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Prospects for troubled Libya- Fission or fusion?

May 03, 2022

Time for a perfect storm warning about developments (or lack of it) in oil-rich and strategically important Libya, in Europe´s near abroad south of the Mediterranean.

Time for a perfect storm warning about developments (or lack of it) in oil-rich and strategically important Libya, in Europe´s near abroad south of the Mediterranean. A reminder: there was supposed to be held UN-sponsored parliamentary elections on Christmas Eve last year, a product of a sequence of several events since the fall of dictator Ghaddafi back in 2011, with more recent highlights being the episode of resumed civil war 2019, the achieved ceasefire as from autumn 2020 (after Turkey intervened militarily), the UN-sponsored peace process thereafter, the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU, replacing the earlier Tripoli-based GNA), resulting in general elections planned for December 24 2021.

These elections never took place; the various conflictual parties in the countries could never, for all the sponsorship of the UN and its special representative Stephanie Williams, agree on the constitutional basis for meaningful elections. So now, in early May 2022, huge questions persist concerning the political and constitutional future of this strategically important north-African country, with the biggest oil reserves on the continent a, some eleven troubled years after the fall of Ghaddafi persist. Despite of all attempts at stabilization and unification, Libya remains divided (mainly east-west, with instability and fragility easily spilling over into renewed violence).

Clearly, international attention on the Ukraine crisis has helped create and cement this situation, at least in the sense of reducing and diffusing necessary international attention. However, a Libya again descending into violent chaos would be extremely bad news for many actors, and from many points of view.

The peace plan, conceived and sponsored by the UN and promoted by German, French and Egyptian diplomacy, aimed at establishing a legitimate and unified Libyan government after all the years of division and conflict. So, it established an interim unified government (GNU), led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah tasked to lead the country to national elections on December 24, 2021, the line of thought being that only national elections could be the vehicle for establishing a stable and legitimate all-Libyan government, even though elections of insufficiently prepared can be dangerously destabilizing (a classical dilemma in any peace process). As required under the peace plan, Dbeibah had solemnly declared that he would not be a candidate for the premiership in the elections.  

The failure of the crucial December 24 elections has since led to a rapid return to the notorious Libyan pattern of division and polarization. Contrary to his pledge not to remain as GNU head as from the elections, Dbeibah has simply refused to resign, supported in this by the Tripolil-based High Council of State and (temporarily, for want of alternatives) by the UN and Western lead nations, while being denied legitimacy by the country´s eastern half, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and its champion, the warlord Khalifa Haftar, with some international sponsorship. The Eastern House has since appointed its own de facto Prime Minister, Fahti Bashagha, and has expanded its territorial control to coastal Benghazi and southern Sebha.

So, the country is de facto divided between two competing governments, with varying degrees of control over Libya´s myriad of post-Ghaddafi era militias. And contrary to agreements under the peace plan foreign military – or armed – presence continues to complicate the equation, including Turkish armed forces (supporting the GNU in Tripoli) and the Russian Wagner Group (supporting Tobruk-based actors). In the ensuing atmosphere of instability and potential violence the economy has been hit by Libya´s National Oil Corporation (NOC) having – mainly under pressure from Bashagha and Haftar – to shut down a sizeable part of the country´s oil production, a huge loss to the ailing Libyan economy and to Western needs for alternatives to continued energy dependence on Russian oil – as the Ukraine crisis has driven global oil price to a level of some 110 dollars per barrel.

A stable, unified, and independent Libya remains vital to European – and transatlantic – security, also from a migration policy point of view. A permanently divided Libya remains a permanently unstable country in North Africa´s midst, territorially covering a vast Sahel area. So, promoting Libyan stabilization and unification is, or should be, a high priority for countries such as France, Italy, Germany and the US, even in times of necessary preoccupation with Russia over Ukraine. The same obviously applies to Libya´s North African and Arab neighbors, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, UAE, and others. And then there is Turkey and its earlier economic investments and current political and military investments, notably the maritime agreement with the earlier GNA government in Tripoli.

Huge international interest in Libya sorting out its divisions and differences. But at the same time, ominously huge difficulties in preventing Libya from sliding (back) into a state of violent instability. The potential for the latter is almost overwhelming.


Michael Sahlin