Whilst media attention throughout 2015 has been focused on the Syrian War and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, another complex conflict has been unfolding largely un-noticed, just across the Mediterranean. When the brutal regime of Colonel Gaddafi fell in 2011, Libya was at the centre of international news headlines. Four years later however, the growing instability in the country has become a side-show to these ‘main events’.
After the gruesome death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebels in Sirte, the initial outlook for Libya was overwhelmingly positive. It was viewed in the West as a country ‘freed from authoritarianism and tyranny’, with the opportunity to rebuild itself as a modern democratic state. After the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya in March 2011, a NATO bombing campaign was remarkably successful in aiding the rebels in removing the remnants of the previous regime, leading to the capital Tripoli being captured in August, followed by the death of Libya’s former strongman two months later. These events were accompanied by scenes of celebration and a mood of optimism, as the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) took power and a period of relative stability ensued.
However, it did not last long. Four years later, Libya is a ‘failed state’ plagued by militias. With no effective government, authority or state structures, Libya is a dangerously divided and fractured society on the brink of returning to full-scale civil war.
Libya currently has two competing governments. Firstly, there is the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, backed by the Libyan Dawn network of Islamist-inspired militia groups. Secondly, the rival western-backed government is effectively exiled in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Known as the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR), it is internationally-recognized as Libya’s legitimate government and is more secular in nature. However, to view the situation in Libya through the paradigm of ‘two opposed governments’, would be a dramatic simplification of the reality. Libya is a country deeply divided along regional and tribal fault-lines, with a strongly disaffected population and growing risk of civil war.
These divisions can be seen most clearly through analysing the sheer number and diversity of armed groups currently operating in Libya. Irrespective of the protracted political crisis, it is these armed militias which dominate the day-to-day situation on the ground in the absence of any real authority. Islamist militias such as the Libyan Dawn network are generally supportive of the GNC. However in reality, it is a broad coalition of various armed units and factions, with competing aims and desires. Alongside Libyan Dawn, many jihadist groups are present: including Islamic State (IS), Ansar al-Shariah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. On the other side of this blurred divide are groups generally supportive of the Tobruk government, such as the armed forces and allied units led by General Khalifah Haftar, and powerful non-Islamist militias including Al-Zintan.
To add to the already-dangerous situation, Islamic State has begun to gain a foothold in Gaddafi’s former home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. IS has been able to take advantage of the power vacuum, recruiting locals alongside foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Whilst the country’s political leaders have been pre-occupied with the dispute between the two rival governments, IS has gradually introduced its extreme form of Islamic law in areas under its control, conducted massacres including the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in February 2015, and has threatened to exploit the exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean to smuggle fighters into Europe.
The contrast between the West’s enthusiasm to intervene in 2011, and their reluctance to discuss the situation in Libya over the last four years, has been considerable. A 2015 Report by Human Rights Watch draws attention to the recent escalation of conflict, which has caused widespread destruction of property, civilian deaths and injuries. An estimated 400,000 people are now internally displaced, whilst many foreign embassies and the NGO’s have evacuated their staff from the country. The Libya Body Count website has reported a total of 4,340 violent conflict-related deaths in Libya since January 2014; however in reality the total is likely to be far higher.
The continuing instability has created the perfect conditions for conflict to flourish. The lack of border security has resulted in the increased trafficking of humans and weapons, whilst the judicial system has broken down as militias frequently have attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses. The longer the current political impasse continues, the greater potential there is for the situation to deteriorate; and with the recent rejection of a UN-backed peace deal, there is little sign of progress.
Given Libya’s increasingly complex and volatile internal situation, characterized by division, violence and lawlessness; there is clear potential for the country to become ‘another Syria’.
However, to understand the current situation more fully, we must move beyond simply looking at these internal developments. We must also ask critical questions of western policy, exploring its weaknesses and exposing its contradictions. For example, the West was happy to help remove a human-rights abusing dictator in Libya; whilst at the time maintaining strong alliances with numerous other human-rights abusing, totalitarian dictatorships across the region. This raises questions about the ‘real’ aims of regime change, and exposes the selectivity and hypocrisy of western interventions.
So after the initial optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, what can we learn from the disintegration of Libya? Firstly, it is clear that the problem of ‘complex civil war’ also exists outside the borders of Syria. Whilst the media and western governments primarily focus on the Syrian conflict, the considerable worsening of the situation in Libya has been largely ignored. Secondly, the conflict in Libya must be understood within the wider context of the growth of Islamist militancy in unstable regions. Alongside the proliferation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, other extremist Islamist groups are on the rise: such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The motivations of these groups are closely linked; therefore there is a need for western governments and the mainstream media to shift the focus from primarily being on IS in Syria, and instead pay more attention to the wider context and ideological linkages between conflicts.
Finally, Libya is an example of the dangers of western intervention. Four years after the removal of Gaddafi, the original aims of the Arab Spring protestors and well-intentioned western leaders, lie in tatters. Optimistic demands for civil, political and economic rights have disappeared into a power vacuum characterized by growing divisions, sectarianism and increasing violence. The example of Libya exposes the double-edged sword at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East: tolerate human rights abuses and prop-up an authoritarian regime to preserve stability; or foster regime change with the hope of bringing democracy, at the risk of dire consequences. This seemingly impossible dilemma suggests that a third-way might be preferable: neither supporting nor intervening against authoritarian regimes; but developing a long-term strategy to tackle human rights abuses, whilst encouraging political reform from the inside.