Libya still lacks a unified government and unrest is growing amongst the population trapped between the jihadist threat and internal power struggles, all while the international community discusses procedures of an armed intervention

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:21:57

For the first time, the United States carried out in the past weeks a raid targeting Islamic State strongholds in northern Libya. For months, the international community has been trying to mend the divisions between two opposing governments and come to the formation of a sole executive government capable of guiding the country towards a political transition, but without success. Libya still lacks a unified government and the political and military fragmentation — with a proliferation of militias and different armed groups — is becoming more and more widespread. The problem, explained to Oasis Virginie Collombier*, researcher at the European University Institute of Florence and Libya expert, is of a political nature and “there cannot be a substantially and exclusively military response.”

Talks of a military intervention in Libya are back on the table. What lesson can be drawn from the experience of 2011? What are the mistakes that are not to be made again?

“It’s basically a matter of questioning and comprehending the foundations of the current crisis in order to respond to it in the most adequate manner. First of all, today we are all too aware that both Libyans themselves as well as the international community largely underestimated the fractures present within the society after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. These fractures, which had been intentionally accentuated by the regime, manifested themselves in the form of an enormous lack of trust between the various communities and political groups. Secondly, there is a tendency to forget that the 2011 revolution was not just the revolt of a part of Libyan society against the regime: it was also a civil war between pro and anti-Gaddafi communities. Consequentially, when the regime fell, there were, very clearly, both winners and losers. In such a context, priority was given to the rapid organization of elections and the creation of new political institutions, without however starting a veritable dialogue and process of national reconciliation. This generated an intense competition between the communities and the factions that had emerged victorious at the end of the war; the groups which had been defeated were excluded and as a final result, the divisions and the tensions within society grew rapidly.”

What is the situation on the ground at the moment?

“On the institutional level, starting from the Summer of 2014, the country is divided in two parliaments and two rival governments which contend for the legitimacy of power. One is located in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk and Bayda. However, neither of the two maintain real control over a significant portion of the territory and the population. Since the end of 2014, the United Nations has supervised a process of political dialogue between the various rival factions with the aim of reunifying the institutions and reestablishing a legitimate government. But despite the signing of a political agreement in December 2015, it has remained impossible to form such a government. The context of a prolonged political vacuum characterized by sometimes violent competition between political-military factions led to a growth of armed groups: old revolutionary brigades, criminal groups, and clearly jihadist groups, in particular the Islamic State.”

How do you evaluate the threat posed by the Islamic State?

“The Islamic State rapidly advanced starting from the end of 2014. The group was able to take advantage of the security void but was also able to capitalize upon the feeling of exclusion which was widespread among some Libyan communities, thus gaining members. This phenomenon is particularly evident in Sirte, Gaddafi’s old fief, some individuals and families have decided to support the Islamic State. More than for ideological reasons, they gave their support for situational political motives: uniting with the Islamic State was perceived by them as a way to earn back the power and the status which they enjoyed before 2011. In Sirte there is a considerable nucleus of foreign fighters which controls the city, but they can rely on the support of a portion of the local population. This situation very closely resembles that of the Sunni provinces of Iraq. Therefore, the jihadist threat is partially founded on a political crisis and the political revenge of the local communities. In terms of numbers and capacity, however, the jihadist impact is relative: estimated at several thousand figures. These fighters have suffered defeats, like in Derna for example, where some local groups fought back and pushed them out of the city.”

In this context, what effects could a foreign military intervention have?

“Obviously, it all depends on the kind of intervention that is being considered. A large scale intervention with the presence of foreign troops on the ground seems out of the question; it would be very difficult to carry out and, perhaps most importantly, very poorly received by Libyans. Up until now the logic which prevailed on the international level was to not intervene unilaterally, but through supporting the creation of a national government and then helping it in its own fight against extremist movements. Nonetheless, at this point European and American leaders, confronted with what they perceive to be a rapid advancement of the Islamic State, seem ready to conduct targeted military interventions without the previous request of a legitimate Libyan government. Attacks of this sort were already carried out at the end of 2015, in particular in Derna. In these past few days, American planes conducted a significant raid near Sabratha and there are also talks of the participation of French special forces in the fight in the city of Bengasi, though this information remains to be verified. Whatever may be the case, it seems as though Western operations move ahead at an accelerated rate while the patience with the political blocks is running out. According to the Western perspective, there is little time left and the threat is growing: at this point it is time to act and if need be, unilaterally. But there is a real risk that unilateral foreign military action, even if a limited operation, could provoke the total failure of the political process, making the search for a long-term solution even harder. In any case, there cannot be a substantially and exclusively military response to a threat which involves a considerable political component.”

The West sees the Islamic State as the most serious threat in Libya. But what are the priorities of Libyans?

“The majority of Libyans are worried about the expansion of the Islamic State and, more generally, by the deterioration of the security situation. For them, the only short-term response is the formation of a unified government capable of exercising its authority over the territory. The problem is that up until today, the rivaling powers of Tripoli and Tobruk/Bayda have preferred intercine fighting over forming a common front against the Islamic State and actually it is very likely that the Tripoli-based government and its allies facilitated the movement and supplied financial support to jihadist elements as part of their fight against their rivals in Tobruk/Bayda.”

What is the role of General Khalifa Haftar? Is he part of the problem or the solution?

“When, in May 2014, General Haftar launched operation Karama (dignity), he was in retirement. Nonetheless, he maintained control over the air force, he reunited some ex-officials and allied himself with some tribal forces in the East of Libya. After several months of war in Bengasi, his operation was eventually endorsed by the Parliament in Tobruk, which granted him official control of the armed forces. But the national Libyan army that he leads is not actually a national army in the sense we might expect. In particular, it is made up by a considerable portion of civilians, local militias and tribes, which swore allegiance to the general. Due to his past under Qaddafi and the fight he conducted against some political and military forces in Bengasi from 2014 onwards, Haftar represents a huge obstacle to a political solution of the Libyan crisis. He and his allies strenuously oppose the hypothesis that the head of the military institution or the Ministry of Defense may be replaced by a personality that is not part of its circle. But for Libyans in the west, his presence at the head of the army is absolutely unacceptable and even in the east the number of his opponents seems to grow.”

You are not very optimistic…

“The developments of these past few days and especially the growing divisions and the tensions within the Parliament of Tobruk (which is expected to approve the government of national unity) are not reassuring. The overwhelming majority of Libyans hopes that this government may be formed, but compromise seems increasingly difficult. The strategy of political dialogue adopted by the United Nations has consisted in the explosion of coalitions and the creation of a new alliance of moderate forces, which favor an agreement. This strategy has brought about positive results, but has also intensified the fractures between the different factions and communities and within them. Today, the divisions in the east are particularly strong, in the country’s large tribes, in the Parliament, but even in the political and military forces in general, to the point that today there is the real risk of a new armed conflict between supporters and opponents of the agreed government and of an escalation, the consequences of which are difficult to predict. It is precisely for this reason that a new foreign military intervention, even if aimed and limited, without a unified political vision, risks only worsening an already very unstable situation.”

*Virginie Collombier: Research Fellow Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute. Libya Project Associate, the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF).

This article was translated from the original French
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation