Libya is a country located in the region of Northern Africa. After Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, Libya has continued to be plagued by lawlessness and chaos and in many ways the country appears to be a “failed state”. No government has at any time completely controlled the country. Since 2016, there has been a UN-backed government in Tripoli in the west, but it has been heavily employed by forces from eastern Libya controlled by General Khalifa Haftar.
The already chaotic situation after Gaddafi’s fall worsened in 2014, when Islamist groups took control of Tripoli, while a then-elected parliament – dominated by non-Islamists – set up in Tobruk and al-Bayda in the east. Libya gained two rival parliaments and governments. The rule in the east was then internationally recognized, unlike that in Tripoli. Both parties were supported by a plethora of armed groups of varying sizes, who fought in different parts of the country and were more or less allied with one of the governments. In March 2015, the disputed General Khalifa Haftar was appointed Army Chief of the Tobruk Government. His forces are known as the Libyan National Army (LNA).
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Libya, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
Throughout 2015, discussions were underway under the auspices of the UN to try to form a National Unity Government or the Government of National Accord (GNA). Both main parties to the conflict were reported to accept that a military solution was not possible, but UN talks were slow. At the end of the year, however, it was stated that a unity government would be formed. However, only some representatives of the two parliaments signed on, and it would prove difficult to put the agreement into practice. Parts of the parliaments and many other groups questioned the settlement.
The presidency council, which was the first step towards a unity government, initially began to meet in Tunisia. In 2016, the Council proposed a government of 32 ministers – a large number for a country with only six million residents, reflecting the many interests that must be balanced. The number was lowered in a second proposal to 18 ministers. But the resistance persisted. For example, within the Tobruk Parliament, there was a group that at all costs wanted Haftar as army chief, while another faction was equally keen to remove him. Tobruk also voted against the government proposed by the Presidency in early 2016.
Despite sharp protests in Tripoli and clear skepticism on the part of the Tobruk government, the unity government’s presidential council in March 2016 decided to go to the Libyan capital. As the airspace was closed, it had to be done by boat and the Prime Minister appointed by the Unity Government, Fayez al-Sarraj, set up a naval base. Fears of a major outbreak of violence in the capital came to shame and within a few days, a number of important bodies declared support for the Sarraj government. Among them were representatives of the central bank, the state oil company NOC, ten municipalities and a number of militia groups.
Gradually, the influential Misratamilis, which formed the backbone of the Tripoli government, joined the new unity government which later became the one with the greatest international recognition. Since 2016, the power struggle has been mainly between the Unity Government and General Haftar’s forces. Detainees who have been fighting Islamist groups in Benghazi in the east for years have accused the Misratamilis of supporting extreme Islamists. In the spring of 2019, he launched a major offensive west and employed Tripoli hard.
The two main camps are leaning towards different major powers and neighboring countries, which have increasingly become involved in the development of events, and within Libya, local militia groups have changed loyalty.
A complicating factor is another mention of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS), which in Libya gained its strongest attachment outside Iraq and Syria. The group includes Libyans who have returned from fighting abroad, but a majority are said to be foreigners. IS first appeared in Libya in 2014 and entered the port city of Darna, but was driven there in 2015 by local Islamist militia and sections of the local population.
IS then established itself in Sirte, further west along the coast. IS terrorized the locals in Sirte and carried out attacks in Tripoli (see Calendar). In 2016, IS carried out attacks on oil facilities and committed a suicide attack that claimed more than 60 people’s lives at a police school in Zliten, the bloodiest individual assault in Libya since 2011. From 2016, an offensive against IS was supported by US fighter aircraft. By the end of the year, forces loyal to the Tripoli government had driven IS out of Sirte. But soon Haftar approached from the east and took control of the city by settling with the local militia.
IS has remained, including in the area around Darna. The Oasis Murzuq in the southwest, where none of Libya’s rival governments is in control, has also been identified as an IS stronghold.
The United States continued to conduct occasional air strikes against Islamists, with the consent of the Tripoli government. Several Western powers have had smaller special forces on the ground to probe different groups’ loyalties for a possible military effort of greater magnitude, directed at IS. The Western powers have a month to have the unity government recognized on a broad front, so that it can provide the ready for intervention.
A power factor is also the armed oil plant force, PFG with English abbreviation, which was formed intended to protect plants and infrastructure connected to the oil and gas industry but which has come to be its own power factor and which has caused production disruptions. PFG led by Ibrahim Jadhran controlled oil terminals in eastern Libya from 2011, but was ousted by Haftar’s forces in 2016. Jadhran stated in a video recorded in 2018 that he formed an alliance to regain control of the oil terminals.
The situation has remained unstable with recurring attacks and fighting in various parts of the country. In the summer of 2017, the UN-backed government in Tripoli and General Haftar, who had then secured control of Benghazi, agreed in principle on a ceasefire. In May 2018, together with representatives of a few other groups, they agreed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on December 10. The election date soon turned out to be overly optimistic, not least after an outbreak of violence around Tripoli this autumn. The UN Libyan envoy has since tried to get further negotiations, but Haftar instead chose from spring 2019 to carry out a military offensive against Tripoli. The struggles that have ensued have left both residents and the many migrants who are in Libya in very difficult circumstances.
In April 2020, Haftar declared via his own TV channel al-Hadath that he sees the agreement of 2015, which laid the foundation for the unity government, as completely overplayed. But the state of things had begun to go against him. The international concern that the corona pandemic will also take root in Libya has led to increased international pressure on the warring camps to bring them together to a ceasefire that enables disease control. Of the great powers, it seems that Turkey has “invested” most in its ally, the Tripoli government. With the support it has received from Turkey, Haftar’s forces that employed Tripoli have been pushed back into the battlefield, but a crucial and some kind of peace still awaits.
Follow the ongoing development of the Calendar.
Reading tips – read more in UI’s online magazine Foreign magazine:
EU’s closed doors fend off the Libyan slave trade (2018-03-21)
Most people in the Middle East are Living on the Edge (2017-12-08) Basic level
reforms should strengthen Libya’s justice system (2017-06-28)
FACTS – POLITICS
Dawlat Libya / State of Libya
republic, unitary state
Head of State
Fayez al-Sarraj (2016–)
Head of government
Fayez al-Sarraj (2016–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
all candidates voted as independent (2014)
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
National Forces Alliance (NFA) 39, Justice and Development Party (JCP) 17, most other members were independent (2012)
18% in parliamentary elections in June 2014
no elections were planned until a new constitution was adopted