In War-Torn Libya, It’s Life on the Edge

The worsening civil war in LIbya is taking its toll on the amenities of everyday life.

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Lately Libya has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Civil war continues to rage. In the East, the army of the internationally recognized parliament in Tobruk continues its war on terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Ansar al-Islam. In the West, the forces of the Tobruk government have allied with the powerful town of Zintan against militias loyal to the former General National Congress (GNC) and the city of Misrata.

As one might expect, the war is taking a heavy toll on basic services and vital infrastructure. For the last few weeks Libyans have suffered power blackouts and shortages of gasoline and propane. The lack of gas for cooking, in particular, has forced many people to prepare meals over wood fires, making life miserable for many. The blackouts are the direct result of damage inflicted on power distribution units and power stations by the fighting. Needless to say, the lack of electricity is also affecting communications. Within the past month only one of the two mobile phone operators in eastern Libya has been working. These problems have knock-on effects for the banking system, knocking out automatic tellers and leaving many people strapped for cash (assuming they had any in the first place). Clean water, too, is becoming scarce.

Many families have fled the war-stricken cities and towns. (The photo shows a young refugee outside a makeshift house in Tripoli.) Some are staying with relatives, while others are sheltering in schools and university dormitories. The ongoing power struggle has prompted the Central Bank to block the budget, depriving the two rival governments of urgently needed funds, making it extremely difficult to respond to the growing needs of refugees throughout the country. The authorities have managed to give handouts to displaced families, but these handouts are usually late, so they don’t keep up with the rapid rise in prices. (The fighting around seaports and the unstable business climate exacerbate inflation and the scarcity of goods.) No international aid organizations are operating in Libya at the moment, and that leaves only local aid groups, which are providing modest amounts of charitable assistance to the displaced, mainly by supplying them with blankets and heaters to keep them warm during the cold winter.

A few days ago I witnessed an argument at a gas station here in Tobruk. Two men, standing in a line of around 200 queuing up for cooking gas, got into an argument over politics. One of them, who expressed deep opposition to the military offensive against Islamist militias currently being led by General Khalifa Haftar, gestured at the scene and exclaimed, “So this is your idea of dignity?” (He was making a sarcastic reference to “Operation Dignity,” the name of Haftar’s campaign.) It’s certainly true that conditions have gotten a lot worse since Haftar launched his assault on the Islamists. Haftar’s supporters defend him by saying that the general has warned from the start that beating groups like Ansar al-Sharia would require tough sacrifices.

For his part, the second man replied, “We’ve been losing dignity ever since we took to the streets against Qaddafi.” Many more ordinary Libyans are echoing this nostalgic sentiment about the “secure and stable” Libya under the Qaddafi regime. The man pointed out that instability and chaos have reigned in Libya ever since Qaddafi’s overthrow in 2011 — which is also hard to dispute. The killings of army officers, security personnel, judges, journalists, and activists started in 2011, long before the beginning of Operation Dignity in May of last year. One of the men working at the gas station told me that he sees arguments like this every day. Sometimes, he said, things get out of control, and the arguments turn into fights.

As things stand now, Libya’s political leaders have yet to find a way to resolve their disputes without violence. They seem unprepared to accept the rule of law and the results of democratic process. As a consequence, the situation has spiraled out of control, and armed groups are now trying to settle matters on the battlefield. Thousands of Libyan families are struggling to cope with the cold winter as the fighting goes on. Many are finding it hard to provide for their families. The collapse of modern amenities that many of us long took for granted is a huge psychological burden.

It’s a tribute to the resilience of Libyans that some can find a bright side even to this grim situation. 24-year-old Ahmed, a university student from Benghazi, recently told me: “The good thing about the blackouts is that you spend more time with your family and relatives, eating and chatting over candles, crowded together in one room as you try to keep warm.” Difficult times make people look out for each other and turn to each other for comfort. The United Nations Special Support Mission In Libya announced a new round of dialogue in Geneva next week after the key stakeholders in Libya agreed to meet again in a bid to find a political settlement to the country’s ongoing crisis. Ahmed’s words made me wonder if 2015 will be the year in which the country’s political elite finally realize that they need to work with each other to restore stability and peace, thus living up to the aspirations that originally motivated Libyans to take to the streets against the dictatorship of Qaddafi.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. You can follow him on Twitter @eljarh.


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.