A series of violent attacks across Libya in recent weeks has left dozens dead. While the attacks have garnered little attention in the West, observers told WikiTribune they illustrate a country in which a UN mediation process looks to be failing in the face of violent schisms.
Two car bombs in the Libyan city of Benghazi killed an estimated 33 people on the night of January 23. The previous week, clashes in the capital of Tripoli left at least 20 dead, as armed groups fought over the city’s only airport.
Violence of this nature has rocked Libya since at least 2014, and arguably since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Clashes between myriad armed groups across the country occur regularly, particularly over resources and key assets, such as the capital’s airport.
Tim Eaton of UK think tank Chatham House told WikiTribune: “What we’re seeing across the country is a large number of actors that have territory and have access to a degree of political power. But there’s so many of them and none have been strong enough to control the whole country.”
A country made of fractures
Groups at play across the country are so diffuse that it’s more useful to look at the lines of division, rather than key players or groupings, said Eaton.
Politically, there’s the High State Council, formed from former members of the 2014-elected General National Congress. The House of Representatives, also known as the “Tobruk” government, is based in Benghazi, and has the loyalty of the Libyan National Army and its leader Khalifa Haftar.
The Libyan Political Agreement of December 2015 was meant to form an accord between these rival assemblies, creating the Government of National Accord. It was endorsed by the UN, but has never been formally ratified by the House of Representatives, so the “Unity Government” is still effectively made up of two rival groups.
More divisions exist between a number of Islamist and secular political groups and between rival factions and armed groups fighting over land, power, and key resources.
Tobias Borck of the Royal United Services Institute says it’s almost impossible to summarize the different factions at play.
“In the east you do have a clearly strongest militia,” he said, referring to the “Libyan National Army.”
“It isn’t actually the national army,” Borck said. “It’s a strong militia that is itself fractured internally.”
The bombings in Benghazi are part of a broader effort by rival factions to undermine the idea that Haftar has control of the whole of Eastern Libya, said Eaton. The Tripoli clashes similarly run counter to any narrative that the UN-backed forces of the Government of National Accord have control of the country’s capital.
Borck said the Benghazi attack was “more dramatic” than the ongoing instability in Tripoli, because Haftar’s forces nominally have Benghazi “under control.”
Recent violence is “really been a continuation of clashes that have been going on, on and off, for the past few years,” said Borck.
The “underlying instability” in Libya is essentially the outcome of a “non-existent state order,” he said.
“That’s really where Libya has been since 2011, but especially 2014,” said Borck. “It’s quite depressing when you take a longer view.”
Momentum ‘slipping away’
The UN’s mediation plan is based on three stages, said Eaton.
The first is meant to amend the Political Agreement so that both assemblies accept it.
An amended Political Agreement might then be the basis for the Unity Government to arrange a conference to bring in groups that are currently marginalized.
On this basis, new elections (stage three) can be held.
“The truth is, we’re still in stage one,” said Eaton.
Part of the difficulty is that the two political assemblies don’t represent all of the country’s armed groups. In addition, many of these groups benefit from the status quo.
Against a backdrop of violence, Libya also has suffered from a liquidity crisis. Armed groups across Libya are making money from crime, particularly fuel smuggling. Reported slave markets and people-smuggling across the Mediterranean are part of a long-term financial crisis and rampant corruption.
It’s reasonable to assume the Libyan people are more concerned with the liquidity crisis than with issues Western powers typically focus on, such as combating terrorism and human trafficking, said Eaton.
“The international effort is trying to address this at a local, ground-up level,” he said. Because certain incentives and groups may favor the status quo, trying to move on to “stage two” is extremely risky. “If it doesn’t work where does that leave the UN process?” said Eaton.
In the meantime, Libya has “reverted to patterns of people avoiding making decisions,” said Eaton. “The momentum’s kind of slipping away at the moment.”
- February 2011: At the height of the Arab Spring, violent protests break out in Benghzai and spread to other cities, including Tripoli.
- March 2011: NATO authorizes a no-fly zone. Organized rebel groups capture territory.
- July 2011: The International Contact Group, a multilateral support network, recognizes main opposition group the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government.
- August 2011: Gaddafi goes into hiding.
- October 2011: Gaddafi is killed.
- January 2012: Fractures among rebel groups lead to clashes.
- March 2012: National Transitional Council splits (Guardian).
- February 2014: Haftar launches a coup d’etat (Al Jazeera), but is unsuccessful. He then launches a campaign against extremist groups in Eastern Libya, leading eventually to his taking control of Benghazi, ultimately dividing the country.
- October 2014: Islamic State (IS) fighters seize Derna in Eastern Libya.
- December 2015: Libyan Political Accord signed, with backing from the UN.
- September 2016: Haftar takes control of key Eastern oil terminals.
- July 2017: IS driven from Benghazi.
- September 2017: UN Libya Envoy sets out proposals to amend the Political Accord.
- November 2017: CNN investigation into slave auctions in Libya prompts condemnation, but no action.