Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Opposing militias are battling for the control of Libya among the worst violence since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in 2011; a civil war which may continue for years has begun
  • The Libyan government’s mistakes early during the transition process after the fall of Qadhafi included delegation of policing authority to newly formed militias whose members were bound by allegiance to clan, city, or region rather than the newly formed government
  • The civil war is increasingly taking the form of casts of many ethnic and sectarian factions
  • After the 2011 revolt, the economy went into a tailspin, but surged in 2012 as oil and natural gas exports and commensurate GDP growth resumed; but failed governance in late 2012 caused energy sector exports to plummet
  • Since mid-2013, GDP declined by almost 10%, and the government’s current account is almost in negative territory, infrastructure investment has ground to a halt, and government payrolls are at risk
  • Stabilization efforts will most likely be led by military forces from the nearby and broader region—Algeria, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates, with material assistance and logistical advice provided by NATO and the US
  • The stabilization of Libya is critical, however, to regional states’ national interests as the conflict can easily spill into nearby Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Algeria, and Mali.

Almost three years after the end of Muammar Qadhafi’s rule, the Libyan state has failed to cohere; there are extensive and fundamental divisions among the political leadership in the country; and the transition to democracy in Libya has been compromised.

Lack of progress in the transition has not only undermined stability within Libya, but the failure to move forward has had detrimental effects upon its neighbors: Egypt, Tunisia, Niger, Algeria, and even Mali. A viable and effective government is key to establishing civil order and restoring Libya’s oil and natural gas exports.

Libya’s efforts to form a government have been stymied by the rise of militias who swear allegiance to clan groups, cities, or regions rather than the erstwhile government. Furthermore, there is a considerable rift within the emerging political leadership, with some elements demanding an Islamist government and others seeking a secular direction for the country.

In this maelstrom of contending ideological forces, foreign entities have entered the fray, with Egypt, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supporting the anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces. In this context of political instability, progress to create a government has been stifled and the economy, overwhelmingly driven by oil and gas exports, is facing collapse.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 revolt against Qadhafi, the economy went into a tailspin. It surged during 2012 as natural gas and petroleum exports returned, with commensurate GDP growth. When the failure to constitute a government during late 2012 became evident, the economy declined once again. Energy sector exports plummeted. There have been severe disruptions at petroleum and natural gas terminals since mid-2013, and GDP declined by almost 10% during that year. The government’s current account is almost in negative territory and infrastructure investment has ground to a halt. Government payrolls are at risk.

The emerging political leadership in Libya faces formidable challenges. The immediate priority involves the restoration of civil order, the elimination of or integration of militias into a central army, the creation of an effective police force, needed political compromise between Islamists and secular forces, and the creation of a parliament that can bargain, compromise, and rule. In addition, the legal system must be recreated. Engagement with the international financial community will not be possible without a transparent and effective legal regime. Creating a viable government will be a considerable challenge because the four-decade long period of Muammar Qadhafi’s rule prevented Libyans from participating in civil society.

Recent developments
Chronic fighting among militias in Tripoli has ravaged the city and closed the national airport, and various groups engage in fierce battles throughout broad areas of the country. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Sharia, a Sunni extremist group, threatens to assume control in Benghazi and continues to exploit the government’s persistent lack of assertiveness in Derna. In this atmosphere of chaos, the ‘new parliament’ resorted to meeting in the eastern city of Tobruk where it issued an appeal for foreign military intervention in order to protect citizens, while the ‘old parliament’—under the sway of Islamist umbrella group known as Libya Dawn—merely exists in Tripoli.

The ongoing instability in Libya has raised questions as to who will fill the vacuum to provide security. During the week of August 24, it appeared that Egypt and the UAE decided to fill the void. In joint air operations, military aircraft from both countries bombed Sunni extremist positions, indicating a more muscular attempt to pursue Muslim Brotherhood-oriented opponents not only within their own territories but also elsewhere in the region. The civil war is increasingly taking form in a cast of many ethnic and sectarian factions, with Amazigh (Berber) peoples supporting the Zintan militia—allied with former General Khalifa Haftar—while Sunni Islamists support the Misrata militia, Ansar al-Sharia and other religious extremist militias.

Driving decisions for Egypt also include its porous border with Libya and the considerable movement of arms and persons. Additionally, a significant number of Egyptians continue to work in Libya, which puts them at risk. The Egyptian government has organized dozens of flights from Djerba, an island in the Mediterranean under Tunisian sovereignty, to evacuate its citizens who needed to flee the country. As the unrest in Libya has continued, the Egyptian military and intelligence establishment has prioritized securing Egypt’s border with Libya. Algeria to the west may act on similar decision points. Indeed, Algerian newspaper El-Khabar reported that intelligence officials from Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt met last month to coordinate activities.

In this environment, Egyptian and Algerian alignment with General Haftar is plausible. Haftar declared he will pursue violent extremists forces within Libya, militarily, and he has called on Egypt to conduct “all necessary military actions inside Libya in order to secure its borders.”

Related Experts: Ricardo René Larémont