Transitions in Focus: Libya

An unmistakable sense of despair and gloom accompanies most news reports and literature on the state of affairs in Libya after 2011. The Arab Spring was meant to usher in a period of unprecedented change after decades of notoriously undemocratic leadership across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet, seven years later, there has been very little positive development in terms of transparency, accountability, and inclusivity in the Arab world. No Arab Spring country, however, has fared worse than Libya, whose revolt, ironically, was more of a NATO-supported war than a genuine home-grown revolution with protracted battles which have essentially torn the oil-rich North African nation to shreds.
Key Libyan and international stakeholders will meet in Palermo, Italy, on November 12 to discuss and, hypothetically, draft a plan to deal with the political crisis in Libya. Main Libyan actors from the east—strongman Khalifa Haftar and president of the House of Representatives (HoR), Ageela Salah—as well as the west—prime minister of the United Nations (UN)-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Serraj, and head of the High State Council, Khalid al-Mishri—are supposed to attend. The heads of state of the United States, France, Germany, and Russia have been invited: none have confirmed their attendance. The United States should send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The approaching conference on Libyan stabilization hosted by Italy—which will be held on November 12 and 13 in Palermo—will bring together the main Libyan leaders, with the purpose of defining their respective negotiation platforms in advance. Italy must not only navigate the components of Libya's heterogeneous and conflicting political landscape, but also host the most relevant regional and global actors.
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.
On Tuesday, October 9th, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East held a conference to discuss the nature of foreign involvement in ongoing conflicts in the region as well as the resilience of Jihadism in the post-2011 period. The conference coincided with the launching of a report, “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition,” which explores a number of trends in governance that have emerged since the Arab Spring.
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.