In 2011, foreign powers intervened in the Libyan Civil War with one aim in mind: to oust the Gaddafi government. Once the deed was done, a transition government was installed and the newly liberated nation was abandoned, left to handle the plethora of internal conflicts which would ensue.
Historically, Libyans have never been tolerant towards western-installed governments, and to many the National Transition Council simply echoed the rule of King Idris. Idris was appointed monarch in the aftermath of the second world war, before being deposed in the coup d’état which saw Colonel Gaddafi’s rise to power. After the fall of Gaddafi, Libya held an election in 2012 for seats in the General National Congress (GNC), a body tasked with formulating a constitution. The Congress consisted mainly of independents, however, Islamist and secular legislators continuously clashed, resulting in frequent deadlocks.
The issue surrounding this layout was rooted in the fact that many militia groups that had a hand in the anti-Gaddafi revolution were not represented in government. As a result, officials were obligated to cater to militia demands in hopes of minimising violence and, by extension, reduce regional instability. Incidentally, all the placation lead to militia groups spreading their influence over the political affairs of the country. Government on a national and local level fell victim to power-hungry armed groups which seized state assets and threatened officials; the weakness of government shone when, on two occasions, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped by militants.
The tribal system is still present in Libya and it remains the hypocentre of local politics, with tribes frequently altering region borders. Failures of the central government to maintain effective oversight has left cities to claim self-governance and even seize federal assets.
In 2014, the majority of Libyan people lost interest in the political system and the turnout for the election that year was 18%, down from 60% in 2012. The dominance of militia groups made voting a dangerous right to exercise, and many saw the process as one influenced by bullets rather than ballots. Secular candidates won the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, the legislative body which was set to replace the GNC. Islamists, who were prominent figures in the previous parliament, were reduced to approximately 30 seats.
Islamist factions were not satisfied with the outcome of the election and, along with Misrata militiamen, launched a successful assault on Tripoli. Members of the GNC who also rejected the election, declared a National Salvation Government with Tripoli as its capital and forced the House of Representatives to relocate to Tobruk. From then on, the two parliaments maintained a fierce rivalry and numerous violent conflicts ensued. The Tobruk-based government is backed by the Libyan National Army, and also had the support of Western powers until 2016.
In 2015, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for the formation of a new “unity government” in Libya. An interim Government of National Accord (GNA) would be established as an executive branch, whilst the House of Representatives would continue as a legislative branch. The GNC would appoint members to the State Council, an advisory body to both the House and the GNA.
The ‘Libyan Political Agreement’ was supported by members of the House and the Congress, including House President Aguila Saleh Issa. However, the unity government has still failed to obtain a motion of confidence, leaving Libya divided.
In December 2017, on the second anniversary of the UN-backed agreement, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar declared the GNA ‘void’ and illegitimate. As head of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), Haftar holds an immensely powerful position given the army’s exercised control over key oil infrastructure. Haftar has been absent from public appearances since the beginning of April, giving rise to a number of conflicting reports over his health. Some sources reported that Haftar had died following a recent stroke, although a tweet from the UN Support Mission in Libya put an end to these claims.
An unnamed European diplomat informed the Middle East Eye that Haftar, whilst alive, faces ‘irreversible brain damage’ and remains in a vegetative state in a Paris hospital. With Haftar incapacitated, who will take his place as leader of Libya’s most powerful armed forces? Haftar has no clear successor to take command of the LNA, though likely candidates are his sons, Khaled and Saddam; his cousin, Oun Furjani; and his chief of staff, General Abdel-Razeq Nathouri. If the new LNA leadership fail to control the groups of professional troops, tribal militias, and Salafists, then two likely outcomes will emerge. Either Eastern Libya will collapse in the hands of local forces and separate militias, or the House will have more political freedom – potentially leading way to unification with the Tripoli-based government.
Haftar’s condition may place him on the side-lines for the prospective Libyan presidential election which the United Nations is committed to hosting this year. The field marshal was seen as Libya’s strongman, a fierce opponent of Islamists and militias, and the front runner in the race to unite the disorganised country.
With Haftar theoretically out of the presidential race, the two key candidates remaining are Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Saif al-Islam, the son of the late Colonel, is supported by Libyans who believe that he is the only one capable of lifting the political deadlock.
An oil-rich nation, Libya once had the highest standards of living in Africa, with free healthcare and education systems in place. Yet, foreign intervention and the absence of an effective post-Gadaffi plan has plunged the nation into a state of perpetual anarchy. Ultimately, the civil war can be viewed as a mere proxy war in the greater conflicts amongst countries including Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Sudan, France, and Russia.
The future of a war-torn Libya will depend upon the foreign policies of the aforementioned countries. For a unilateral government to emerge, the collection of militias and tribes within the country must come to terms, allowing for the formation of a democratic system. This scenario will only be possible through an agreement between the intervening powers who supply these group – an agreement that the United States may broker.