On March 17th, 2011, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice wore green for St. Patrick’s Day as she took her seat at the circular Security Council conference table at the UN headquarters in New York. In Libya, the color green is associated not with St. Patrick, but the misfortune-bringing dictator, Muammar al-Qaddhafi. Ambassador Rice, along with the other representatives of the Security Council, gathered in New York that day to consider a response to Qaddhafi’s repression of anti-regime protesters. They voted unanimously in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the protestors, supporting a revolution that ultimately led to the dictator’s overthrow and an opportunity for democratic transition. As artillery fire maims the outskirts of Tripoli and rival militias engage in indiscriminate violence that ensnares civilians and trapped refugees, the chances of a democratic future for Libya are fading. Yet, this painful moment in Libya’s history also presents a rare opportunity to harness greater international attention to empower moderate voices and advance a vision for Libya that overcomes division, ensures long-term stability, and weakens the threats of resurgent authoritarianism and transnational terrorism.
Great expectations: democratic aspirations, Libyan realities
The United States and its allies expected an unrealistically quick transition to democracy in Libya. As Libya emerged from four decades of dictatorship, elections took place less than one year after the revolution – a woefully insufficient period to foster competitive elections and open political discourse. The resulting interim government was too weak to advance the democratic transition. Insufficient international support to strengthen this government only compounded the problem.
After another round of lacklustre elections in 2014, the government fractured into two rival entities. Dozens of heavily armed militias split along ideological, regional, tribal, and ethnic lines shifted loyalties between opposing governments in Tripoli and Tobruk depending on the governments’ perceived ability to empower and enrich militia commanders. A UN-led political dialogue process failed to reunify the country in late 2015 under a new, transitional unity Government of National Accord (GNA). The process contributed to the division by building up international recognition for the GNA as Libya’s executive and the House of Representatives (HoR) as Libya’s parliament without ensuring that the HoR would recognize the GNA. The lack of consensus gave rise to three rival governments: two in Tripoli — the GNA and a rival associated with hardline Islamist groups that rejected the UN-led dialogue process — and another, interim government associated with the HoR in Tobruk. Ever since, Libyans have become increasingly willing to sacrifice democracy for security.
Achieving political supremacy: (re)centering Tripoli
Since Libya unraveled politically in 2014, Tripoli has been the ultimate prize for warring factions. The capital is Libya’s largest city by population, rival leaders require the support of Tripoli residents for legitimacy. Furthermore, thanks to decades of centralized power during the Qaddhafi regime, all internationally recognized financial institutions are in Tripoli.Any faction with aspirations to expand its control nationally must control these institutions’ headquarters in Tripoli to control the flow of funds for basic services. The militias in particular have leveraged the financial centralization in Tripoli by extorting these institutions since the end of the revolution.
The fate of Tripoli will dictate whether Libya will continue its halting transition to democracy or revert to a dictatorship reliant on repression for control. Today the weak GNA clings desperately to power in the capital — bolstered in this position only by waning international support. Unable to provide adequate basic services to the people, foster unification with the HoR, or protect Tripoli residents from violent militia clashes or terrorist attacks, the GNA has scant domestic legitimacy. Non-state actors with little interest in democracy or stability could easily derail the GNA’s tenuous control, as militias control the streets of Tripoli.
he GNA remains weak and unable to reunite Libya politically because it relies on unaccountable militias to secure its small zone of control. In the absence of robust, formal security institutions, these militias use security provision as leverage over the weak government to enrich themselves at the expense of a democratic transition — engaging in letters of credit fraud to profiteer from the gap between the official currency exchange rate and the black market rate and trying to impose their own versions of law and order on the population. The strongest militias in Tripoli, the “Tripoli militia cartel,” successfully resisted local rivals’ attempts to displace them during deadly clashes in August-September 2018 and again in January 2019.
Khalifa Haftar’s road to Tripoli
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddhafi-era military official who aspires to overthrow Libya’s weak government in Tripoli — either by political or military means — poses the greatest threat to both the militia cartel and the internationally recognized GNA. He has been threatening to take over the capital by force since late 2014. Various international actors have tried to persuade him to disavow violence, but he has avoided committing to a peaceful resolution with the GNA. Through his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Haftar has prevailed over militia rivals in most urban centers in eastern and southwestern Libya, gaining control of nearly all Libya’s oil and gas infrastructure. Since early 2019, the LNA has hinted that Haftar was preparing for a final assault on Tripoli, emboldened by territorial gains in the south. At the same time, LNA assets have moved westward, and pro-Haftar demonstrations became a more common occurrence in Tripoli’s streets. Haftar’s opponents in western Libya are scrambling to set aside their differences and fight a common enemy.
When Haftar appeared on television in 2014 declaring a military coup, few took him seriously. After a five-year odyssey forming militia alliances, stockpiling weapons, and battling opponents outside Tripoli, Haftar once more declared his intention to take over Tripoli on the radio on April 4th. But just like in 2014, Haftar miscalculated his own power. Instead of sweeping swiftly into the capital, his forces became bogged down in intense battles with an eclectic and loosely linked militia bloc. While the LNA is war weary from five years of battle and reliant on precarious supply lines, its opponents are operating on home turf. Unlike the LNA’s previous opponents, these militias are well-armed, well-funded, and united (at least for now) against a common enemy. Haftar’s external backers, including the UAE, France, and Russia, have resisted efforts to condemn his actions specifically; however Haftar’s standing internationally has been tarnished by this bungled offensive and even his backers have been frustrated by his rejection of a political solution. And despite signs that Haftar’s counter-terrorism capabilities are appealing to elements within the US military, the US government position unequivocally opposed Haftar’s Tripoli offensive. Indeed, Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli has worsened the security vacuum, creating an environment in which cells with the Islamic State group can become more active.
Local conflict, global consequences
Haftar’s aggression against Tripoli forced UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salamé to postpone indefinitely a high-level meeting, called the National Conference, planned for April 14th that would have put forward a plan for elections and political reunification. One of Salamé’s predecessors, Tarek Mitri, lamented on April 10th that “once again, an open window for political settlement has closed in Libya”.
The LNA assault on Tripoli could be the final nail in the coffin of Libya’s ill-fated democratic transition. The weak GNA would not easily survive the assault – the façade of democratic institutions could finally collapse. If Haftar takes over Tripoli, he would not pick up the mantle of democratic transition from the GNA. The field marshal does not believe that Libya is “ripe for democracy”. The fate of his stronghold in Benghazi provides a glimpse into what Libya could experience under his rule. While Benghazi’s shops are reopening and eastern officials are trying to lure foreign investors, Haftar’s LNA has arbitrarily detained residents and restricted freedom of the press, speech, and association. Senior commanders in the LNA have even been implicated in war crimes and accused of looting government coffers.
However, the violent conflict in Tripoli could provide the seeds of future peace in Libya. With a few noteworthy exceptions, including France and Russia, the conflict has united the international community against Haftar’s destabilizing activities — and even these exceptions are becoming exasperated with Haftar. In his announcement postponing the National Conference, Salamé emphasized at the same time that he was “more determined than ever to hold the National Conference at the earliest possible opportunity, as we cannot allow the historic opportunity it presents to be lost.” The UN’s current efforts to galvanize support for a political solution in Libya may be the most important work that international institutions have undertaken to protect Libyan citizens since the Security Council’s fateful vote eight years ago. These efforts will not be easy. The deadly conflict in Tripoli will make it more difficult to find areas of compromise between hardened Libyan factions. However, the alternatives are continued chaos, or weak authoritarian rule under Haftar. Either alternative would worsen Libyans’ standards of living, and destabilize North Africa and Europe in the process.