected that UAE involvement in Libya will deepen even further.
The entry of Egypt and Algeria into the Libyan imbroglio will marginally improve Haftar’s efforts but will be insufficient to counter the power of armed militia groups. The militias can be neutralized only by greater military involvement, to which neither the United States nor NATO are inclined to commit. If Egypt and Algeria further escalate their involvement, then the order of battle within Libya will change. Mediators are calling for dialogue and reconciliation but, given the militias’ more than adequate arms arsenal and their unwillingness to participate in discussions, the time does not seem ripe for mediation.
In July 2014, escalating violence drove the UN, US, UK, France, Germany, and Canada to evacuate their embassies and personnel from Libya. In the wake of the embassy closures, the appetite for intervention in Libya is low. UN and American officials appear to believe that it is in their interest to stand at the sidelines of the Libyan crisis, urging dialogue and threatening sanctions on uncooperative factions. The Obama administration is focused on combating the rise of extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, and though the disorder in Libya poses some threat to US security interests, Washington appears to have decided that the Libyan crisis is too complex to be effectively mediated by external powers.