Libya is entering a dangerous new phase in its post-liberation politics. While rival militias fight for key political and economic footholds across the country, those members of the legislature still occupying their seats and a number of senior government officials have decamped from Tripoli and fled to a Greek car ferry in the eastern town of Tobruk. Although a precise understanding of this current Libyan conflict is obscured by rapidly unfolding events and a constantly shifting patchwork of alliances, it is clear that the next few months will be formative for the country’s future.
It is tempting to try and understand the war in Libya as a conflict driven primarily by ideology and religion. Many of the key actors in the conflict have used this reasoning to explain their actions. Secular militants, for instance, have dismissed the Islamists as a local variant of the hard-line Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while the Islamists themselves have defended their actions as the only bulwark against a counterrevolution modeled on the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the notion of two discrete groups fighting each other may oversimplify the conflict in Libya – given that each “side” is made up of a multitude of militias and factions – it does shed a light on how ideology and religion are being used to shape the fighting.
However, aside from religion and ideology, there are a number of additional explanatory variables contributing to the current conflict. Regional dynamics have been an important driver. Many of the militias and other armed groups fighting for control of cities like Benghazi and Tripoli view the daily battles they fight as part of a larger regional campaign, akin to similar struggles in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
The regional dynamic has been reinforced by the actions of Libya’s neighbours, especially those that have become active participants in the conflict. Qatar, for example, is said to be looking for ways to expand its support of the Islamists, while Sudan is reportedly shipping them arms. Egypt and the UAE, meanwhile, have launched air strikes against Libya Dawn and other major players in the Islamist camp.
The roots of Libya’s current fighting can be found in a number of locations, one of which is post-liberation tension that never completely dissipated, even after Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal and public dethroning. Until recently there had been a precarious balancing of the various blocs that had contributed to the overthrow of the regime and made up Libya’s fragile post-liberation political order. However, the nature of the state in post-Gaddafi Libya was such that without significant social, economic, and political unification a rupture was inevitable.
This tension took a number of forms, including the obvious lack of trust between different ideological and religious groups. There was regional tension between the towns of Misrata and Zintan, who were competing for economic predominance and greater influence in the capital. A similar strain existed between ex-Gadaffi era security officials, and the new order of self-described “revolutionaries.” The distrust between those who fought for the regime and those who were imprisoned was not easily mediated.
Underlining all of this tension was a weak state and incipient security sector that was unable to bring together Libya’s disparate political, social, economic and military factions. The central government was not able to act as the country’s arbiter or foster consensus, resulting in an inescapable and uncontrollable political vacuum.
Into this political vacuum went the host of militias that had fought to overthrow the regime. The GNC’s arrangement with Libya’s multitude of post-liberation militias amounted to a Faustian bargain, whereby the presence of militias was often necessary to maintain the safety of Libya’s new state but was also what led to its undoing. Perhaps the biggest failing of Libya’s new state was its inability to stand up a competent central government, at the same time that it was dangerously empowering and financing militias across the country.
As a result of their use by the government, most militias were able to claim a sense of legitimacy, justifying their continued presence and mobilization. Militias also became a growth industry, ballooning in number well after the revolutionary fighting was over. The resulting arrangement has been described by some as akin to a “hybrid security order,” where formal state structures work in an uneasy concert with informal militias that are provisionally and precariously controlled by the central state. The results in Libya were mixed. In some areas the militias were closely connected to the community and provided essential security services. In other areas, however, the militias were predatory bodies pursing their own interests, and contributing to a general destabilization that has left Libya in its current state of insecurity.
Many militias seemingly became consumed by the struggle for control over the economic resources that fund the country’s vast patronage networks. Before the revolution, Libya was pumping 1.3 to 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, which had allowed the Central Bank of Libya to acquire more than 100 USD in foreign reserves, primarily from the sale of oil. Militias from across the country, including Zintani, Misratan, and Islamist, have all engaged in the struggle for control of the country’s smuggling networks, border checkpoints, oil facilities, armories, ports, and airports. In the past, certain pieces of territory were also hotly contested for the right to hold hostage the cash payments made by the National Transitional Council (2,400 USD/household). While many fighters have been incentivized by a thirst for power, others have been led more narrowly by the pursuit of personal financial enrichment.
There is no easy way forward for Libya. As officials from the country’s elected House of Representatives and 15 neighbouring nations affirmed last week, there is no military solution to the country’s conflict. However, any peaceful resolution will require a political dialogue that is inclusive and creates a safe political space for younger revolutionaries, some former regime officials, and Islamists. Avoiding a Syrian-style civil war will require a solution that is initiated and owned by Libyans. While the international community, and Libya’s regional partners, have an important role to play in facilitating any eventual solution, a lasting political resolution must Libyan in origin, nature, and execution.
Eric Muller is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.