Libya Edges Toward Civil War

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Much of the regional media attention has been focused on the ongoing negotiations aimed at ending the conflict in Gaza — not surprising given the destruction and suffering there. What has been left largely undiscussed, however, is the increasing instability in Libya, where various militias have been engaging in an armed free-for-all in an attempt to wrest control of the country and its resources. Following some early skirmishes, and the seeming collapse of the façade of central government control, two main camps have emerged. On one hand, there are Islamist fighters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while on the other there are the nationalists and anti-Islamists: the Zintani, Qaaqaa, and Al-Sawaiq Brigades. The fighting has brought instability to a country that, for a while, was thought to be on the road to reconstruction. The flood of foreigners (and their money) leaving the country is unlikely to help the economic and political prospects.

Perhaps nothing underlines Libya’s current declining fortunes than the drying investment prospects, which, according to The National’s Tom Arnold, stand in stark contrast to what was happening only two years ago: “When a UAE business delegation visited Libya in January 2012 the country appeared ripe for investment. The visitors discussed the opportunities to be had in the divergent fields of ports, oil and gas and minerals. They faced potential competition from investors from Qatar, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom, among others, who were also descending en masse upon the newly liberated country. More than two years later, the prospect for Libya of any investment from abroad appears a distant hope. Instead, countries including Turkey and the UK have been scrambling to clear out their diplomatic staff as violence between armed groups intensifies in recent months.”

The Peninsula’s editorial staff also expressed its pessimistic outlook on the near-term prospects for a politically viable solution in Libya, seeing as the politicians seem to have been unable to exert control: “In the last two weeks, Libya has descended into its deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, with the central government unable to impose order. If every Arab Spring country has its problem, the rise of militias has been Libya’s bane. The federal government in Tripoli had never been able to exert its control all over the state and while the government’s power weakened, the militias strengthened themselves by amassing more weapons and filling the vacuum left by the government.”

With a power vacuum left by an impotent central government, the contest now, says Asharq Alawsat’s Abdul Sattar Hatita, has become a familiar one, featuring Libyan Muslim Brotherhood supporters against secular forces: “As conditions in Libya worsen, the conflicts that have destabilized the country have turned into a standoff between the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, elements associated with al-Qaeda, and the renegade army officer Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in October 2011, power has slipped completely through the fingers of the new government. The power vacuum spawned a number of political entities that quickly warped into militias with regional, tribal or religious agendas. The conflict raging today can thus be boiled down to a confrontation between four main groups, three of which are fighting tooth-and-nail over strategic landmarks such as Tripoli’s airport, while the fourth is simply biding its time.”

The deteriorating security conditions have become such that neighboring countries are considering measures that go beyond repatriating their citizens. For example, according to a Libya Herald report, Egyptian politicians have hinted at the possibility of a military intervention should the security situation not improve any time soon: “The political crisis in Libya was one of the main topics of discussion in talks in Cairo between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Saturday. They also discussed the situation in Gaza, illegal immigration, terrorism and the economic ties between Egypt and Italy. During the press conference Sisi pointed to the need for an ‘urgent solution’ for Egypt’s neighbor, adding that Libya’s stability affected Egypt’s security. Sisi stressed that the international community, after intervening during Libya’s revolution, had a ‘moral obligation’ towards Libya.”

Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed also believes that the “unique situation in North Africa will force Libya’s neighbors, either Egypt or Algeria, to intervene. It seems that Egypt is more concerned, although the dangerous situation in Libya threatens all its neighbors without any exceptions whatsoever….The Egyptian leadership may abstain from intervening for a few months and just settle at protecting its borders, just as Algeria is currently doing. However, Egypt knows that these Libyan groups which are currently preoccupied with domestic battles will eventually organize their ranks and point their rifles towards the eastern borders. The battle will be fought with the state of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, whom these groups consider an obstacle in their path towards ‘restoring Cairo.’”

Egypt is not the only neighboring country that has expressed concern over what is going on in Libya. In an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat, Monji Saidani highlights the increasing strain on economic resources that the influx of displaced Libyans is putting on the Tunisian state: “The influx of Libyan refugees is putting pressure on Tunisia’s already strained subsidies system, Tunisian officials have warned, as the number of refugees in Tunisia from the neighboring north African country approaches 2 million since 2011, according to government estimates….Some Tunisian economists have in recent weeks suggested that monthly charges of 20-30 U.S. dollars should be levied on all Libyan refugees using subsidized fuel products in Tunisia, in a bid to counteract the losses accruing to the country’s public purse and stem a concomitant rise in food prices….Tunisia’s economy was dealt a major blow following the revolution that ousted longtime dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, when formerly lucrative sources of hard currency such as tourism dried up.”

But the international community should not be allowed to let Libya fail. At least that is the argument put forward in a recent Khaleej Times editorial, suggesting that a plan which engages Libya’s numerous tribes might be the best bet for moving forward: “The North African Arab country shouldn’t be allowed to fail as its unravelling will open a Pandora’s box. The pestering instability and revulsion should be overcome in a passive manner and let the people be empowered by exterminating the militants. All it needs is a massive political plan of action and one that is conducted by the army in an impartial manner. Tripoli should draw its strength from the tribal heads and let them call the shots by marginalizing the influence of militants in their midst. That is the easiest and indigenous way to broker reconciliation and goodwill among warring groups.”

And there are some signs that perhaps the political leadership could begin creating some political stability, albeit one without the Islamists: “Libyan lawmakers, gathered far from the country’s chaos and warring militias, have elected a judge as the new parliament speaker. Ageila Saleh Eissa narrowly defeated his rival for the post, Abu-Bakr Baeira, in a 77-74 vote late Monday night from among 158 lawmakers who convened the parliament’s inaugural session in the eastern city of Tobruk….The Tobruk parliament meeting was dominated by opponents of Islamists, underscoring the defeat suffered in recent elections by factions of political Islam who previously led a majority in the house. Islamist factions and their allies did not attend the session.”

Equally encouraging is the recent call for a national unity government which can bridge the gap between the warring factions: “Libya’s newly elected parliament called for national unity at its first formal session Monday, as rival armed factions battled for dominance in and around the capital….Elected in June, the House of Representatives replaces the General National Congress after a vote which analysts said eroded the political dominance that Islamist factions linked to the Muslim Brotherhood had in the legislature….Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani, standing in for the prime minister, who was attending a summit in the United States, urged lawmakers to form a unity government.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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