Understanding the Crisis in Libya

Cover image: Libyan troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar. Photo credit: Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

A new UN-backed government and victory over ISIS in their stronghold city of Sirte: reading the headlines it is tempting to conclude that the future is bright for Libya after more than five years of strife. The reality is different; weak government and strong warring militias have plunged the country into chaos. But how did a debt-free, oil-rich country with the highest Human Development Index in Africa fall into such an abject state? In order to understand Libya today, we have to understand what happened after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Life after Gaddafi

On October 20th 2011, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the dictator who had ruled Libya for over 40 years, was executed by rebels near his hometown of Sirte. Two months earlier he had been forced to flee the capital Tripoli after his brutal crackdown on ‘Arab Spring’ Protestors had sparked a full-scale rebellion across Libya.

Soon after the rebellion broke out a National Transitional Council (NTC) was established to oversee rebel-held areas. Although officially representing the entire country, the NTC was effectively powerless in the absence of any real army or police forces. Instead, true control of the country fell into the hands of more than 2000 militia groups. Many acted as local or neighbourhood defence forces, whilst others had designs on controlling cities, tribal areas or key strategic locations (such as oil facilities).

In July 2012 elections were held for a new General National Congress (GNC) to replace the NTC, with a brief to act as an interim government and write a new constitution. The GNC suffered from the same lack of authority as its predecessor, as well as an Islamist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi and the seizure of oil facilities in the east by militia groups. In February 2014, after having achieved very little, the GNC refused to disband after its mandate expired.

In May 2014 Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA; in reality a militia calling itself an army) began Operation Dignity, ostensibly aimed at driving out Islamist forces in the city of Benghazi. Elections to replace the GNC were finally held the following month. However, Islamists in the GNC refused to recognise the authority of the new House of Representatives (HoR). A coalition of Misratan and Islamist militias seized Tripoli, forcing out Haftar’s LNA troops. The newly elected government was forced to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk. Fighting continued until December 2015, when the UN brokered a ceasefire. In April 2016, a new Government of National Accord (GNA) was established, supposedly uniting the GNC and the HoR.

Present Day

As it stands, there can be said to be three governments within Libya. Firstly, the UN-recognised GNA, based in Tripoli. The second government, the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, should endorse the GNA according to the UN-backed deal. Due to intimidation of its members by anti-GNA forces, this is yet to happen. Thirdly, the Government of National Salvation (GNS) is also based in Tripoli. The GNS is a continuation of the GNC, which refused to disband in 2014, triggering the second civil war. The GNS has little power currently but could become more influential if and when the GNA loses popularity or militia support.

In reality, true power is split between Haftar’s LNA in the east and the Misratan forces in the west. Both sides are vying, not only for military advantages on the ground, but for influence in future negotiations.

Haftar, a staunch anti-Islamist backed by Russia and Egypt, is the real power behind the HoR in Tobruk. In September 2016 the LNA seized oil facilities that were being held by militia and handed control back to the GNA. This increased Haftar’s popularity within Libya and strengthened his claims for a place within any future government. Ultimately Haftar aims, if not to control the entire country, then at least to hold a position within the government as leader of the armed forces, independent of any civil institution. Although powerful, Haftar’s LNA is not strong enough to move on the capital of Tripoli, and is still bogged down fighting Ansar al-Sharia militants in Benghazi.

Misrata is home to the most powerful militias in Libya, which played a key role in bringing down Gaddafi’s regime, as well as in driving ISIS out of Sirte. Having fought as part of the Libya Dawn coalition against Haftar and Zintani militia, Misratan militias became the pre-eminent power within Libya. Their influence further increased when, together with the US military, they pushed ISIS out of Sirte. However, two things stand against them in their bid for military and political power. Firstly, the struggle against ISIS significantly reduced their fighting capability. Secondly, the coalition of militias that make up the city are split between Islamist and non-Islamist forces. Whilst the non-Islamist forces tend to support the GNA, the Islamist militas do not, seeing democracy as fundamentally un-Islamic.

To a lesser extent, tribal militas and alliances also play a role. The city-state of Zintan had a large influence before 2014, when it lost key strategic locations, such as Tripoli airport, to the Libya Dawn coalition. Zintan still controls the pipeline running from the mountains in the south to the Zawiyya refinery. Today Zintan’s power is lessened, but as Haftar’s ally in the west, and with a ceasefire agreement in place with the Misratan brigades, it remains in a strong position. Haftar too, in consolidating his power in the east, has had to strike deals with tribes there which could otherwise have caused him great problems.


ISIS fighters parade through Sirte, 2015 (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia

Six months ago ISIS was a significant power within Libya. It was able to take advantage of the divisions between east and west to establish and consolidate a stronghold in the city of Sirte. With Sirte, as well as a presence in the cities of Derna and Sabratha, ISIS was a growing threat to the region. However, in May 2016 Misratan militia groups started an offensive to drive ISIS out of Sirte. By December 2016, with the backing of US forces, the group had been cleared from the city. ISIS now has no significant foothold in the country, and its forces have been scattered. With evidence that those scattered ISIS forces have formed small cells in cities throughout the country, it is clear that they will continue to be a disruptive presence for the foreseeable future. For now, however, their influence is limited. It is interesting to note that many pro-Islamist forces took part in the action against ISIS, challenging the erroneous view that ISIS enjoys widespread support within the broader Islamic community.

The al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia, is also struggling. Operation Dignity, Haftar’s attack on Benghazi, was targeted directly at Ansar al-Sharia-controlled Islamist forces within the city. After several years of fighting, the LNA seems to have almost total control over the area previously controlled by Ansar al-Sharia. Tensions over the link between Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS also weaken their cause. The older generation of jihadist forces, many of whom fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, oppose ISIS. However younger and more radicalised members, some of whom fought in Iraq and Syria, push for more ties with the group. As with ISIS, the end of their territorial holdings does not mean the end of their presence in Libya.

Outside Influences

As in other conflict zones in the Middle East such as Syria and Yemen, other countries seek to influence what is happening in Libya to further their own goals. These outside agents can be split into two groups, roughly corresponding to the two major powers in the country.

The Islamist-led GNS government in Tripoli is backed by both Turkey and Qatar. Turkey, in line with the increasingly pro-Islamist leanings of its President Recep Erdoğan, supported the Libyan Dawn forces that fought against Haftar in 2014, which had a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence. Qatar also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, which it sees as a way of expanding its own influence in the Muslim world.

On the other side Haftar has the support of the Egypt, Russia and the UAE. For the military-run government of Egypt, Haftar’s anti-Islamist ideology chimes with their own as they fight against Islamist groups within Egypt. With Haftar in control of Libya, or even just the eastern regions, an important buffer zone would be created on Egypt’s western border. Russia claims that it is not supplying Haftar with arms, but is fomenting a close relationship with him nonetheless. This will allow it to gain influence within Libya, as well as undermining the efforts of European countries, who view Haftar with suspicion.

The UAE supports Haftar, and by extension the HoR, as part of its strong anti-Islamist position. This is in direct opposition to its fellow Gulf monarchy of Qatar; the two have taken completely different approaches to maintaining their control following the ‘Arab Spring’.

Finally the United States, although it has had the most direct influence on the country with its bombing of ISIS positions, seems to have taken a more reduced role in the conflict than might be expected. Its main concern is ISIS and other jihadi forces within the country. This reluctance to interfere too heavily may come from America’s two failed attempts at nation-building in the Middle East, and also from President Obama, who has said that the failure to plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency. Haftar’s CIA links, though, have led many to accuse him of working with the US government. The presidency of Donald Trump may be of benefit to General Haftar. His persona as an anti-Islamist strongman is sure to appeal to Trump if he decides to try and influence matters in the Middle East.


General Khalifa Haftar (Photo credit: Reuters)

What’s Next for Libya?

With the weakness of the GNA and the changing of the power structure on the ground in Libya, it seems likely that renegotiation will have to occur. Even the UN envoy who led the negotiations of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) has admitted that Haftar will now have to be a part of any future government. Furthermore, the Misratan forces will also have to be accommodated. Just how the two opposing forces could come together, with Haftar and the Islamists holding wildly differing viewpoints, is unclear.

One solution may be for a military governing structure, with power shared between Haftar, Misratan representatives and representatives from other forces such as those from Zintan. Haftar’s announcement that he intends to advance into Tripoli and the Misratan consolidation of their position in Sirte can be seen as attempts to strengthen their respective hands at the negotiation table. 

If Haftar is unsuccessful in his attempt at leveraging his way into the government, we could also see a situation whereby the east of the country essentially secedes from the west. Even before Haftar came to power there were calls from the east for a greater autonomy, and eastern tribes increasingly see the oil reserves, which are mainly located in the east, as belonging to them rather than to Libyans as a whole.

It must be remembered that Libya as an idea has been around for less than 100 years. The provinces of Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east, with Fezzan to the south, were first called Libya by the Italians in 1934, with independence from British and French colonial rule established in 1951. It is not inconceivable that a country that has existed for just over half a century will devolve into its constituent parts, especially in times of great upheaval.

Libya’s economic situation is also dire, with the potential to get a lot worse. Although economically strong during the Gaddafi era due to nationalisation of the oil companies, Libya’s heavy dependence on oil, accounting for over 90% of the country’s economy, makes it extremely vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. With years of conflict and disruption of oil production, Libya’s ability to produce and sell oil has also been drastically reduced. With the country’s last foreign funds running out, we could see Libya go bankrupt in the next few years, exacerbating its problems greatly.


The death of Colonel Gaddafi left a vacuum which has been filled with multiple groups vying for power. The UN-backed government and the ceasefire between Haftar and the Misratan militias may be cause for optimism, but several internationally recognised governments have failed to assert control over the country. Whilst those with the guns struggle amongst themselves, the people continue to suffer, with 6000 dead and 400,000 internally displaced in just the last three years. The road to political stability seems long and fraught with danger and there are no easy solutions. If the principal actors are willing to compromise, however, oil-rich Libya could have a bright future.


4 thoughts on “Understanding the Crisis in Libya

  1. Nice and extensive summary, a good read. I wondered already 15 years ago back in school, if these artificially drawn borders by the European colonial powers will not vansih at some point. I see the same tendency that you describe, Libya falling apart at least into three different parts.
    Even more I think that Europeans (EU at least) need to get involved much more, for our own sake. The distance to Greece and Italy isn’t that big, and with no functional government in Libya you cannot even think of getting refugee waves under control (not even speaking from stopping them).


    1. Thanks Tobias! Yes I agree about the changing of the borders; a lot of the strife we see in the region and across the world is a result of those artificially created borders and the ‘divide and rule’ thinking behind them. I don’t know how that issue will be resolved either, just look at the problems caused by the partition of India and Pakistan.


  2. While your use of “whilst” and incorrect spelling of nationalization hurt my American sensibilities, I greatly enjoyed the write-up. You sorted out and summarized a very murky situation well and I feel better educated having read it. Keep up the good work, Ed!


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