This week has been rife with confusion in Libya as the country’s UN-backed unity government consolidated its power in the capital, Tripoli. These developments add to the complexity of the civil war in Libya, which has seen a myriad of militias and three governments vie for control of the country.
Before the current civil wore broke out in 2014, a short civil war in 2011 ousted Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s longtime dictator. Gaddafi had been Libya’s dictator for 42 years, and, during that time, the country’s oil wealth increased its standard of living to a level higher than that of any other country in Africa. Yet revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s neighbors to the northwest and east, caused a similar revolutionary spirit to take hold in Libya. The Arab Spring had arrived. And with it came a NATO military intervention, the death of Gaddafi, and the installation of a transitional government.
In 2012, elections were held and a body called the General National Congress (GNC) took over from the unelected transitional government. While the government was unified, the country had not yet healed. The 2011 civil had been won by a collection of militant groups united in their desire to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. Once the regime had fallen, their unifying force was gone and some of them turned against each other. At first, the effect of these various militant groups was relatively small compared to what would come. Little occurred besides occasional skirmishes between rival militias. But later, when the country returned to the polls in 2014, they brought about disaster.
Turnout fell from 60% for the 2012 elections to 18% for the 2014 elections. This was mostly due to frustration with the country’s slow recovery, but security concerns also restricted voting in some locations. The elections, for a body that was to be called the Chamber of Deputies (CoD), greatly reduced the number of Islamist Muslim Brotherhood politicians in the legislature. Unwilling to cede power to the secular CoD, militias loyal to the Islamist dominated GNC drove the CoD out of Tripoli to Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya. Thus began Libya’s next civil war.
With two governments, each controlling roughly half the country, law and order broke down in Libya. The CoD in Tobruk has won the support of most western countries, but it has failed to make significant gains in Libya. The chaos of two weak governments has allowed the various militias to take control of cities across the country. A branch of ISIS (or ISIL or IS or Daesh) has carved out its own piece of Libya around the city of Sirte. The collapse of law and order has decimated the country’s oil production and has facilitated the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean by human traffickers. Thus the international community has grown more and more concerned with the situation in Libya, fearing that the country will become a breeding ground for terrorists and human traffickers.
The UN’s attempt to solve the problem has been to support the creation of yet another government, called the Government of National Accord (GNA). This government was created as a result of a UN-brokered agreement signed in December, 2015, and it was this government that consolidated its power in Tripoli this week. Last week, the GNA and its leaders arrived in Tripoli by sea from Tunis, Tunisia. With local militias loyal to the GNC, the move can be interpreted as largely symbolic, although the GNA has taken over some government offices. In addition, a statement was released by the GNC this Tuesday stating its intention to disband in favor of the GNA. Since then, the confusion has only grown as the GNC’s prime minister has come out against the decision to cede power to the GNA. On top of it all is the fact that the Tobruk-based CoD has not yet voted to support the GNA.
It is difficult to determine whether the rise of the GNA will improve or escalate the civil war in Libya. With Islamist militias still in control of Tripoli, some fear that the arrival of the GNA will simply provoke more violence and add yet another government to the two that are already fighting for power in Libya. Yet others believe that, if the GNC follows through with its promise to cede power, the GNA has the potential to unify the country. The UN and most western countries support the GNA and see it as the key to ending the war. If the Tobruk government and the GNC both agree to support the GNA, that may well happen. But as has been made painfully clear through the events of the past few years, the actions of violent militias have held greater sway in determining the direction of the country than the actions of a handful government ministers attempting to bring about an end to a civil war through political maneuvering.