What’s Happening in Libya?

Years after the fall of Qaddafi, and Libya seems no closer to peace. Even U.S. President Barack Obama has admitted the country is a mess. But it is a mess that is rapidly changing, as Libya plays its own game of musical chairs with rotating governments.

Since disputed elections in 2014 that saw Islamist-leaning parties lose to more secular ones, but fail to cede power, Libya has seen two rival governments. The government based in Tripoli is supported by the Libyan Parliament as-it-was before the elections, dominated by Islamists, and is known as the General National Congress (GNC) government. The new parliament that was due to take power after the elections (calling itself the House of Representatives), fled to the eastern city of Tobruk after being forced out of Tripoli by the GNC. They are known as the Tobruk or House of Representative’s government. The Tobruk government is supported by the international community as the legitimate government of Libya. In between these two governments, the infamous Islamic State (ISIS) has seized quite a bit of ground around the city of Sirte in central Libya.

ISIS’ advance finally prompted the international community to act, and in December the United Nations brokered an agreement between the rival governments. This agreement resulted in the creation of a third government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) or Unity government. So at this point, Libya had three rival governments, as neither the GNC nor the Tobruk-government actually agreed to step down. The GNC refused to allow the Unity government to land in Tripoli airport. The Unity government then opted to sail to Tripoli and arrived on March 31st and so far seems to have gained the support of most of the militias in the Tripoli area. The Tripoli GNC government stepped down and then reversed that decision. But overall, the new Unity government appears to have replaced the GNC as the main Tripoli-based government. The next step is for the Unity government to gain the support of the Tobruk government, which, while little has been reported of their intentions, I believe is likely. The Tobruk government had previously been the internationally recognized government, and the Tobruk-based Parliament is still the internationally accepted legislature. I do not believe that the power brokers in Tobruk would wish to throw away what legitimacy they have, especially since they still have the opportunity to participate in the new government through the Tobruk parliament.

To sum, their are a great many rival institutions in Libya with both separate governments and parliaments competing for power. The new Unity government seems to be gaining momentum in unifying the rival institutions, but should that be accomplished there remains the Herculean task of unifying the myriad of rival militias in the country. As the militias control the muscle needed for any government to establish themselves, they are the real kingmakers in Libya and their support is crucial for the new Unity government. The militias, however, are notoriously difficult to control, but are an essential element in the eventual process of rebuilding the Libyan army and the Libyan state. If the Unity government fails, there are no real alternatives to stabilize the country.  Until that happens, Libya will remain a “mess.”


On a final note: There is one possibility floating around, that of restoring the monarchy. While it is currently an idea supported only by a few, the longer chaos reigns in Libya and the further ISIS expands the more attractive the idea will become.