Hope fading for a fractured Libya after Benghazi bombing

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A series of violent attacks across Libya over the past few weeks have left dozens dead. While they have garnered little attention in the West, observers told WikiTribune that they are illustrative of a country where a UN mediation process looks to be failing in the face of violent schisms. 

Two car bombs in the Libyan city Benghazi killed an estimated 33 people on the night of January 23. The previous week clashes in the capital, Tripoli, left at least 20 dead, as armed groups fought over the city’s only airport.

To an extent, 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

The groups at play across the country are so diffuse that it is more useful to look at the lines of division, rather than key players or groupings, said Eaton.

Politically, there is the High State Council, formed from former members of General National Congress which was elected in 2014. 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 in 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 effectively still made up of two rival groups.

There are other divisions between a number of Islamist and secular political groups and between rival factions and armed groups over land, power and key resources.

Tobias Borck, of the Royal United Services Institute, says that it is 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 told WikiTribune that the Benghazi attack was “more dramatic” than the ongoing instability in Tripoli, because Haftar’s forces nominally have Benghazi “under control.”

Progress stagnates

A timeline of events:

  • 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, recognized the main opposition group, the National Transitional Council, as the legitimate government, Gaddafi goes into hiding in August.
  • October 2011: Gaddafi is killed.
  • January 2012: fractures among the rebel groups lead to clashes.
  • March 2012: the National Transitional Council splits (Guardian).
  • February 2014: Haftar launches a coup d’etat, (Al Jazeera) but it does not take place. He launches a campaign against extremist groups in the East, leading eventually to his taking control of Benghazi and the division of 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 key Eastern oil terminals.
  • July 2017: IS driven from Benghazi.

The recent violence is “really been a continuation of clashes that have been going on, on and off, for the past few years,” said Borck.

There is an “underlying instability” in Libya, said Borck, that is essentially the outcome of a “non-existent state order.”

“That’s really where Libya has been since 2011, but especially 2014,” said Borck, “it’s quite depressing when you take a longer view.”

Best made plans

The UN’s mediation plan is based on three stages, said Eaton. First to amend the Political Agreement so that both assemblies accept it. That can then be the basis for the unity government to set up a conference to bring in some partners who are currently marginalized, and isolate spoilers. On this basis, new elections can be held – the third stage.

“The truth is, we’re still in stage one,” said Eaton.

Part of the difficulty is that the two political assemblies do not represent all of the armed groups, and many of these groups are benefiting from the status quo.

Against the backdrop of the violence, Libya has also suffered from a liquidity crisis. Armed groups across Libya are making money from crime, particularly fuel smuggling. Reports of slave markets, and people smuggling across the Mediterranean, should be seen in the context of a long-term financial crisis and rampant corruption.

It is reasonable to think that Libyan people are more concerned with the liquidity crisis than those issues which Western powers usually 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,” said Eaton. But while the incentives are overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining 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.”

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