Libya: Easier to Destroy a Nation than to Govern a Nation

To make sense of the current situation in Libya it is important to go over the origins of the first Libyan Civil War of 2011. How did one of the best developed most stable countries in all of Africa emerge into a conflict-ridden and lawless nation with terrorists and human traffickers? What role do foreign powers play as their increasing involvement further reduces the prospects of a stable Libya? And how has the chaos in Libya served as a catalyst to affect the politics not just in Libya, but into the wider regional context?

This conflict started back in 2011 when Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi was still in power, but one cannot understand the Libyan civil war today, without an understanding of the formation of modern-day Libya, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, and the ensuing NATO intervention.

What is called Libya today was formed in 1934 when the two Italian colonies of Italian Tripolitania and Italian Cyrenaica were merged into one colony known as the colony of Italian Libya. It is primarily a fragile unity between the region of Cyrenaica which is over 95% Arab-dominated and the Tripolitania region which is a mixed race of Berber Arabs and Turkic origin. Both sides are naturally isolated from each other by the massive Libyan deserts.

In 2011, Gaddafi had been in power for 42 years. With his infamous Green Book, Gaddafi had a peculiar and erratic ideological mix that combined anti-imperialism with socialism, Arab nationalism and pan-Africanism. Domestically, that meant nationalizing the western-controlled oil industry, and although Gaddafi was definitely an authoritarian dictator, he did use the oil wealth of Libya to benefit his people. Education along with health care was free and Libyan families got cheap loans to buy their own homes. Additionally, despite the fact that Libya is a desert country, Gaddafi was able to use oil money to build a massive irrigation scheme for agriculture. The result of these policies was that Libya achieved the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in all of Africa, and became more prosperous and stable than its neighbors, but it was Gaddafi’s foreign policy that made him an enemy of the West.

Gaddafi saw himself as the leader of the global anti-imperialist movement. He sponsored dozens of groups from the IRA in Northern Ireland to communists and Islamist in the Philippines. Following the Lockerbie Affair the US bombed Libya and imposed sanctions throughout the 1990s. Gaddafi began to feel the pinch. When the US invaded Iraq and Saddam Hussein fell, Gaddafi realized that he could be next thus he initiated backdoor diplomacy to make a deal with the West. He accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, gave up his weapons of mass destruction, and opened up Libya and its oil reserves to foreign investment from the West. He even sponsored the presidential campaign of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Gaddafi thought he was now the darling of the West, but he was wrong.

Then in 2011, everything changed. The Arab Spring had come to Libya, and protests erupted against Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule. But unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, the protests quickly became militarized. Unlike the Western media portrayed at the time, this was not so much a peaceful nationwide uprising, but a militant rebellion by Islamic and tribal militias concentrated in the eastern region of Libya, reflecting the historical regional divide between west and east, and this division also formed the basis for the civil war today. Within weeks, half the country was under rebel control and parts of the army had defected to the rebels, Gaddafi then began to step up the violence, and soon he had taken back most of Libya, and that surrounded the eastern city of Benghazi.

It was at this point that the rebels realized that the game was up, and the only way to stop Gaddafi was to call for foreign intervention. So the rebels began to claim that Gaddafi was about to unleash a bloodbath, on Benghazi, and this was widely reported in the media. In fact, before the rebels called for foreign intervention, the word bloodbath, had only been used 20 times in newspapers. Yet in the following week, it was used 175 times despite the fact that other cities taken back by Gaddafi forces had not experienced any bloodbath but it was this sloppy reporting by the media of an impending bloodbath that was used as the justification for foreign intervention. Thus UN Resolution 1973 was passed, calling for a no fly zone, as well as any other means except occupation to be used to protect civilian lives.

In March 2011, the NATO bombing of Libya began and this NATO intervention was justified by the need to protect civilians, yet the actions that were taken was made with the intent for regime change. Repeatedly Gaddafi attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, which would have saved civilian lives. But repeatedly, NATO and the rebel militias refused. This is important, because Libya under Gaddafi was a one man show. This is so because Libya had no institutions to build a long lasting democracy, and the opposition had no coherent set of demands. By not having a negotiated settlement and a peaceful transition of power, NATO created the conditions for chaos to erupt in Libya, for the country to be awash with weapons and militias.

A negotiated settlement could have prevented a power vacuum, and the massive inflow of weapons into the country and the forming of militias, who would form the basis for the civil war to come. But this action was never motivated by human rights, despite Gaddafi opening up to the west. The French wanted him gone. Sarkozy signed a $10 billion weapons deal with Gaddafi, and Gaddafi did not deliver. On top of that leaked emails from WikiLeaks show that France had key oil interests in Libya, and Gaddafi’s plan for a gold backed pan African currency threatened France’s interests. Most of the former French colonies in Africa don’t control their own currency. Their central banks and gold reserves are located in France and they share a common currency, the Central African franc and the West African franc, which is regulated by France by creating a new pan-African currency, Gadhafi threatened French interests in Africa. Gaddafi had to go. But what about the United States of America as a nation did not have a major stake in Libya such but the Arab League and the rebels lobbied Hillary Clinton for US involvement. So it was Hillary Clinton who convinced Obama to intervene in Libya. After seven months, it was game over for Gaddafi.

The Libya that was left behind was one with no stable government and filled with armed militias, the perfect conditions for a civil war, and this was exacerbated by the transitional government. After the fall of Gaddafi, every member of a militia was promised a government salary equivalent to double that of a teacher salary. In a country with high unemployment and no future this incentivized every young man to desire to join a militia in order to gain access to these benefits. Thus militia membership exploded from just over 25,000 after the fall of Gaddafi to over 250,000 and that in a nation of just 6 million people.

Post-February 17, 2011

Initially, attempts were made to settle the differences as in 2012 the General National Congress (GNC) was elected as the government in Tripoli. The GNC was tasked with transitioning Libya to a democratic constitution. It was given a deadline of 18 months to fulfill that goal. However, the government failed to reform the constitution and likewise failed to hold new elections before its term ended.

To that end in 2014, Libya’s eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar who leads the secularist Libyan National Army demanded that the government step down, yet despite the threat of the (GNC) persisted. Khalifa Hafter was a Gaddafi confidant back in the 80s, but fell out with Gaddafi and ended up living in the United States as an American citizen. After the revolution, he came back to Libya and formed the Libyan National Army (LNA), which sounds like a professionalized military, but it’s really just another coalition of militias.

Then three months later, Haftar received the backing of neighboring Egypt and launched Operation Dignity in an attempt to dislodge the government in Tripoli. As Haftar’s forces took control of most of eastern Libya, including the oil expert terminals, the output of oil skyrocketed to 700,000 barrels per day. This somewhat stabilized the financial circumstances of the country and marked the beginning of the second Libyan Civil War. At the backdrop of the fighting the (GNC) in Tripoli held elections and established a new government, known as the House of Representatives (HoR). Following these elections, a new coalition of Islamist militias from Misrata established Libya Dawn which sought to overthrow the House of Representatives (HoR). This suddenly saw Libya having two governments, the GNC based in Tripoli in the West, and the (HoR), based in Tobruk in the East.

The merchant city of Misrata has a long history of revolutionary rebellions dating back to the Ottoman rule. In fact, during the hostilities against Gaddafi, Misurata was at one point home to more than 40,000 fighters. The Misrata coalition took over Tripoli and then restored the (GNC) to power. This forced the House of Representatives (HoR) to flee to Tobruk and ally with Haftar, who in turn became its de facto leader. In the following year, the (GNC), backed by the Islamist Misrata militias fought against the House of Representatives (HoR), supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar. Fighting went back and forth as neither side had the strength to overpower the other. In the meantime, the civil war created the vacuum of power which was exploited by Al Qaeda affiliated groups as they embedded themselves within the Misrata militias. The state of protracted chaos also allowed ISIS to establish a base around Sirte. From there the group launched attacks against the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk. The presence of ISIS forced the hand of the Misrata coalition and Haftar as well as the international community.

The United Nations conducted negotiations between the belligerents to form a successor government that could rule the country as a whole. Thus, in December 2015, representatives of the Tobruk based House of Representatives (HoR), and the Tripoli based General National Congress (GNC) signed a deal to form a unified government. The pact codified in the Libyan political agreement established the Government of National Accord (GNA), which in turn was led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli. The agreement, however, created a rift between the moderate and hardline Islamist forces within the Misrata coalition. More specifically, the Salafi fighters parted ways because they felt that the UN backed GNA considered much power to Haftar. At the same time, Haftar rejected the proposal because the GNA appointed his rival as the Defence Minister, plus Haftar refused to subjugate military authority to the civilian government.

The situation on the ground was further complicated by foreign interests. As the two sides emerged, foreign powers began backing the different sides. Haftar and his Libyan National Army are supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France and Russia. Haftar presented himself as the secular alternative to the Islamist/ Muslim Brotherhood of the GNA and the strong man who could stabilize Libya and fight terrorism. For this reason, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE support Haftar because they don’t want their own countries to be destabilized by Muslim Brotherhood elements. On top of that, the Gulf States realized that as long as they can keep this war in continuum, Libyan oil stays off the market. Less oil means higher oil prices, since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has produced far less oil, because most of Libya’s oil is situated in the eastern region of Libya and controlled by Haftar. Equally, Libya will be requiring at least $20 billion to rise its oil production level to 2M barrel a day.

Meanwhile, Moscow seeks to ensure a seat at the negotiations so that it can shape the talks and use it as leverage and opportunity to undermine NATO and its support of Khalifa Haftar as crucial to its greater North African and Mediterranean strategy. French oil company TOTAL has made a $450 million deal to gain access to Libya’s oil, explaining France’s involvement starting from the time with militant philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who persuaded Sarkozy French President to back the Libyan revolt.

On the other side, the GNA is supported by Libya’s former colonial master Italy, as well as Turkey and Qatar. Italy is dependent on Libyan gas and wants to prevent the massive inflow of migrants from Libya, and thus believes that the GNA is best poised to advance its interests. Turkey is interested because they signed a deal with the GNA to share an exclusive economic zone in the maritime waters between Turkey and Libya. This means that Turkey and Libya will have exclusive access to the oil, gas and other resources located in these waters. Qatar is a geopolitical rival of Saudi Arabia, and so naturally it supports the side which is against the Saudi backed Haftar. As for the United States, officially, it supports the UN backed government of the GNA, but then ex-President Trump had shown that he is sympathetic to the strong man he sees in General Haftar.  Perhaps most importantly, Russia’s growing involvement in Libya’s civil war — alongside Turkey’s continued support for the GNA — will leave Moscow and Ankara at the helm of any potential negotiations between Eastern and Western Libya.

On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar have expressed support for the General National Congress (GNC), officials in Ankara are exploring ways to exploit Islamist political parties to enlarge their own influence in the region and counter geopolitical rivals such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, officials in Doha seek to expand their geopolitical influence by acting as a diplomatic channel for groups such as the Taliban, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. As for the West, the US and most of the EU member states support the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the moderate Misrata coalition.

Yet some nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, also covertly support the House of Representatives (HoR). The primary concern of the West is to restrain jihadist elements and to resolve issues related to migration and security. All in all, the Libyan civil war is complicated to say the least and the many years of fighting have left the country with a web of alliances and belligerents. No outside power has the means to force a resolution yet given Libya’s proximity to Europe and its hydrocarbon reserves foreign powers will keep trying to shift the circumstances in their favor.

A decade after the armed uprising that precipitated the civil war, Libya is still embroiled in low-level conflict, political instability, and economic turmoil. With the battle lines drawn, Haftar has gained the upper hand and quickly gained control of two thirds of the country, launching an attack on Libya’s capital Tripoli. That assault has now been pushed back, bringing the Libyan civil war to a stalemate. As Libya increasingly becomes a battlefield on which the region’s geopolitical rivalries are being fought no viable conflict resolution will be possible until the domestic factions cease pursuing outright military victory and the interest of decisive regional and international actors in this (proxy) war exhausted.

Following multiple efforts for a peace deal have been attempted, but then the pertinent question remains as to why is it so hard for the waring Libyan parties to come to an agreement? Here’s the thing that stokes the civil war in Libya: the assets of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) have been frozen due to sanctions by the UN since Gaddafi lost power. Libya through the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) has a massive sovereign wealth fund worth $67 billion which is the largest sovereign wealth fund in Africa meaning unlike many other conflict zones, Libya has the financial means to rebuild itself. Whichever side manages to successfully integrate the existing institutions will gain access to 87% of the Libyan Investment Authority’s $67 billion. The victor in the conflict will get to shape the nation and inherit the country’s $67 billion in sovereign wealth. Such an event would dramatically shift the balance of power. Whoever wins the war will gain access to this massive fund.

It is often easier to overthrow a government than it is to govern a country. History is full of examples of revolutionary coalitions that overthrew an oppressive regime but ended up fighting each other once the shared objective was achieved. In some cases, the post-revolution fighting resulted in a civil war that was more violent than the overthrown regime. Observers back in 2011 had then warned that the absence of Qaddafi would enable chaos and lead to the militarization of the region.  Looking back we can see how the presence of jihadist groups and tons of weapons revived Libya’s rivalries. Immediately following the downfall of Qaddafi deadly skirmishes erupted all over the country and Libya entered a period of protracted chaos.

The destabilization of Libya that unfolded on February 17, 2011, and the consequences of its present-day destruction have been far worse than anyone anticipated. The Libyan civil war endures because the prize for winning is so great. The Libyan civil war endures because foreign powers have much to gain. The Libyan civil war endures because external sponsors are pursuing diverging interests. The Libyan civil war endures because both sides of Libya are made up of fractious coalitions of militias that could turn on each other the moment they no longer have a common enemy.

As the Libyan labyrinth tries to initiate a political transition and Libya enters into a pivotal moment the chickens have come home to roost. While the sand dunes blow across the Libyan deserts from where the greatest Libyan writer of the 20th century, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Faqih, penned “There Is No Water in the Sea” and his historical epic “Maps of the Soul” and from where Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi and Omar al-Mukhtar once traversed, Libya today is almost dead and the vultures are feasting on the closing sentence of Ahmed al-Faqih’s autobiographical trilogy: “A time has passed and another time has not come and will not come.”

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About Khalid Latif 2 Articles
The author is the Executive Director (COPAIR), Director Program (Middle East) Editor, The Asian Telegraph and Melange Magazine.