Shifting Sands; Libya's Oily Quagmire

Shifting Sands; Libya's Oily Quagmire

. 10 min read

Amid the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, away from the fanfare of the news media, Libya ended its civil war. The two main sides, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, sat down under the supervision of the UN Support Mission in Libya, and agreed to a ceasefire in August 2020. By September they had signed the Montreux Convention, containing a three part proposal for economic, military and political reconciliation. On October 23, the civil war ended. The Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, called it a “fundamental step towards peace and stability.”

However, the Libyan triumph was not done yet. In January 2021, the peace talks were able to agree on a process for creating a unified government and to hold elections in December. And in February, a construction businessman al-Dbeibeh was appointed Prime Minister, the first Prime Minister of a unified Libya since 2014. The UN hailed “a better, safer, and more peaceful future.” UN press releases from the time drip with the optimism of an aircraft carrier with patriotic music blaring over seas of servicemen while the banners above proclaim: Mission Accomplished!

Unfortunately, the cracks were already there. Al-Dbeibah, the new Prime Minister, is a former Gaddafi oligarch who has been described as having won power (unexpectedly) through a combination of “corruption, money laundering, financing of the Muslim Brotherhood, [and] vote buying.” By 2022, the country had split back into its old factions, there were two prime ministers, two legislatures (incidentally the same two that have run the country since 2014), two armies and the ceasefire had broken down killing dozens. In short, the two sides had used the UN to regroup and rearm, funded by the oil money that was flowing again, only to restart the war.

But never fear, the UN is here. This June, the UN negotiated a new agreement to hold elections and form a new government. It remains to be seen if the new Bouznika deal can prove a lasting peace, or whether it will end up on the scrap heap of history with the Geneva, Skhirat, Tunis, Palermo, Berlin, Montreux, and Cairo deals. The latter seems a safe bet for the time being.

Straight Lines in the Sand

King Idris presides over the promulgation of the 1951 Federal Constitution, which continues to be the basis for proposals for a new constitution / United Nations Support Mission in Libya

Libya is an invention - as Metternich might say, it is “only a geographical expression.”

The state we now call Libya is composed of a few straight lines in the sand, drawn by the British, French and Italians from the 19th century to 1945. Unlike much of the Arab world, its people are largely descended from the pre-Arab Berbers, which means that the entire country, particularly the southern non-Arab region of Fezzan and the eastern region of Cyrenaica, are tribal (including urban centers like Benghazi and Tobruk). Both Gaddafi and his predecessor, Idris as-Senussi (Libya’s British-installed king), utilized tribes and Islam as a way to maintain support while preventing a national identity capable of opposing them from forming. Idris in particular divided Libya between the Bedouin tribes of his native Cyrenaica and the settled tribes of Tripolitania while embedding his Sufi order, the Senussis, in the former.

So it is unsurprising that as the political situation destabilized in 2014, the country split neatly between four regions. In Cyrenaica, the House of Representatives formed a nationalist government with the backing of the revolution’s US-backed generalissimo Khalifa Haftar. Meanwhile, Tripolitania was split between the Misrata militias of the Government of National Accord (a UN creation in 2015) and the Islamists of the National Salvation Government. The southern region of Fezzan, which is not Arab, was taken over by local tribes.

These divisions match the tribal and historical break up of Libya, and cannot be undone until the power of the tribal militias is broken or the country is dissolved, since both sides are happy to control the territory of their own tribes, all of which conveniently have more than enough oil beneath them to enrich their leaders. This partly explains why it is a civil war with relatively limited campaigns into opposing territory (with the exception of Haftar, who launched sporadic if unsuccessful attempts to capture Tripoli, and Islamic State who spread in 2014 in central Libya amid the chaos).

The Failure of Peace

Rebel would-be-generalissimo Khalifa Haftar meets Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2020 / New Democracy

From the very beginning of the civil war, a fruitless peace has been sought. From as early as 2015, the UN had successfully persuaded both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to form a unity government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), only for both sides to back out the following year, creating three rival governments. By 2017, the GNA had subsumed the Tripoli government, returning to the 2014 division between east and west after the Misrata militias (who dominated the west) threw their support behind the GNA.

This is almost entirely similar to the aforementioned peace process in 2020 when the two sides came together, only for one to back out the next year returning the nation to violence. Hence it is with some skepticism that one could view the return to the negotiating table this June. With both sides entrenched in their own fiefdoms, there is little to incentivize them to abandon power in a permanent peace. The explanation for the continued violence and inability of peace to succeed is threefold: autocratic egos, tribal militias and self-interested foreigners. All three are too powerful for Libya’s good.

In the process, several figures have gained an undue amount of power. Chief among them is General Khalifa Haftar, once a senior figure in Gaddafi’s army who went into exile in the 1980s for opposing the regime. Since returning he has led a militia in the east that goes by the misnomer of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Through them, he has used the eastern government (the House of Representatives) as a mouthpiece while de facto running the government. Until the east is able to rid itself of him, it will never be able to permanently enter a national government. At the political level, two figures come to mind. The current Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, has used his position to delay the promised elections to remain in power. Similarly, the recently removed eastern Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha, a long-time political kingmaker in the Misrata militias, has a record (as in 2022) of destabilizing the nation to gain power.

The tribal militias that dominate Libya are themselves a key roadblock to peace. While some have ideological backing (the Shield Force and Libya Dawn on the Islamist side and the LNA on the nationalist side), most (including the above) sit somewhere on the spectrum between being the personal vehicle of thugs and being a tribal mechanism to control national positions of patronage. That both al-Dbeibah and Bashagha, the two competing Prime Ministers, are from Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, is telling. Misrata militias are the most successful example of this process. They led the removal of Gaddafi with Derna and Zentan militias, then clipped the wings of their rivals so that they have been able to dominate both the eastern and western governments since. Incidentally, the fact that two-thirds of Misrata’s population is Turkish (including Bashagha) helps explain why their politicians have been so willing to cut deals with and reliant on Turkey. And a similar process has been repeated (less successfully than the Misratis) throughout Libya.

Aside from domestic actors, foreign governments have been heavily involved in the conflict and peace process. Turkey is a classic example of the strong influence that foreign nations have had in Libya. Rather than work through the UN, numerous nations have undermined peace and enabled the perpetuation of the conflict. While the actions of Libya’s neighbors, like Egypt, in propping up regimes on their border to maintain border security, are understandable, others are not. The now infamous Wagner Group cut its teeth fighting for Haftar beginning in 2018. Similarly, Turkey has acted as a gun runner for the Tripoli government. What Turkey, Russia, Egypt and others want is to gain influence over a government with immense oil wealth and curry favor with whichever politician on the ground is willing to play ball.

But perhaps the most surprising involvement is France, which has acted as gun runners for Haftar in contravention of the EU, NATO and UN position of backing the Tripoli government. This is egregious for numerous reasons; not only does France deserve criticism for backing a rebellion against the internationally-recognized government, but as a key force behind the 2011 violence, France is partially responsible for the Tripoli government it is now trying to topple. Macron even called Erdogan a “criminal” for backing the internationally-recognized government even as his own government fuels the war.

The apparent explanation for the bizarre situation between NATO allies France and Turkey is that Libya has ended up as a pawn in a Franco-Turkish proxy war in the Mediterranean driven less by Libyan oil than Cypriot oil. Cyprus (as well as Greece, Israel and Egypt) have extensive oil fields that France is funding the exploration of, but which are disputed by Turkey and North Cyprus. The exact value of the field depends on whether a 2019 deal between Turkey and the Tripoli government unilaterally divvying up the Cypriot sea bed between themselves is upheld, hence the involvement of France in backing the Tobruk government.

What comes next?

A 2015 meeting of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya in London / Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

So what are the options for Libya going forward? There appear to be four options: Islamism, tribalism, nationalism or intransigence. Noticeably, democracy does not feature here. That is because no one in power wants it. Let us assume that intransigence is not an option since it would mean allowing the war and humanitarian crisis to continue (an unbearable tragedy). Nor is Islamism a likely option. While some Islamists are more moderate, even democratic, in the mold of Tunisia’s Ennadha, their figurehead Mahmoud Jibril has recently died, leaving the movement in the hands of weakened militias who lack the capacity to govern Libya and have close ties to groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (meaning even if they could govern, they should not be allowed to).

That leaves effectively three choices: to back either east or west, to continue trying to create a unity government between them, or to dissolve the country. The advantage of backing a side is that either Haftar or al-Dbeibah would utilize their nationalist instinct to bring the nation together. In Haftar’s case he has a strong relationship with the Americans, Egyptians and French, and has secular credentials and military ability. Meanwhile, Al-Dbeibah runs the internationally-recognized government, and is thus the UN’s choice. The disadvantage of either option is that both are autocrats in the making. Haftar is a classic military strongman, and all pretense of working with a democratic and liberal House of Representatives would likely collapse if he won power. Al-Dbeibah is more reliant on tribal and Islamist forces, meaning that a government he led would be weaker and possibly unable to rule the country–that said, given his delaying tactics on the elections, his dictatorial tendencies are not in doubt.

Furthermore, to engineer the victory of one side over the other seems unlikely. The various international actors have failed. Haftar has made it to Tripoli on numerous occasions but never taken it, while the Tripoli governments have never crossed into Cyrenaica, nor have they demonstrated an interest in doing so. And were a victory to be achieved, it would likely involve such a spilling of blood that it would be undesirable.

The nuclear option would be to dissolve Libya. As previously noted, in many ways it is an artificial and colonial invention between a tribal and Sufist east and an urban and Islamist west. That would avoid either side having to lose, giving both Haftar and al-Dbeibah their own fiefdoms, ending the war. There is plenty of oil for both sides to make use of in order to fund the recovery (estimated to cost half a trillion dollars). While both countries would remain authoritarian, at least the rebuilding (which Libyans want prioritized) could begin and that may be the best the international community can hope for. Of course, it is unclear if either side would accept, but with peace talks to save the Libyan state in a never ending loop of failure, now is the time to consider having a serious discussion about whether the idea of Libya can be saved at all.

The Return of Gaddafi

Protestors burn image of Muamar Gaddafi outside Libyan Embassy in Ankara in 2011 / Adem Altan

When elections first started to be discussed for a unity government in 2020, many international observers were taken by surprise when the ugly head of Gaddafi reared itself, more specifically, the head of his son and right hand man Saif. They were even more surprised to discover he is polling in second place behind al-Dbeibah; ahead of both Haftar and Bashagha. Wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, he was sentenced to death in absentia by the Tripoli government. However, he was released by Haftar’s allies in 2017, shortly after which, according to an Al-Jazeera investigation, he funneled money into Macron’s election campaign.

The sudden rise of Saif Gaddafi is notable as it suggests the exhaustion of the Libyan people with their predicament, and the collection of mafia thugs and petty warlords who have created it. Though they may not have liked Gaddafi’s regime, his North Korean-style police state or the international isolation after the 1992 Lockerbie bombing, they also remember that Libya was extremely wealthy, with one of the world’s most comprehensive social safety nets, and a higher Human Development Index than Russia and Brazil, as well as all its neighbors. Most Libyans may not remember Gaddafi fondly, but the current situation is so bad that he has begun to be seen as the lesser of two evils.

Libya’s predicament is solvable and that solution does not need to involve Said al-Gaddafi. But it will require creativity, and quite likely UN acceptance of a nationalist dictator or dictators over the current anarchy.

Cover picture of three abandoned Soviet-era T-55 tanks in Libya / David Stanley