A contribution by Nolwenn Le Pevedic, 1st-year student of the ESSCA Bachelor in International Management. « I chose this topic for two reasons: first, having no knowledge of Libya, I was curious to learn more about it. Secondly, the topic looked complicated, so I took it as a challenge to make it accessible. »

As we know, Libya is currently politically unstable, the country is divided into two. In order to answer the question « Is it possible to stabilise Libya again? », we need to study the historical context.

Map of Libyan war (from the Economist, 9 Jan 2020)

Libya is a North African state, its border countries are Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad and Egypt. Libya’s capital is Tripoli, its inhabitants are of Amazigh culture but most of Libyan people are of Sunni Muslim confession. There are 6,679 million inhabitants, living on an area of 1,7 million km², three times the size of France. 90% of the population live in only 10% of the territory. Libya is divided in three large regions, named Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. But two regions are in conflict, the Tripolitan (West) and the Cyrenaic (East).

We must know that oil is a major source of wealth for them. In fact, during the time of Kadhafi, oil represented 90% of the country’s revenues, so the Libyan economy relies almost entirely on this resource.

In 1951, the date of Libya’s Independence from Italy, the country became a kingdom and its king was Idriss the First until 1969. Kadhafi’s coup ended this reign. With the Gaddafa, members of his tribe, he will govern Libya with an authoritarian system based on a classical and tribal administration. Under his dictatorship, the inhabitants paid no taxes due to the control over the oil resources.

More recently, between 2010 and 2012, a movement called “Arab Spring” took place. In many Arab countries, this has led to reforms, changes of government or civil wars like in Syria. In Libya, the “Arab Spring” demanded more democracy, respect for Human Rights and an end to corruption. On 17 February 2011, “the day of anger”, thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets of Benghazi and El Beïda. The government was absolutely opposed to those demonstrations and Kadhafi wanted to clean Libya of these “revolutionaries”. At this moment, civil war began for real in the country, Kadhafi’s regime was abandoned by some of his executives, the insurgents formed a National Transitional Council.

  • On 10 March 2011, in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy received and recognized the TNC as Libya’s only representative and sided with them to defend the population.
  • Between 19 March and 31 October 2011, the UN set up a no-fly zone to protect inhabitants. The second objective of the UN was to remove Kadhafi.
  • Tripoli was defeated at the end of August 2011 and Syrte in October 2011.
  • Kadhafi was executed on 20 October but we don’t really know who killed him. He had been in power for 42 years, his son, Saïf, was arrested on 19 November.
  • 23 October 2011, in Benghazi, the TNC’s president Moustafa Abdel Jalil proclaimed the end of the civil war; it lasted 8 months and 8 days and killed between 10 000 and 30 000 people.

The TNC passed power in August 2012 to the GNA (Government of national accord) composed of 200 members who were elected in July 2012. Libya, despite this political progress, a democratic election, end of civil war, remains unstable. Indeed, the south of the country is a battlefield between tribes; Cyrenaica wants to establish a federal system. Jihadist groups are also present in Libya, but these revolutionary groups are not always allied.

16 May 2014 marks the beginning of the second civil war.

In 2014, there is an election to elect the House of Representatives, to replace the GNA. Due to a context in which it is difficult to hold elections (some polling stations will not be able to open) the participation rate is very low. Some members of the GNA therefore refuse to recognize the new elected representatives. The GNA is being put back in place, which is a real problem as there are now two parliaments that each claim control of the country: the GNA, based in Tripoli, with an Islamist ideology defended by the “Dawn Coalition of Libya” (militias like Misrata or Touaregs), and the House of Representatives that sits in Tobrouk, with a liberal ideology defended by the LNA (Libyan National Army, militias like Zenten). Let’s not forget that these militias are uncontrollable, they are small and numerous.

Khalifa Haftar

One man will play a very important role during this period, his name is Khalifa Haftar. He took part in the 1969 coup against King Idriss. Under Kadhafi’s regime he raises to the rank of colonel. Around 1980, he is sent to Chad, taking part of the war between Chad and Libya, where he is taken prisoner. Kadhafi will not help him out of prison at all, and Haftar changes his mind and turns against Kadhafi, finding support in the United States. Together they will work to bring him down. He returns to Libya only in 2011 to participate in the civil war. He becomes president of the LNA.

Haftar is supported by the United States, France and also by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the latter two supply him with military equipment (which due to the context, is actually illegal).

The UN intervened in 2015, to propose a peace plan. At the end of December, both parties signed the Shkirat agreements, establishing a single government called “GUN” (National Union Government). The GNA becomes the high council (high chamber), comparable to the Sénat in France, and the chamber of representatives becomes the lower house, like the Assemblée Nationale. A presidential council is set up with Fayez el-Sarraj as leader. He becomes president in April 2016 thanks to the GNA who passed the power to him.

Fayez al-Sarraj

Haftar remains independent, Libya is still divided into two and the UN peace plan fails. However, the GUN is recognized by the UN as it has followed the peace plan. The UN helped both sides, which Haftar was unaware of and furious about.

During 2018 and at the beginning on 2019, Haftar tried to take control of the country through the south, in the so-called Fezzan offensive. On 19 January 2019, he managed to take control of the city of Sebha. In April 2019, the battle of Tripoli began, led by Haftar. He thought he would win quickly, but president Erdogan of Turkey, made alliance with Tripoli and supplied them with weapons. In early 2020, Erdogan even threatened to intervene in Libya. On 11 January a “Cease-fire” was established. But the fighting resumed a few months later.

To conclude, both sides are so strong and powerful on the basis of their respective support that none is able to dominate the country. The situation is completely blocked.

The war in Libya has become a “proxy war“. For instance, France is trying to limit the strengthening of armed groups in the Sahelian regions. For what reason? Because that’s where they are running the operation “Barkhane”, which is actually more about political, diplomatic and economic interests than about helping the citizens there. Emmanuel Macron received Haftar and Sarraj twice in Paris in 2017 and 2020, without much tangible results. At the same time, Russia, which at the time sold weapons to Kadhafi, today supports Haftar to recover that market.

This situation is not ready to be unblocked as long as external states intervene in this manner. However, if the price of oil increases, the situation could change, in case a leader emerges who, due to this increase in resources, would be able to take full power. But this is speculation. In other words: Libya will certainly be able to become stable again, but it will take a lot of time.

This student contribution was produced within the framework of the 1st-year module “Topics in International Relations » of ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management, following a course design developed by the EU-Asia Institute. The opinions expressed are of course those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institute.

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