When rebel forces took control of Libya’s capital in August 2011, the first flag to be hoisted atop Bab Al Aziziya, Gaddafi’s palace in Tripoli, was that of a foreign nation – Qatar – which had helped the militants to achieve victory. The bizarre sight was then largely ignored. Today, the lack of national vision is no longer negligible. Libya is deeply fractured, with competing centres of power –including a Western-backed rogue general and a patchwork of Islamist groups – threatening a fragile peace deal.
After years of civil strife, Libya is witnessing another episode of chaos. The severity of its political crisis was most recently felt by the French on 20 July. Speaking on national television, a spokesman for the French government declared that three of its soldiers had been killed in a military operation in the east of Libya. Following months of speculation about Western interference, the news was the first acknowledgement of France’s clandestine presence in the oil-rich country.
Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) responded angrily. The Presidential Council, presiding over the GNA, declared there could be “no compromise” over Libyan sovereignty. Mansour Al Hasadi, a GNA member, later called France’s military involvement a “destabilising” factor. He told the broadcaster Al Jazeera: “This is a sort of coup against the political process and against the democratic path chosen by the Libyan people.”
The GNA was formed only last December in a UN-brokered deal that nominally ended animosity between the country’s two major centres of power. Following the demise of the Gaddafi regime, two opposing governments – one based in Tripoli in the west, the other in Tobruk and Beida in the east – had competed for central power. The UN-brokered deal, however fragile, married the two camps, and has since sought to unite warring militias under a joint command.
Despite the deal, officials in Tripoli are suspicious of the international community’s efforts. In November, former Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission in Libya, Bernardino Leon, angered Libyans when leaked emails suggested he had accepted a highly paid job at a diplomatic academy in the United Arab Emirates – a party with vested interests, which had been trafficking arms in violation of an international embargo.
Worse, in early July, leaked air traffic control recordings pointed to a joint operation between French, British, Italian and US forces and Khalifa Haftar, a rogue general who has refused to lend his support to the GNA.
Haftar’s Libya National Army (LNA) is battling Islamist militants in the east, many of which have pledged allegiance to the self-styled Islamic State (IS). With Haftar ostensibly unifying an anti-Islamist front, he emerged as an obvious partner for Western governments. But in the light of national reconciliation, the Haftar “operation” constitutes a major cause of division.
Haftar is fighting both IS and other militant groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia, in the cities of Sirte, Benghazi, and Derna. The military commander insists, however, he has no interest in politics. Facts on the ground belie this claim. Haftar has repeatedly rejected calls by the GNA to coordinate action against IS and stressed it would be “unthinkable” for his forces to join the UN-backed unity government.
Adding insult to injury, his chief of staff threatened to “liberate” Tripoli in late May. Meanwhile, Haftar’s political allies have issued a rival currency in an attempt to undermine the unity government.
Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 after years in exile in Northern Virginia, where he set up home a stone’s throw away from the CIA headquarters at Langley. He rose to prominence three years later when, aided by the government in the east, he declared a war on Islamist militants. Following the formation of the GNA last December, when Haftar was disregarded for the role of defence minister, the general reiterated his defiance.
To complicate things even further, the GNA is facing political challenges internally. One such challenge is taking hold of the country’s oil economy, which accounts for 95% of its exports.
The Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), which protects Libya’s oil facilities, recaptured key sites from IS militants earlier this year. In a rare sign of hope, PFG’s head, Ibrahim Jathran recently announced the re-opening for export of two of Libya’s biggest ports – the first such occurrence since 2014. The blockade on oil exports was set to be lifted, but following a new stalemate over unpaid salaries with a rival authority, Jathran backtracked on his pledge on 25 July.
Libya, with Africa’s largest crude oil reserves, was capable of producing 1.5m b/d before 2011, but its production now falls at somewhere between 100,000 to 320,000 barrels a day. A recovery of the lucrative industry is instrumental to national restoration. But as the events surrounding the PFG show, surmounting military threats posed by IS and other militants does not prevent new challenges tied to old squabbles from emerging.
Many barriers to a united Libya remain. Five years since Gaddafi’s downfall, internal rivalries and conflicting loyalties have supplanted dictatorial repression.
Crucially, another ingredient for instability comes from Western governments, whose divisive approach to the conflict helps to delay a transition they have long encouraged. The latest revelations make clear, however, that for them, too, a reckoning is in the offing.
Johannes Makar is a North African political analyst.