Last year, pieces in The New York Times, Washington Post, Harvard International Review, and other outlets marked the three-year anniversary of the Libyan revolution. Many covered why the US-backed NATO intervention to remove dictator Muammar Gaddafi was a misinformed strategy, one that has since led to a crumbling government and a virtually nonexistent public security sector. Today, in the midst of increasing civil warfare and on the verge of humanitarian crisis, the “forgotten case” of the Arab Spring has only recently again caught the attention of international media. However, recent articles on the topic have made Libya’s uptick in civil violence appear novel or unexpected. A range of articles, whether journalistic or analytical, have presented Libya’s case as a sudden-onset phenomenon, erupting from recently renewed social tensions. In fact, the current case of the country is anything but unexpected or unprecedented.
Libya’s current plague of civil conflict has been long in the making, with recent violence just a symptom of a larger systemic trend. The lack of national recognition of the House of Representatives has marred the country’s nascent democracy since its graduation from the Transitional Council in 2012. As events continue to unfold, what seemed a muddled mess of militias refusing to disarm has turned into a power struggle between two larger groups: the June 25 elections of Libya’s new parliament saw the convincing win of national secular representatives over a growing Islamist contingent within the nation’s House of Representatives. As a result of this sudden loss, Islamist militias, most notably Ansar al-Sharia and the Misrata militia, have attempted to control large parts of Tripoli and Benghazi and usurp central power. A large number of ports across the country’s northern Mediterranean coast have been captured by armed groups, and, most recently, Islamist militias have raided and occupied the abandoned US embassy compound in the country’s capital.
Compounding this is the recent campaign conducted by retired general Khalifa Haftar, a renegade military official who has, since May, begun a statewide operation to eliminate Islamist militias from the country. The end result is a country torn in a variety of different directions in a conflict that has become increasingly difficult to understand or explain.
The current dismal situation—in which facts on the ground continue to remain unknown to the international community and thousands remain internally displaced from their homes—was not a result of a lack of will or of ignorance, but rather of strained resources. With five emergencies requiring interagency action across the globe, the United Nations is hardly in a position to meet the needs of the displaced in Libya, which increase daily. Due to a lack of information on the ground—the UN Support Mission in Libya, with all UN-affiliated staff, had evacuated the country due to security concerns—the international organization remains in the dark, just as Libya approaches its own twilight hour.
The necessity, whether political or humanitarian, to address the situation in Libya has only increased, and will continue to do so. Estimates have projected that up to two million within the country—numbers similar to those stranded within Iraq’s Islamic State-controlled areas—could be in severe need of international assistance should conflict continue unabated. In addition, the Tunisian government has closed its borders intermittently to refugees and labor migrants fleeing violence, leading to thousands stranded along the country’s western border crossing, without access to food, water, or money.
The lack of international attention on the conflict in Libya is fitting given the circumstances which have led to the situation at hand. The US-led intervention into the country removed a leader who, for all his vices, held his country together. Worse, the NATO-allied nations that stood to initiate security sector and governance reform and other state-building measures in the wake of the 2011 revolution have failed to do so, leaving Libya in a mess of insecurity and factional warfare.
International pundits, at last recognizing this growing urgency, have looked to US and NATO forces to coordinate a peacekeeping operation. Some have even asked for US airstrikes against extremist elements—numerous as they may be—threatening the country’s stability, though such measures are not likely to solve the country’s underlying problems. Egyptian and UAE air strikes, though surprising to Western nations, have left nothing resolved. Repeating the 2011 operation would be to step on broken glass, resulting in further fragmentation and posing reputational repercussions to interventionists who still point to 2011 as a milestone achievement.
Air strikes cannot and do not address the root of all of Libya’s problems: easy access to weapons and an incompetent security apparatus. The answer to the dilemma of Libya rests in longer-term reforms, including fairer democratic inclusion and widespread security sector reform. These might be more complicated than dropping bombs or sending troops, but, as the last three years have demonstrated, Libyan civilians will continue to suffer if these reforms are not enacted.
However, not all problems faced by the Libyan populace can be solved through a centralized, top-down solution. As the most recent elections demonstrate, the lack of respect for the state’s House of Representatives stems from historical and regionalist tensions between Libya’s Tripoli and Cyrenaica areas. In addition, Islamist militia leaders are most afraid that Gaddafi-era remnants will strive for a revival of the overthrown dictatorship, and promises of greater federalist autonomy can soothe such suspicions.
But in order for a model solution to be engineered, stakeholders on all sides must come to the table and discuss an end to the fighting. Negotiations like this cannot occur in the racket of gunfire. The Islamist militias’ tactic of taking over the Tripoli International Airport may have been a self-defeating strategy, as it entrenches Benghazi-based secularists and Islamists in their respective urban centers, preventing formal and informal leaders from meeting in one area and resolving outstanding political disputes. Ultimately, among the escalating chaos, one thing is certain: if they want peace and change, Libya’s players must agree to lay down arms and pick up their pens.