Muammar Gaddafi’s forty-two year rule over Libya came to an end when he was ousted in the Libyan civil war in 2011. Four years after the so-called Arab Spring, the North African country is in a dire state. Oil-rich country Libya, with its small population, suffers from chaotic decline and is in the recent situation a threat to the neighbouring countries as well as Europe. With two opposing regimes at power, the Islamic State is becoming more active and with the U.S. and its European partners trying to keep out of the country, Libya is hardly a state at all right now. Is there time to solve this crisis in a political way or is it too late as ISIS is establishing a significant cell?
In 1958, oil was discovered in Libya and made the country, which was then a kingdom, wealthy. Ten years later, Colonel Gaddafi came to power and started his rule. First seeking to create an Arab nationalism and socialism similar to the system in Egypt, Gaddafi’s regime became progressively eccentric and his power, although it was thought to be held by people’s committees in a direct democratic system, was absolute. In the following decades, Libya was labelled an international pariah until the Colonel decided to seek rapprochement in the late 90s by helping to establish the African Union and supporting Pan-Africanism.
However, when the anti-authoritarian protests were sweeping through the Arab world, Gaddafi’s days were numbered. His use of violence against the uprising showed the world one last time why he had been labelled a dictator and autocrat who violated the human rights of his own citizens. This situation determined the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that allowed Nato air strikes among other things. With that help, rebels stormed into Tripoli and, a few weeks later, captured Gaddafi in the city of Sirte and killed him.
In the aftermath of the revolution the challenge was to establish order in the country, to rebuild the economy, and to disarm the former rebel forces. Further and more ambitious goals involved creating functioning institutions and guiding Libya into democracy and the rule of law. Even though the first free national elections in six decades were held in 2012, the interim government under the appointed Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, failed to form a solid structure and tensions between nationalists and Islamists continued. Attempts to produce a stable government have failed to this day.
As a matter of fact, the situation between the factions has even worsened as they seem to have given up even trying to negotiate their disputes. A more secular coalition, calling itself Operation Dignity and including former Gaddafi soldiers and fighters from the powerful mountain town Zintan, is based in Tobruk and controls the eastern part of Libya. This faction has the support of Libya’s internationally recognized government and protects it. The western part is under authority of groups backed by Islamist militias in Tripoli and Misrata, calling itself Libya Dawn. The North African state essentially has two governments and two parliaments and there is no consensus on who is in charge over crucial institutions such as the police, the central bank and the national oil company. To make the situation even worse, there are plenty of scattered militias who plunder the nation’s wealth, destroy its infrastructure and kill people as they move through the country.
At present, the circumstances are not auspicious, especially with other nations being dragged in and possibly fighting a proxy war. Countries like Turkey, Sudan and Qatar are backing the more Islamic factions in the west, while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are favouring the eastern alliance. Moreover, tribes in the south are involved in human trafficking as well as harbouring jihadists and are, as a consequence, posing a threat to neighbouring countries. There are also fears that the Islamic State will be established in Libya. Their beheading of a group of Christians got Egypt involved in the clash, which threatens to widen the conflict and the territory under ISIS influence. Additionally, airstrikes by both Egypt and the Islamic faction raise the possibility of an air war.
This conflict over power and wealth is not only terrible for the Libyan citizens, but it is also posing a threat to Western countries. Greece and Italy are only a few hundred kilometres away from Libya, where jihadists are currently building training camps and finding new weaponry and financial resources. Moreover, ISIS has seen the opportunity given by the combination of the power vacuum in a country with a huge coastline near Europe and an increasing human trafficking trade. This gives the Islamic State a greater chance to export jihadists to Europe. Understandably, after the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western countries are not considering military intervention but are aware that a chaotic Libya is too dangerous to be left by its own.
A new diplomacy may be needed to bring factions back to the negotiating table and to contain the conflict. An aggravation of the clash could launch a lot more refugees across the Mediterranean. Willing people in the west can provide room for new dialogue, but it will need well-intentioned Libyans to restore the country and hammer out issues like security arrangements, weapons and a legislative body despite Gaddafi’s failure to build an institutional framework and prevent any form of state building.