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Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 130 / Middle East & North Africa

Divided We Stand: Libya’s Enduring Conflicts

The violent death of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of the challenges Libya still faces and should serve as a wake-up call for the authorities to urgently fill the security vacuum.

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Executive Summary

The 11 September killing of the U.S. ambassador and three of his colleagues is a stark reminder of Libya’s security challenges. It also should serve as a wake-up call. There is, of course, more than one way to look at the country today: as one of the more encouraging Arab uprisings, recovering faster than expected; or as a country of regions and localities pulling in different directions, beset by intercommunal strife and where well-armed groups freely roam. Evidence exists for both: successful elections on one hand, violent attacks on the other. In truth, the most and the least promising features of post-Qadhafi Libya stem from a single reality. Because the country lacks a fully functioning state, effective army or police, local actors – notables, civilian and military councils, revolutionary brigades – have stepped in to provide safety, mediate disputes and impose ceasefires. It will not be easy and will have to be done gingerly, but it is past time to reverse the tide, reform army and police and establish structures of a functioning state that can ensure implementation of ceasefire agreements and tackle root causes of conflict.

Colonel Qadhafi’s bloody end and the collapse of Libya’s police and armed forces left in its wake an armed population with 42 years worth of pent-up grievances. Qadhafi’s longstanding divide-and-rule strategy set communities against one other, each vying for a share of resources and the regime’s favour. Some towns grew wealthy thanks to connections with the ruling elite; others suffered badly. Meanwhile, the security apparatus at once fomented, manipulated and managed intra-communal conflicts. Once the lid was removed, there was every reason to fear a free-for-all, as the myriad of armed groups that proliferated during the rebellion sought material advantage, political influence or, more simply, revenge. This was all the more so given the security vacuum produced by the regime’s precipitous fall.

A measure of chaos ensued, but up to a point only. Communal clashes erupted across the nation both during and after the 2011 conflict. Tensions that had long been left simmering on the back burner came to a boil, aggravated by the diverging positions various communities took vis-à-vis Qadhafi’s regime. That most of the fighting ended relatively quickly owes in no small measure to the efforts of local leaders, revolutionary brigades and the variety of civilian and military councils that took it upon themselves to keep the country whole. The ad hoc security patchwork registered significant and even surprising success. But it is no model; even as it manages to contain conflicts, it simultaneously fuels them. Some armed groups cannot resist the temptation to target foes and settle scores; battle for political and economic influence; evade accountability; and entrench geographic and community rivalries.

Until now, central authorities have acted chiefly as bystanders, in effect subcontracting security to largely autonomous armed groups. They had a reason: the army and police were in disarray, suffering from a deficit in personnel and equipment; officers and soldiers had either defected, fled, been killed or jailed. The rebels who rose up against Qadhafi were much better armed and – both suspicious of remnants of the old regime and pleased with their newfound power – unwilling to either surrender their autonomy or come under state control. Yet, it would be wrong to see the parallel military and police forces that emerged as having done so against the central authorities’ wishes. Rather, and although they were set up by revolutionary brigades themselves, the Libyan Shield Forces and Supreme Security Committee – the former operating parallel to the army, the latter to the police – were authorised and encouraged to take action by the ruling National Transitional Council, which viewed them as auxiliary forces without which the state simply could not secure the country.

Just as armed groups physically have kept warring parties apart, so have local notables led negotiations designed to achieve longer-lasting ceasefires. Appealing to the higher ideals of Libyan identity and Islam and resorting to social pressure as well as customary law, they have proved remarkably effective mediators.

However, none of this offers a sustainable solution. Truces are fragile, local conflicts frozen rather than durably resolved. In stepping into the breach, local notables and armed groups have done what the government could not. But effective implementation of ceasefire agreements depends in large part on an impartial authority capable of providing services and enforcing decisions. The involvement of revolutionary brigades and local armed groups in efforts to end hostilities blurs the line separating neutral mediation from partisan meddling. In some instances, their attempts to simultaneously play the role of army, police, mediator, judge and jury have helped revive old communal hostilities or competition for control over smuggling routes. The hope is that the central state can set up truly national forces equipped to deal with local disputes, notably a gendarmerie and elite auxiliary corps within the army. Until then, reliance on revolutionary brigades and local armed forces will continue to be an uncertain wager.

Perhaps most serious is the fact that, in the absence of a strong state, agreements mostly have remained dead letters. Disputes are rooted in competing claims over land, property and power that pre-existed Qadhafi and were first exacerbated by his regime’s clientelism and patronage networks, next by communities’ varying positions during the uprising, and finally by acts of revenge in its aftermath. To resolve them requires clear, written understandings, government follow-up, genuine enforcement and accountability. Too, it necessitates proper policing of borders; fair determination of land ownership where the old regime resorted to confiscation; and some form of transitional justice. All are sorely lacking. Although local notables negotiate agreements, these are seldom unambiguous, committed to paper or coordinated with central authorities. Without an effective government, strong state institutions or police force, follow-through is implausible. The judicial system is overwhelmed and the establishment of a justice and reconciliation process awaits. Hard-earned reconciliation agreements founder.

There is much to celebrate in post-Qadhafi Libya but also reason to worry. The battle between central government and armed groups is not yet won, yet of late the latter have been acting as if they enjoyed the upper hand. If steps are not swiftly taken, reversing this trend is only going to get harder – and what has been a relatively good news story could turn depressingly sour.

Tripoli/Brussels, 14 September 2012

It’s Not a Sprint

Originally published in Körber-Stiftung

The fraught history of the military intervention shows that EU engagement in Libya should first and foremost be guided by strategic vision.

Whatever one thinks of the initial military engagement leading to the eventual downfall of the country’s leader Muammar Qaddafi, there is no doubt that the international community failed Libya after the intervention. Today, Libya is a quasi-failed state, with multiple governments competing for legitimacy. Its accumulated wealth, its oil and a residual Libyan nationalism seem to be all that keeps the country from further fragmentation. This increasing power vacuum has turned Libya into a conduit for desperate migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. In the absence of a well-functioning state, criminal interests exploit human misery, all the more so as people smuggling remains one of the few viable activities in a collapsed economy. 

The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans at a time when more European unity and strategic vision are needed. The stabilization of Libya and a humane response to the migrant crisis are closely related. Without an effective partner in Tripoli, the EU is unable to stem the flow of migrants in a manner consistent with international law and its own human rights standards. But stabilizing Libya requires patience and a long-term perspective that are hardly compatible with the domestic pressures under which European governments operate when it comes to the question of migration. This has led to a wrong choice of priorities: today the EU and its member states seem more preoccupied with stopping by all means available the flow of migrants than with working for an elusive political solution.

This short-term mind set is illustrated by European support for Libyan coast guards which, in the absence of an inclusive political agreement, can be considered as just another militia. Likewise, various deals rumoured to have been struck with militias to control the southern border of Libya may end up strengthening non-state actors at a time when the international community needs to have a strong state to deal with instead. And pressing the government of Prime Minister Serraj to embrace an agenda driven by European rather than Libyan priorities will not help it gain legitimacy in Libya.

The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans.

It sometimes seems that the left hand of the international community is undoing what the right hand is trying to do. Indeed, the disparity between Libyan priorities and Europe’s anxieties over migration and terrorism is not the only dynamic that makes Libya the victim of outside powers’ competing agendas. There are also the differences over political Islam between Gulf monarchies and other Arab states, and the competing regional visions of Egypt and Turkey.

The result of these clashing interests has been a botched political process that is not only unable to address the growing fragmentation of Libya but is also making it worse. While the government of national accord installed in Tripoli enjoys UN and international backing, as well as the strong support of individual countries, particularly Italy, its authority over the country is limited. General Haftar has effective control over a significant part of the east. The only institutions embodying the unity of Libya are the central bank and the National Oil Corporation. But that unity is increasingly jeopardised by Libyan actors’ predatory behaviour, and the actions of outside powers supporting proxies. Regional actors have not created the internal divisions of Libya, but they contribute to their deepening.

What then can be done? The starting point should be to do no harm and to support the new special envoy of the UN Secretary General in Libya, Ghassan Salamé, as he tries to restore Libyan trust in the international community. The European Union should be more united, take a longer-term perspective and align its priorities with the priorities of Libya. The only sustainable way to stem the flow of migrants into Europe is to have a stable Libya that can not only control its borders, but also offer job opportunities to the migrants that have traditionally come to the country.

The European Union should be more united, take a longer-term perspective and align its priorities with the priorities of Libya.

The reconstruction of Libya can provide such economic opportunities for migrants, but only with a more inclusive and more impartial approach to the political process, and an acknowledgment that a foreign-imposed legitimacy is bound to fail. Security arrangements must be negotiated not just for Tripoli, but for the whole of Libya, starting with the south and the west. Peace also requires that the predatory economy sustaining the war is effectively countered. The European Union and the international community can help in this regard, because the illicit economy is for a large part based on the smuggling of subsidised fuel, a trade that needs international partners to thrive.

Germany has a particular role to play in that effort. Since Germany, at that time an elected member of the UN Security Council, parted ways with its Western partners in 2011 and refused to support the resolution that led to the military intervention, Berlin has not been compromised in the ousting of Qaddafi. Also, Germany has no major interests in the oil economy of Libya. Its interest is in the stabilization of Libya, which will contribute to the stabilization of the Sahel, to better migration policies, and will eventually create opportunities for German companies. Libya is of strategic importance for Europe, not as a buffer state between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, but as a full-fledged partner that can help manage the much bigger challenges emanating from the poor, populous African states to the south.