Libyans Are Bracing for Civil War

In Libya, regional players have been battling for influence, reportedly supplying militias with weapons and even conducting secret military operations in the country. An alliance of Islamists militias reportedly took over Libya’s capital, Tripoli, on Aug. 23; soon after, they stormed and "secured" a U.S. embassy compound in the city. The freshly reelected Prime Minister ...


In Libya, regional players have been battling for influence, reportedly supplying militias with weapons and even conducting secret military operations in the country. An alliance of Islamists militias reportedly took over Libya’s capital, Tripoli, on Aug. 23; soon after, they stormed and "secured" a U.S. embassy compound in the city. The freshly reelected Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni — who was appointed on Sept. 1 — faces a daunting mandate as the escalating crisis threatens the complete disintegration of the state and collapse of the country’s democratic process, just three years after the Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011.

Libya’s Islamist militias launched their campaign of violence in Tripoli after they suffered a devastating defeat in the recent parliamentary elections on June 25. Both moderate and extremist Islamist groups are attempting to block the new government from convening and becoming fully operational, fearing a legislative backlash. The Islamists have enjoyed undue influence over the political process since the overthrow of Qaddafi despite the fact that they’ve never won a single election; now they worry that the new government will undo their work to take control of the nascent institutions of post-revolution Libya.

Lately there have also been reports that regional powers are intervening in the crisis: Qatar and Turkey on the side of the alliance of Islamist militias’ side, Egypt and the UAE on the side of their foes, led by General Khalifa Haftar. This sort of meddling can only aggravate instability and political divides. By recognizing the deplorable actions of militias, these countries are complicating the situation and prolonging the turmoil. Outsiders are using Libya as a battlefield for their own agendas and regional interests — drowning out the voices of Libyans themselves, who now face full-fledged civil war. Cities, tribes, and entire regions within the country are starting to position themselves accordingly. Now even partition seems like a distinct possibility.

The Libyan government announced yesterday that it has lost control over all government buildings in Tripoli, following a statement on Sunday that "most ministries, institutions and state bodies in the capital Tripoli are out of [government] control." The buildings were seized by forces from the Islamist alliance known as Libyan Dawn as well as militias from the city of Misrata, which enjoy political support from organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. (The photo above shows members of Libya Dawn standing in front of the "secured" U.S. diplomatic compound on Aug. 31.) The Islamist and Misrata alliance claim that they possess revolutionary legitimacy because of their role in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime, a legitimacy that, in their eyes, supersedes the democratic mandate granted by the people to their representatives at the ballot box.

The continued fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi is having a negative impact on everyone. "Despite feeling safe here in town, the situation in Tripoli and Benghazi is making it hard for me keep the faith and hope that things will get better," said Abdulqader, a 29-year-old from al-Baida, where the government is currently convening. Indeed, power outages are frequent in many parts of the country. Events in Tripoli and Benghazi can easily disrupt banks throughout the country due to the centralized nature of the Libyan state. The headquarters of all of the country’s banks are in Tripoli and Benghazi, and rampant insecurity prevents employees from attending work, while damage to the electricity network from fighting knocks out computer systems. Schools and universities are finding it hard to start the academic year on time since they cannot guarantee the safety of their students and faculty.

Many people have fled their homes to escape the crisis. Hassan, an 18-year-old from Tobruk who just graduated from high school and wants to study medicine, had been unable to apply to university because the Ministry of Education has yet to issue his transcript and certificate. Many other Libyan students are facing predicaments similar to his. The Ministry of Education, now operating from al-Baida, is finding it difficult to ship millions of textbooks to schools from warehouses in Tripoli to the eastern part of the country. The responsibility for improving security and restoring a sense of normalcy lies with the new prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, who has been tasked with forming a crisis government by the House of Representatives, the new parliament. "This has to be a crisis government of a security nature," Member of Parliament Mosaab al-Abed told me shortly after the vote to reappoint Thinni. "It must address the security situation immediately."

The international community cannot afford to waste time. On Aug. 28, The UNSC approved a resolution on the situation in Libya. The resolution calls for an immediate ceasefire and sanctions against militia leaders and individuals involved in the recent violence. In the coming weeks, the Sanctions Committee is set to issue a list of individuals suspected of committing war crimes, such as Misrata ex-legislator Salah Badi, who led the offensive on Tripoli International Airport, and the Grand Mufti, who is suspected of inciting violence and supporting activities of the militias that have now seized control of Tripoli. These are steps in the right direction. But it’s even more important for the international community to think on an operational level about the measures it should take against those who violate the UNSC resolution. Since the resolution was adopted, Libyan Dawn militias have shelled the town of Wershafa, prompting large numbers of families in the town to flee for their safety. Zintani militias are reportedly mobilizing their fighters to reenter Tripoli again following their retreat on August 23. Today, fighting at the Benghazi airport rages on. Forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist militias control it, but armed Islamist groups are continuing to shell his forces.

Despite the urge to take sides in the increasingly polarized country, the House of Representatives in Tobruk has a responsibility to reach out to all citizens in order to restore trust in the country’s democratic process. It is important that the parliament handle the new reality in Tripoli pragmatically, in the understanding that dealing with it by no means implies acceptance of it. Post-revolution Libya is facing a crisis of legitimacy due to the lack of trust, the unwillingness to guarantee an inclusive political process, and, most importantly, the presence of armed groups acting with impunity and outside government control. These groups are capable of manipulating the political process in the country as they see fit, or even of bringing it to a complete standstill. Any dialogue or negotiation process initiated by the international community must take this reality into account and ensure that a disarmament program of all militias is an integral part of any future settlement in Libya.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.