Libya: An Overview

With the latest Libyan peace talks currently limping on in Tunisia, Mohamed Fortia, the Next Century Foundation’s lead analyst on Libyan affairs, offers a snapshot of what is happening on the ground.

Cyrenaica (Eastern Libya)

It seems fitting to start with the current situation in Eastern Libya. Being the birthplace of the 2011 revolution, Eastern Libya, which has a population of around 1.6 million people, always opposed Colonel Gaddafi’s government in one way or another. However, opposition to Gaddafi in Eastern Libya was not uniform, this mainly due to the demographic makeup of the region.

The first of the main groups that make up the people of the East are the Bedouins who are largely tribal and reside in the smaller towns. The second are the non-Bedouins who mainly reside in the city of Benghazi and to a lesser extent Darna and Tobruk. Most of these non-Bedouins are descended from Western Libyans who migrated to these cities generations ago and now form a large majority of Benghazi’s almost 700,000 population. When it came to the opposition to Gaddafi, the grievances of the two groups were different, with the Bedouins being tribal in nature they were mainly unhappy that their tribes were not in higher positions of power. In contrast, the mainly city-dwelling non-Bedouins were unhappy with more individualistic issues such as access to better services in the East and access to more opportunities. It is important to make this distinction as it highlights the current situation in the East of the country.

When General Haftar initiated his campaign against the militias (some Daesh affiliated) in Benghazi back in 2014, it was reluctantly welcomed by the city’s population, as prior to the campaign the militias had been committing assassinations across the city with complete impunity. However, General Haftar’s campaign did not target only the militias, but many in his forces (most of whom were volunteers from various tribes) started targeting the homes and businesses of the non-Bedouin residents. This led to a mass exodus from the city of people who ultimately became internally displaced in Western Libya. General Hafter’s campaign also targeted any form of opposition, and this came in the form of removing all of the democratically elected councils in the East of the country and replacing them with his own military councils. Many in Benghazi were and are still opposed to this.

There have also been a number of disappearances. One sad example of this is the forceful abduction of Ms Seham Sergewa, who is the House of Representatives member for Benghazi and a critic of General Haftar. Her whereabouts are still unknown. Cause for great concern was the recent killing of Ms Hanan al-Barassi. She was a lawyer and activist based in Benghazi, and she ran a local association for the defence of women’s rights. Hanan was a staunch critic of General Haftar and regularly called for the reintroduction of civilian rule in Benghazi.

House of Representatives (HOR)

Although the legitimate legislature in Libya, the Tobruk based House of Representatives has more or less been reduced to a mere rubber stamp for General Haftar. This especially became the case after the targeted attacks on those seen as being in opposition to General Haftar (including Seham Sergewa), which led to many Western House of Representatives members fearing for their safety and fleeing to the West of the country. This left the House of Representatives with mainly eastern representatives, many of whom are from constituencies that support General Haftar.

However, with General Haftar’s recent military defeats there have been some moves by the House of Representatives members to regain control of the parliament and become the main political force once again in the East. We see this with the recent talks being held in Tunisia and the overt gestures by Ageela Saleh (Head of the House of Representatives) to come to a settlement with the executive branch in Tripoli.

Foreign actors in the East

Although officially the entire international community recognises the Government in Tripoli as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan state; many countries are undermining the Tripoli Government and are aiding General Haftar with his campaign. The main supporters being the Russians through the Wagner Group, as well as the French, the Egyptians and most notably the UAE. There have even been talks of a possible Russian naval base in either the city of Tobruk or Darna. This would give the Russians a strong foothold in the Mediterranean.

Tripolitania (Western Libya)

Western Libya contains almost 60% of Libya’s entire population, some 3.6 million people. In fact, the greater Tripoli area alone contains almost a third of Libya’s entire population. Being the most populous region in Libya, Western Libya had benefited from a concentration of both political and economic capital throughout Libya’s history, especially in cities like Tripoli. However, Western Libya does not have as much of a strong tribal structure as in the East, and since there were more opportunities offered in the West, there was less resistance against Colonel Gaddafi’s administration.

Post-2011 Libya saw the decline of a strong central government, and this led to the rise and empowerment of locally elected councils throughout the country. Unlike in the East, where General Haftar removed all the elected councils early on; the councils in the West grew so much that many cities in Western Libya are currently operating almost as mercantile city-states. These cities are only nominally aligned to the weak central government. A great example of this are the cities of Misrata and Zliten. However, this is not the case with Tripoli. Although the central government is weak, it does still hold the purse strings of Libya in the form of the Central Bank, The National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority. These three institutions are administered by the central government that currently sits in Tripoli. This has led many of these different cities to compete for influence in Tripoli and has led to several instances of conflict in the capital. At times militias have sought to take full control of the capital, but due to the sheer number of differing militias in the region, it is almost impossible for one group to do so. This is somewhat good news as unlike in the East where a single military force has taken full power, the militias in the West are individually weak and so civilian-led institutions can still function.

Government of National Accord (‘GNA’)

Created in 2015 through the UN-led Skhirat Agreement, the GNA was seen as the solution to the instability that had arisen due to the confused and inconclusive 2014 parliamentary elections. The Skhirat agreement was signed off on by both the rump General National Congress (who contested the results) and the newly formed House of Representatives. It was thought that since both sides had agreed to the formation of the GNA, then a lasting solution could be reached. The only issue was that by the time the House of Representatives was to officially pass the agreement in parliament, General Haftar had already started his campaign in Benghazi and had already taken over most of the East, including Tobruk (where the House of Representatives was sitting). The House of Representatives became unwilling to pass the agreement they had initially signed off on.

The GNA, having been created under the guidance of the United Nations, received full international recognition and went on to represent the executive branch of the country. However, this meant that the still legitimate legislative branch (House of Representatives) did not recognise the executive branch and so created a political impasse in the country. This impasse grew year on year and caused the GNA to rely ever more on a patchwork of militias in order to assert control in the region. Combined with the gradual loss of interest in Libyan affairs from the US after the 2016 elections, and the constant interference by foreign powers against the GNA; the GNA was ultimately left very weak and ineffective to govern.

Foreign influence in the West

From its inception in 2015, the GNA was and is the sole legal representative of the Libyan state, and so it has the sole recognition the UN. The major powers pay lip service to this recognition whilst at the same time undermining the GNA, France and Russia being prime examples. However, whereas most foreign interference that went against the Skhirat Agreement was somewhat hidden, ever since the 2016 US presidential election this interference has become more brazen.

In 2018 the UN arranged for the Libyan National Conference, which was another attempt to reach a lasting agreement in Libya. The conference was to be held on the 14th of April 2019 in Ghadames and had the aim of providing new elections in the country and a renewed sense of legitimacy to the Libya authorities. The GNA accepted this plan and went so far as to actually hold several local elections mostly in the West and South of the country, seeing how the East was out of their control. All seemed to be going to plan then on the 4th of April 2019 Haftar initiated an attack on Tripoli. It should be noted that UN Secretary-General António Guterres had arrived in Tripoli on the exact same day to ensure that all was ready for the conference.

Although the bombing of Tripoli was denounced by the international community especially as it seemed to be planned for the arrival of the UN secretary-general, no major steps were taken to stop this new outbreak of fighting. The GNA found it very difficult to withstand General Haftar’s advance, especially now that some major superpowers were all but openly backing him. After three months of constant shelling the GNA decided to seek assistance from nations such as Turkey and Italy in order to prevent itself from collapsing.

This led to the GNA signing a security agreement with Turkey in January of 2020, which was passed in the Turkish parliament in the same month. Legally there is nothing stopping two sovereign nations conducting such an agreement. However, the GNA did have to sign a new maritime border with Turkey, which was seen by many as a way for Turkey to increase influence over the Aegean Sea.

With Turkey now openly supporting the GNA, other nations such as France and the UAE were unwilling to step up in the same way, for fears of a full-on confrontation with the Turkish military. This allowed the GNA forces to retake lost territories. This weakened General Haftar so much so that there have recently been mass protests in Benghazi denouncing him and allowed the House of Representatives to distance themselves from General Haftar and come back to the negotiating table.

Fezzan (Southern Libya)

Unfortunately, Southern Libya, with a population of around 500,000 people in total, plays a very small role in Libyan politics. This has led to much neglect in the region and allowed human traffickers to operate freely and increase to the migration problem that is faced by southern EU nations. Although not very important to Libyan affairs, Southern Libya is critical to finding a solution to the migration problem and so the international community needs to ensure that the region is given its importance when any discussion on Libya occurs.

Where things stand today

Currently, there are renewed peace talks in Tunisia, which builds on the peace conference that was held in Geneva in October of 2020. These peace initiatives have come up with the idea of creating a joint security force made up of ten commanders, five from the West and five from the East, who will jointly run the city of Sirte. General Haftar has refused to accept these talks, and so it is mainly made up of the GNA, House of Representatives and several local councillors.

The Egyptians have backed down momentarily as they are now concerned with the looming crisis coming from Ethiopia. It is also hoped that with a new US presidency, Joseph Biden would seek to make right the mistakes of the international community in Libya. It is hoped that with the return of the US to the global stage, it will deter other nations from foreign interference in Libya. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s