Libya’s troubled future

Libya’s troubled future

Despite the recent success of UN mediation efforts, an end to Libya’s civil war remains unlikely for now.

Recent unification talks have raised the prospect of ending the civil war in Libya, returning control of the country to a single government. While this would be a good first step to ending the chaos in Libya, numerous hurdles must be overcome before any true stability returns to the country. The sheer number of stumbling blocks threatenening to disrupt the peace process make it unlikely that Libya will recover anytime soon. Rather, it will remain a lawless, militia-run state for the foreseeable future.

The most obvious stumbling block is the ongoing division between two rival governments. While the House of Representatives controls much of the country from their headquarters in Tobruk, the New General National Congress has taken a large and relatively urban section of the country including the historic capital of Tripoli and the important port of Misrata.

These two factions have been fighting since June 2014, when Islamists members of the General National Congress in Tripoli refused to accept electoral defeat, and rapidly expanded their control from the city. A recent unity deal brokered by UN mediators was supposed to merge these rival governments and restore some semblance of normalcy to Libya. In practice, while representatives from both sides agreed to the terms, the House of Representatives is now refusing to ratify them, even while the unity government is assembling in Tunis and seeking international recognition and claiming authority.

This creates the possibility of Libya becoming a modern Great Western Schism, with the “unity government” simply becoming a third competitor for international recognition and aid. The more likely alternative, however, is that without the House of Representative’s support, the New General National Assembly will also withdraw from the deal, leading to its collapse.

Even if the House of Representatives is convinced to join the new government, its success is not guaranteed. Both sides maintain extensive alliances with regional militias and are unlikely to disarm due to mutual distrust. Furthermore, there is no real evidence that the two sides would be willing to share power according to democratic norms. The Islamists, in particular, have demonstrated their unwillingness to acquiesce to electoral defeats, raising the specter of future violence by both sides following elections.

The current military situation in Libya, with the House of Representatives in red, the New General National Congress in Green, and ISIS in Black. Source: Wikimedia.

Myriads of militias                          

Of course, even the success of the unity government will not bring stability to Libya. The overthrow of Gaddafi’s government in 2011, and the subsequent collapse of the national army, created a domestic power vacuum which was quickly filled by regional militias of heavily armed fighters. These militias are loosely organized into coalitions which are pledged to one of the competing governments. Despite this, neither government exercises any firm degree of control over its associated militias.

There are also many militias, such as the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, which are not closely aligned to either government, and act autonomously.

This lack of control by both governments, compounded by their lack of loyal supporters, means that any attempt at disarming the militias and returning control of the state’s security to the central government would be difficult at best.

Indeed, such an attempt at disarmament was made immediately after Gaddafi was overthrown, only to be ignored by the militants. Without a well-organized army which is loyal to the state, it is unlikely that attempts at disarmament by the unity government would fare better.

The security situation is further complicated by the presence of ISIS in Libya. Owing to the breakdown of order across of the country, the Islamic State has managed to seize control of a small but significant portion of the coastline, using this territory as a staging ground for attacks deep in the Libyan interior.

Thus far, ISIS has not enjoyed the same level of support  it has in either Syria or Iraq; its fighters are primarily foreign volunteers instead of locals, and its advance along the coast has been halted for the moment. However, as Jason Dozier notes, if either Tobruk or Tripoli is unable to continue paying their militias, their supporters will likely evaporate, setting the stage for further ISIS expansion.

Institutional imbroglio

The diffusion of power to militants is symptomatic of a deeper problem that any future government of Libya will have to overcome in order to bring peace to the country: a near-total lack of country-wide institutions. During his 42-year reign, Gaddafi systematically demolished the formal and institutionalized bureaucracies that states are generally built upon, replacing them instead with a system of personalized and informal contacts.

In the words of Libyan academic Dr. Guma El-Gamaty, Gaddafi prevented a “formal constitution or an independent judiciary system … [and prohibited] political parties, civil society organizations, and free press.” This meant Gaddafi’s presence was essential to keep the country running, as his government represented the only organization with country-wide reach; he could not be removed without hence destroying the state too.

Once the regime collapsed, this lack of alternative organizations inevitably created a vacuum in the political and security realms as there were no institutions that the transitional government could turn to in order to keep the peace or administer the country. Thus, even if the unity government does succeed in bringing the militias to heel, Libya will still be left with endemic governance problems which, in all likelihood, will take years or even decades to properly resolve.

It is therefore clear that long-term stability – and its attendant benefits in economic growth and prosperity – remains a distant prospect for Libya. While investors will be tempted by its wealth of oil resources, they would do well to wait until Libya has a permanent government that can provide security throughout the country before investing.

About Author

Jacob Purcell

Jacob Purcell is a Middle East expert. He holds a Master's graduate from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations Program, where he focused on International Security and International Economics. He received his BA from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated Magna cum Laude with majors in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics, as well as minors in French, History, and Classical Studies.