Libya in 2020: From bad to worse
Illustration by Tania Bischof

Hopes of a ceasefire in Libya have been shattered. Khalifa Haftar has failed to capture the capital from the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi now threatens intervention on behalf of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

Two civil wars and almost a decade of fighting later, Libya is left with a broken economy, a destroyed infrastructure, and an ever-growing migrant and refugee population. From the 2011 Revolution to the recent discovery of mass graves (in previously Haftar-controlled territory) to escalations in rhetoric from foreign actors invested in the conflict- the lives of those in Libya seem to be going from bad to worse.

The Revolution

The fighting in Libya has been sporadic since the country’s 2011 Revolution in the buzz of the Arab Spring. The result: the toppling of the dictator Colonel Muammar al-Gadhafi. Governing Libya since 1969, the dictator’s 42-year rule was categorised by a personality cult, playing the varying tribes of Libya against each other- the perfect example of governance by division.

Freedoms of expression and associations were “severely curtailed”, described the Human Rights Watch 2010 report on Libya. Journalists, as well as ordinary citizens, lived under the weight of Article 178, threatening life imprisonment for spreading information which would “tarnish [the country’s] reputation or undermine confidence in it abroad”.

Within Libya’s territory is 2.9% of proven oil reserves in the world, containing over 48 billion barrels, placing it ninth in the world and, in 2010, bringing in US$32 billion in oil revenue. Although the country’s Human Development Index (measuring factors such as standards of living and life-expectancy) placed it 53rd in the world in 2010, by 2019 the country had fallen to 110th place. With a population of some six million, the living conditions evidently failed to reflect this level of revenue.

With the success of the Tunisian protests in December 2010, the wave of discontent spread to Libya and sparked the protests in Benghazi – the country’s second-largest city – on February 15, 2011. These protests spread to the capital, Tripoli, and soon led to the formation of the predecessor to the current GNA, the National Transitional Council (NTC), on February 27. By mid-September 2011, the NTC was recognised by the United Nations as Gadhafi’s replacement, whilst the dictator was captured and killed in October of that year.

The Second Civil War

In the wake of Gadhafi’s fall, the numerous tribes and militias who had come together in opposition were now rid of a common enemy. So after decades of antagonism fuelled by the dictator, they began to turn on one another.

Although, from an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to imagine the National Transitional Council in a position of total leadership and control of the uprising. But in reality, they failed in this role and thus control was often left to local power holders on a city to city basis.

After the fall of the regime, these militias remained with only one goal in mind – securing territorial control. The growth of the black market and poor policing in the country has led to a boom in armed militias, presenting yet another problem for the current Government of National Accord.

The Government of National Accord, taking over from the NTC in August 2012, failed to meet its 18-month deadline to transition the country to a permanent and democratic constitution. In light of this, and the contested general election of 2014 marked by violence and an 18% turnout, violence escalated between two administrations: the Tripoli-based GNA and Khalifa Hafter backed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

Khalifa Haftar took part in the coup bringing Muammar al-Gadhafi to power in 1969 and was close to the dictator until his capture in the late 1980s, after which he lived in exile in the United States. Following the elections and his appointment as commander of some 25,000 remaining fighters of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Haftar launched Operation Dignity against local al-Qaeda affiliate groups in Benghazi and drove out the militants by February 2016. 

Painting himself as the eradicator of extreme Islamism – although some see this as fuelled more by interests than by ideology- Haftar began the campaign to capture Tripoli from the GNA in April of 2019. The GNA remains the officially recognised government of Libya by the United Nations and has the support of Italy, Qatar, and Turkey against Haftar’s claim. Haftar, in turn, is supported by France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and most recently, Syria’s Assad.

After a 14-month campaign, Haftar has failed to topple the Government of National Accord and take Tripoli, as the GNA recaptured strategically important locations such as the al-Watiya airbase and Tarhuna – Haftar’s last major stronghold in western Libya. The commander has now withdrawn to Sirte, about 280 miles east of Tripoli, but the conflict is far from over. 

Living in Libya

Speaking to a friend who escaped Libya to the UK in 2013, they told me stories of their uncle being captured by the Islamic State – whose control of Sirte from May 2015 was its largest territory outside of Iraq and Syria – and the common occurrence to hear of a neighbour’s death as a result of conflicts between local militia groups. 

They also raised that their grandparents were denied visas from Tunisia on unfounded suspicions of terrorism – a reflection of the corruption surrounding these applications. The life of ordinary Libyans is routinely disrupted by local militia groups, and their options for escape are limited by the same fear of extremism and violence that they share with immigration authorities.

To add to this, following the push of Khalifa Haftar out of northwestern Libya, eight suspected mass graves have been unearthed and prompted a “long overdue” United Nations fact-finding mission into war crimes. Heba Morayef, head of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa operations, described this as a “long overdue step towards ending the rampant impunity that has for years been fuelled by the horrific crimes committed in Libya”.

Morayef was joined by Human Rights Watch’s Eric Goldstein in hopes that the mission would serve as “a wake-up call to warlords and armed groups that they could be held accountable for serious crimes committed by their rank and file”.

But violence is not the only hardship facing Libyans. Over the last three years, the Libyan currency has fallen by 600% and the cash flow problem leaves people unpaid or else spending hours waiting in line – sometimes having to return the next day – in order to receive their salaries. Supplies of crucial medication are also strained, with those suffering from diabetes often having to travel to neighbouring Tunisia.

Couple this with the fact that around 80% of Libya’s food supply relies on imports and the seizures of food and humanitarian aid by rivalling militias, the World Food Programme has estimated that around 897,000 are in need of humanitarian aid and 317,000 in need of food assistance (13.4% and 4.7% of the population respectively).

Libyans, however, are not alone in their suffering. Following a deal with Italy from February 2017, dubbed the Memorandum of Understanding, Libyan maritime authorities were given training, equipment, and support from Italy in return for intercepting boats at sea and returning migrants to detention facilities in Libya. “During the three years since the original deal was struck, at least 40,000 people, including thousands of children, have been intercepted at sea, returned to Libya and exposed to unimaginable suffering,” said Marie Struthers of Amnesty International. 

In January 2020 alone, 947 migrants were intercepted and added to some 658,000 migrants and refugees currently in Libya. Concerns of “torture, sexual and gender-based violence and harsh conditions in prisons and detention centres” have been expressed by the UN Human Rights Council.

UNICEF approximates that 3,200 migrants in detention centres currently face extreme protection risks, with around 10,684 children being unaccompanied and thus at high risk of exploitation. However, as if there wasn’t enough fear stirring among refugee and migrant populations, there is also the threat of human trafficking facing intercepted migrants.

Precise figures of those trafficked are unknown. The Italian Foreign Minister, Luigi Di Maio, told the House of Parliament that it would be “unwise for Italy to break off its agreement with Libya on… combating human trafficking” and highlighted that “it is undeniable that it [the document] has reduced the number of arrivals and deaths at sea”. In response, Amnesty International’s Struthers asserted that “by supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, Italy has made itself complicit in this abuse”

And this is all without taking into account the threat that the Coronavirus pandemic has recently posed to the war-ravaged country

The GNA announced at the end of May that 600 isolation beds were available in Tripoli with an additional 600 being prepared in other parts of the country as testing facilities increased from two to six laboratories (three in Tripoli, two in Benghazi, and one in Misrata). But for migrants, a Mixed Migrant Centre survey found that of those living in Tripoli, only 35% would have access to healthcare if they had symptoms.

For all Libyans, destroyed infrastructure heightens their risk to the virus as indiscriminate attacks on water structures and medical facilities have left only 60% of households connected to the public water network, drastically limiting possibilities for sanitation which are so vital in curbing the spread of the virus.

With COVID-19 disrupting the flow of humanitarian assistance into the country due to travel restrictions – of the 1,009 incidents of access constraint in April 2020, 67% were related to COVID-19 precautions- an outbreak of the pandemic is far from the only worry plaguing the people of Libya.

Today and beyond

Foreign involvement in Libya threatens, as ever, to exacerbate the country’s hardships even further. Days after it was clear that Haftar had lost his bid to take Tripoli, he travelled to Cairo to accept an Egypt-sponsored ceasefire; welcomed by Russia, the UAE, and the European Union, and reopened talks within the Arab League. 

However, the Foreign Minister for the Government of National Accord, Mohamed Taher Siala, has said that these talks between Arab government meeting would “merely deepen the rift” between them on the issue. Analysts not only doubt the efficacy of such talks given the lack of pressure on the ground to enforce a ceasefire, but widely view it as a performance to give Haftar time to regroup.

Both Libya and Turkey – which has supported the GNA in the fight against Haftar – have called for negotiations led by the United Nations, rather than among Arab nations, of which UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt strongly support Haftar. In order to have a “sustainable ceasefire”, the two countries have called for Haftar’s forces to withdraw from Sirte and Jufra as the former holds main oil export sites for the country.

Given the country’s dependency on the oil sector accounts for about 60% of total GDP in 2018, the seizing of control of several export terminals and oil fields by pro-Haftar tribal groups was alarming.

The National Oil Company, describing oil as the “lifeblood of the Libyan economy”, predicted in January that this would not only slash daily crude production from 1.3 million barrels to 500,000 barrels, but also lead to losses of US$55 million a day.

As the Government of National Accord called for the Libyan National Army to withdraw from Sirte, the “beating drums of war”, in the words of a GNA official, were sounded.

Upon visiting an airbase at the border with Libya, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi argued that “any direct interference from Egypt has now acquired international legitimacy, either with the right to self-defence or at the request of the only legitimate elected authority in Libya, which is the House of Representatives”.

With multiple players having a stake in the conflict, there is no end in sight. From Italy’s borders being protected from floods of migrants, to France’s oil interests in the country. As well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE seeing Haftar as the best option against the spread of extremism. In the midst of such heavy statements as those given by Sisi, the country’s prospects seem only to be moving from bad to worse.