Conflict and Fragility


Understanding instability in Libya: will peace talks end the chaos?

17 Mar 2015 - 16:04
Bron: Nasser Nouri / Flickr

In February 2015, Libyans commemorated the 17th of February 2011, the day when the revolutionary movement against Qadhafi ended over 40 years of dictatorship and sparked a political transition away from authoritarian rule. Four years into Libya’s transition, however, not much is left of the political process that started out in such a promising way. The country is hopelessly divided into two rival governments, backed by two military campaigns that have been in full swing since early 2014. Neither side is able to gain full territorial control or attract large-scale popular support, and neither government seems willing to reconnect in the near future. In the ensuing state vacuum, a zero-sum game has emerged in which a plethora of (armed) interest groups struggle over power and resources. Adding to this explosive mix is the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya and the increase in (cross-border) criminal activity, including human trafficking.

Alarmed by the political impasse and the ongoing violence, in 2014 the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) launched an initiative to bring together the warring parties with the ultimate objective of establishing a national unity government. Convincing the opposing blocs that Libya needs a negotiated rather than a military solution has been arduous, and recently the UN Special Representative to Libya described the situation as ‘festering’ and the momentum for peace talks as ‘rapidly diminishing’. Indeed, the current backdrop to the UN initiative is a security situation that is spiralling out of control. In February this year, IS hit Libya twice in an unprecedented way, first with the execution of 21 Egyptian Copts and later with the bombings in Al-Qubbah killing over 40 people. The UN was quick to condemn these actions in the strongest possible terms and reiterated the need for an inclusive and peaceful political process. Similar statements were made by government leaders around the world, emphasising the need to establish a government of national unity as a way to resolve the Libyan crisis.

Although such statements intend to reflect the international community’s determination and commitment to end lawlessness and chaos in Libya, they also invite two fundamental questions: 1) what do we mean when speaking of ‘the Libyan crisis’?; and 2) what is the feasibility of forming a functioning government of national unity (and generating a credible political road map) in the context of such political polarisation and escalating violence?

Trends of instability

The Libyan crisis is essentially made up of a series of sub-crises that are clearly linked but that should be examined in their own right. Three interlocking trends of instability can be discerned that stand at the cores of these crises, all of which have significant potential to obstruct the peace process.

1.    Armed politics: primacy of the military over the political
Libya is home to two rival governments: the revived General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli and the democratically elected House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk (1).  Only the Tobruk government is recognised by the international community. The two governments represent Libya’s main political blocs: a revolutionary Islamist alliance on the one hand (Tripoli) and a national centrist coalition on the other (Tobruk). Their rivalry goes beyond simple Islamist versus secularist stereotyping: it is essentially a struggle over access to power and resources. Military campaigns in support of each side have been launched: Operation Dignity (Tobruk) and Operation Libya Dawn (Tripoli). In a country with no formal army, yet where guns are everywhere, the armed brigades executing these campaigns have gained significant political influence. Indeed, some of the most significant policy decisions in the lead-up to the current crisis have been made at gunpoint (2).  With the emergence of Dignity and Dawn, the military has taken primacy over the political. Real power in Libya does not lie with either of the two governments but with the armed groups that protect them, many of whom rally behind local instead of national agendas. In a context of such far-reaching militarisation of politics, it is unlikely that the GNC and the HoR will be able to implement any major reforms without the consent of their armed allies. This puts a constraint on their negotiating strength in the current UN-led peace talks as well as on their ability to implement any positive outcomes from the talks.

2.    Crime: product and co-producer of instability
Due to its vast terrain, permeable border regions and the absence of state control, Libya is an ideal environment for various criminal activities and cross-border smuggling networks. After the toppling of Qadhafi, Libya quickly turned into the region’s primary arms market and new markets have been developing rapidly since. One of the most disturbing types of illicit activity concerns human trafficking: because of Libya’s strategic position vis-à-vis Europe, it is estimated that as many as 81,000 illegal migrants passed through Libya in the first half of 2014. Not only are there indications that the local economies of (border) towns through which migrants are being smuggled are becoming more dependent on human trafficking as a source of revenue, there are also reports suggesting that powerful local armed actors increasingly have a stake in this type of illegal activity. For example, the coastal cities between Misrata and Zuwara, home to local militias linked to the Dawn military campaign, are frequently mentioned by observers as the main ports for migrant trafficking to Europe. Criminal activity is clearly linked to the interests of the militias: not only as a source of income but also as a way to maintain territorial control and keep rival groups from gaining power and influence. It is therefore likely that crime will remain a fundamental part of the fragmented political situation in Libya. In addition, as criminal networks thrive in the absence of strong state control, their existence creates a real incentive against the establishment of a unified national government, thus posing a systematic barrier against peace in the long run.

3.    Extremism: transnationalisation and radicalisation
There is a long history of Islamic extremism in the eastern province of Cyrenaica – a region which, under Qadhafi rule, was systematically marginalised and punished for its radical tendencies. After the fall of Qadhafi, new local jihadi groups benefited from the chaos of the immediate post-revolution polity and came to the fore. Since then, segments of the Islamist movement, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, have found their way into political life. Other extremist groups like the Benghazi-based Ansar al-Shari’a rejected Libya’s political transition and concentrated on violent tactics, with the ultimate aim of establishing Islamic rule. The opportunity for expansion that the post-revolution context offered was not lost on IS: it quickly recognised the potential for Libya to become its main North African hub and has since gained a strong foothold in the cities of Derna, Benghazi and Sirte. Although not all Libyan jihadi groups have pledged allegiance to IS – the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade in Derna, for example, refuses to do so – there is some ad hoc co-operation with IS for the purpose of confronting a common enemy (Operation Dignity in particular). It goes without saying that the presence of jihadi forces on the ground is a cause for further instability. Especially worrisome is the derivative nature of Libyan extremism. Jihadism in Libya is fuelled by developments elsewhere (Mali, Iraq, Syria, etc.) and by imported doctrines. On the ground, this translates into a continuous attraction for fighters to join IS ranks as well as an expansion of brutal ‘IS-style’ actions. In other words, Libya is increasingly faced with the transnationalisation and radicalisation of local extremist groups. The jihadi camp certainly benefits from the current governmental chaos, but its transnational agenda and methods will be difficult to contain even if effective state control were to be established.

Final thoughts

The inter-Libyan dialogue that is currently taking place under UN auspices has full support from the international community as well as from large sections of the Libyan population who are exasperated and exhausted by the continuing violence and fragmentation plaguing their country. Clearly, the answer to the Libyan crisis will have to be a political – not a military – one. Yet any political agreement will need to confront powerful factions and divisive figures in Libya and overcome a great deal of suspicion and mistrust between the warring parties. The question is who will be able to achieve and successfully implement the outcomes of the negotiations. In a country that is vulnerable to the interests of so many different (armed) groups, and where so many actors benefit from the absence of a central government, there is a real danger that the results of the UN initiative will be used as yet another tool for political manipulation and exclusion. At this point, the violent struggle over power and resources in Libya seems far from over, and benefiting most from the turmoil are extremist groups and criminal networks. Unifying the moderate elements of both sides of the conflict in the peace talks is a necessity, but without the buy-in of the more radical military actors it will ultimately not be enough to reach a meaningful political settlement.

This article is based on research for a forthcoming policy brief from Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit on the political economy of Libya (expected in April 2015).

1. As part of the road map for Libya’s political transition, the GNC was established as the country’s parliament in July 2012. Its mandate expired in February 2014, but it was revived in August 2014 after the election of the HoR, which was deemed by the GNC as illegitimate.

2. One striking example was the passage of the Political Isolation Law by the hard-line Islamist revolutionary bloc in parliament in May 2013, which was accompanied by a show of force by allied armed groups. The law was designed to ban all former Qadhafi officials from political life.