Libya’s slide into chaos

The fall of Gaddafi has impacted negatively on North Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

Egyptian Christians in orange jumpsuits just before their execution by ISIS henchmen (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian Christians in orange jumpsuits just before their execution by ISIS henchmen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE CONFLICT in Libya is having effects in Europe as well as in North Africa and the Middle East. Thousands have been killed and tens of thousands have been made homeless: the number of displaced persons and refugees has reached an estimated 400,000. The flow of migrants from and through Libya to Europe has increased and the flow of weapons to Egypt has contributed to an upsurge in terror attacks there.
On February 15, the Islamic State (IS) released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian fishermen on a Libyan beach. This act of barbarism drew attention to the deepening chaos in Libya. In 2014, a militia group in the east of the country declared its affiliation with IS. At the end of the year it took over the city of Derna and, since then, people allied to the group have claimed responsibility for attacks across the country.
Prior to the emergence of IS affiliates, Libya was split between two warring camps: the so-called Operation Dignity, a coalition of eastern tribes, federalists, and disaffected military units; and Operation Dawn, an alliance of Islamist forces aligned with armed groups from Misrata. Each camp lays claim to governance and legitimacy, with its own parliament, army, and prime minister.
As a result there are two rival governments: one in Tripoli (Dawn), where a coalition of armed groups from Misrata and other western towns, together with Islamists, seized the airport and ministries. The other is in Tobruk, where an elected Council of Representatives and a cabinet convened (Dignity). Libya’s armed forces – both official and unofficial – are at war with one another, with each faction bolstered by a constellation of tribes and towns.
Outside powers have become involved in the conflict raising the threat of a proxy war between Arab states. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have carried out airstrikes on behalf of Dignity – the elected government against Islamist militants, while Turkey, Sudan, and Qatar are said to be backing Dawn.
Dignity is the largely secular and internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, who was elected in June 2014. In August 2014, al-Thani and his cohorts, including Libya’s House of Representatives, fled the capital city of Tripoli for Tobruk, some 1,250 kilometers away, as a rival group of Islamist politicians drove them out.
Led by Omar al-Hassi, this group controls Tripoli and has chosen a new parliament. The source of their strength is an Islamist militia called Libya Dawn. The government in Tobruk is located closer to the large oil fields in the east of the country and the pipelines bringing oil to the coast. The rival government in Tripoli is located closer to the western oilfields and pipelines. The two governments face other Islamist groups that are struggling to control the oil.
Since the 2011 revolution, billions of dollars of oil revenues have flowed through Libya’s Central Bank to militias and criminal gangs, who consistently block efforts by Libya’s popularly elected governments to impose central control. Victims of Libya’s chaos include Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger. The biggest fear is Egypt. Weapons looted from Libyan army bases have found their way into the hands of terrorists fighting the Egyptian army. Some 200,000 Egyptian workers live in Libya, compared with two million who used to work there before 2011.
Extremists and war profiteers in Libya have been successfully smuggling weapons across the border, especially into Sinai, where IS-linked rebels have attacked government forces and even launched cross-border attacks against Israel.
Inside Libya, basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking.
The fall of Gaddafi has resulted in problems for Europe. Prior to the onset of hostilities in 2011, he was, in effect, Europe’s policeman, and his fall resulted in a large increase in the number of people attempting to migrate to Europe from and through Libya. The number rocketed from 61,000 in 2011 to 130,000 in 2014   Europe’s fuel supplies have also been affected by Libya’s slide into chaos. In January 2014, Libya had proven crude oil reserves of 48 billion barrels, the largest in Africa, accounting for 38 percent of the continent’s total, and the ninth-largest amount globally. In 2013, Libya accounted for 5.4 percent of EU oil imports; in 2014 it accounted for only 1.8 percent.
Paul Rivlin is Senior Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies, Tel Aviv University