Image: Chandler Cruttenden (Unsplash)
The Libyan conflict of 2011 plunged the North African country into a long-standing war, characterised by a constant state of violence, foreign interference and social dislocation among the people. After almost 10 years of war, the two rival parties have signed an agreement for a permanent ceasefire. This article intends to assess the circumstances which have led up to the ceasefire agreement, namely the end of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime, the second Libyan civil war as well as the external interests which factored into the conflict. Furthermore, it is the intention of this article to assess the strength of the recently signed agreement and the future prospects for peace for Libyan people.
The End of the Gaddafi Government and the Second Libyan Civil War
In February 2011, the Arab uprising (Arab Spring protests) which had been spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, erupted in Libya. In the following months, a civil war ensued between Gaddafi’s forces and rebel forces backed by air power from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Gradually, the rebel forces gained traction and eventually succeeded in toppling the Gaddafi government in August 2011. Post-Gaddafi Libya was full of armed militias, who eventually turned on one another. In July 2012, national elections took place in which the National Transitional Government was replaced with an interim parliament called the General National Congress (GNC). The new parliament was highly fragmented, due to the absence of organised political parties as well as the dominance of the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). By 2013, Libya was facing several political challenges, which combined with widespread national insecurity hampered efforts to establish Libya’s constitution. In May 2014, General Khalifa Haftar launched Operation Dignity in the city of Benghazi, this campaign aimed to rid eastern Libya of Islamist factions. Haftar soon expanded his campaign beyond Benghazi, when Operation Dignity-aligned forces stormed the parliament building in Tripoli, demanding the dissolution of the GNC. Following the parliamentary elections held in 2014, the GNC dissolved itself to form the House of Representatives (HoR). Within this new legislature, the JCP and the allies of Misrata were severely lacking in representation, compared to the former GNC. Interpreting this as a threat, the Islamist-Misrata bloc launched its own military campaign known as Operation Dawn, which aimed to seize control of the capital, Tripoli. Following Operation Dawn’s takeover of Tripoli in late-2014, the campaign forces reconvened the GNC, which had been previously dissolved. Thereafter the newly elected HoR fled to the eastern city of Tobruk, while the GNC declared itself the rightful legislature of Libya. During this time, the HoR established its own parliament in Tobruk.
Initially, the GNC had the support of Qatar, Turkey and Sudan, however they soon withdrew their support following the Supreme Court amendment in which it declared the internationally recognised HoR illegal and unconstitutional. To view this conflict as a binary struggle between two warring parties is much too simplistic. The circumstances underpinning the civil war are highly complex comprising of political, regional, tribal and religious factions. By 2014, the reported fatalities and conflict incidents within Libya had increased significantly and were double those reported in 2012. From mid-2014 to late 2015, the rival administrations remained locked in a heated political dispute, at which point the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) facilitated an agreement for the establishment of a proposed Government of National Accord (GNA). Representatives from the HoR and the GNC signed the UN-backed deal to form a unity government, despite lacking formal approval from their respective governments. The agreement mandated a nine-member presidential council led by Fayez al-Sarraj. By December 2015, the Libyan Political Agreement was signed, which stipulated the unification of the rival parties based in Tripoli, Tobruk and elsewhere to form the GNA. Despite opposition from the GNC and the rejection by the HoR, the GNA began operating in Tripoli. In March 2016, the United States of America and several European countries officially recognised the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government. By mid-2017, General Haftar had launched a new offensive against Islamist militias in Benghazi, all the while clashes between Islamist militias and armed groups aligned with the GNA continued in Tripoli. Since then clashes between General Haftar’s forces, the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the GNA-aligned forces have continued.
This newly signed agreement is not the first, in the past there have been many peace efforts undertaken as well as a conditional ceasefire, none of which have held. In 2017, General Haftar and Prime Minister Sarraj agreed to a conditional ceasefire during talks in France, however violence continued the following year. In the same year, a United Nations (UN)-brokered ceasefire failed to hold, when the LNA launched an offensive across Southern Libya. Not only have peace efforts been disregarded but a UN weapons embargo as well. Between 2014 and 2018, the German government approved arms exports to Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), these weapons were eventually deployed in Libya. Another attempt at peace was made during a Libyan-led conference, however, General Haftar and the LNA launched an attack to take Tripoli. The renewed civil conflict in the west resulted in further damage to Libya’s economy and exacerbated the on-going humanitarian crises.
The implications of the Libyan conflict are not only felt nationally, but regionally as well. The instability in Libya has severely affected Tunisia’s economy. Moreover, this conflict has strained regional relations, as a number of African states are backing opposing sides. Sudan and Chad have played a role in supporting competing factions in Libya. Further exacerbating the conflict are the varying interests and involvement of foreign actors, this includes the air strikes conducted by the USA and Egypt. Egypt has aligned itself with General Haftar in an attempt to prevent the spill over of extremist’s attacks within its borders. Other countries which have emboldened the warring parties, include France, Russia, Italy and Saudi Arabia. Russia’s interests lie in projecting power in the region as well as in Libya’s oil. Similarly, Turkey’s interests are in Libya’s rich oilfields. Italy seeks to control the flow of migrants in the Mediterranean sea, brought about by the continued conflict in Libya and its porous borders, while France has an interest in maintaining its influence in the southern part of Libya as well as thwarting terrorist activities.
Despite military and economic involvement by international actors in the conflict, the international community did very little to support Libya’s post-conflict recovery. Consequently, efforts to build functioning political and administrative structures have faltered. The liberal approach to peacebuilding, this including instituting a transitional government and holding elections, failed to prevent a relapse into conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya. Moreover, the state-building approach, which entails establishing political and financial institutions before liberalising, may not produce the best results in Libya. Although this approach may suffice in addressing the various grievances of the people of Libya, it requires external assistance, which Libyans may perceive as the imposition of peace by external actors. The situation in Libya is extremely complicated as it encompasses a variety of both state and non-state actors, thus the signing of a permanent ceasefire may not have the desired effect on the ground. As past agreements have failed to hold, it is crucial that the international community play a supportive role, rather than a domineering and self-interested role.
The competing and conflicting interests of international actors are counterproductive to the achievement of peace. Judging by the missteps of previous ceasefires, the durability of the present ceasefire raises scepticism. For the ceasefire to hold, the political will of all the parties involved is necessary. The question is, does such political will, exist? Clearly there are high political, economic, diplomatic and geostrategic stakes in play and it would be naïve to think that any of the parties, domestic, regional and international, do not harbour such interests. The question remains whether these parties are willing to rise above their narrow and selfish interests and make compromises, and negotiate in good faith. The attainment of long-lasting peace requires not only the implementation of peace enforcement and peacebuilding mechanisms, but also a cohesive strategy which speaks to the collective interests of Libyan people. It is only with such a strategy that sustainable peace and development will be achieved and the broader security of Libya as well as the region may be realised.
Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and a final year student at the University of Pretoria, currently completing a degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.