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The Quick Read About… What’s Happening in Libya

5 minute read

What Happened This Week:

There’s been no shortage of drama in North Africa these last couple weeks following the ousters of longtime rulers in both Algeria and Sudan. But the other story you need to be paying close attention to is the current push being made by General Khalifa Haftar to capture the Libyan capital of Tripoli. As Libya knows all too well, getting rid of a brutal leader is only the beginning—the real question is what comes next, and this week’s developments in Libya provide a glimpse.

Why It Matters:

Libya has Africa’s largest proven oil reserves and is also a player in the natural gas market. That alone would be enough to make people pay attention to the country’s political situation. But Libya’s story is much more complicated—and instructive—than its impact on energy markets.

It’s been nearly a decade since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was deposed, and after an initial burst of optimism from both Libyans and the international community—not to mention legislative elections held in the wake of Gaddafi’s ouster—the political situation in Libya has gone from bad to worse. Libya was in no shape to transition to a functioning democracy so abruptly, and the last decade or so has made that all too clear. Making matters worse, the country’s descent into chaos and lack of governance also made it the de facto “gateway” into Europe during the continent’s migration crisis a few years back.

Currently, the western half of the country is being “led” by a UN-backed government based out of Tripoli, but it has struggled to actually assert control over the city as its been carved up by warring militias. This stands in stark contrast to the eastern half of the country, which is ruled by Haftar, who strategically sidelined and co-opted various local militias to his own cause. Haftar used to be a close ally of Gaddafi before the two had a falling out in the 1980s; Haftar fled the country, and lived in Virginia for nearly 20 years (spending some of that time employed by the CIA) before returning to Libya to help in Gaddafi’s overthrow. From the remnants of Libya’s army, he cobbled together a fighting force now known as the Libyan National Army, strategically adding personnel and equipment (some of which came from foreign powers looking to curry favor) as the force grew—no one knows the exact number of people or weapons in his command at present.

Amidst all the chaos, an ISIS branch sprung up in the country as well. France, which has historical ties to the county in addition to substantial oil interests, stepped up to help Haftar in his fight against ISIS, which ended up conferring him a certain amount of international legitimacy. After Haftar declared victory over ISIS in Libya in 2017, the international community has been talking about a political resolution to Libya’s current civil war, but seemed to accept that Haftar would be a major political player in Libya’s future and began orienting itself in that direction. It helps that Haftar is an avowed opponent of Islamic extremism, too.

Last week, the UN Secretary General was in Tripoli for preparations for an upcoming peace summit ahead of elections slated for the end of this year. That’s when Haftar made his move, to everyone’s shock. Part of the purpose of the conference was to establish a constitutional framework for those upcoming elections. Collective wisdom was that Haftar would wait and capture the country through the ballot box. He seems to have opted to do so via violence instead. That UN conference has now been postponed indefinitely.

What Happens Next:

Haftar is making his play for Tripoli, and the fact that he has the best-equipped fighting force in the country means that he has a good shot at taking the city. But holding onto it will be difficult—the militias operating in Tripoli have been fighting amongst themselves, but may be convinced to combine forces to repel Haftar’s assault. As opposed to those militias in Libya’s east that Haftar was able to peel off to his side by playing them off each other and addressing their localized concerns, the ones operating in Tripoli have long-standing grievances against the Gaddafi era, and are more concerned that Haftar will simply end up being Gaddafi 2.0. Haftar faces an uphill battle to restoring the country to political health… if that’s even his goal. Haftar has repeatedly voiced the opinion that Libya is not ready for democracy. He’s not wrong, but that’s a troubling statement coming from the person most likely to be leading Libya into the future.

The Key Quote That Sums It All Up:

“Although none of the foreign sponsors behind Haftar is likely pleased with the dramatic deterioration, they have no option but to continue backing him. They have been concentrating most of their bets on one key figure for almost half a decade. This cannot be walked back overnight.” –Jalel Harchaoui, Clingendael Institute research fellow.

The One Thing to Read About It:

Nobody does political profiles like the New Yorker—read this one on Khalifa Haftar from 2015.

The One Major Misconception About It:

That combined with the recent political developments in Algeria and Sudan, we are on the cusp of a new political “spring” of sorts. We aren’t. These are all very different countries in different stages of political development.

The One Thing to Say About It at a Drinks Party:

Libya is a stark reminder that for all the soaring rhetoric, democracy works best when it is the culmination of genuine political reform rather than its starting point.


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