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Is the Worst Over for Libya?

There are signs that a worst-case scenario has been avoided in Libya. 

The latest month-long round of inter-militia fighting south of Tripoli, which broke out on August 27 and left at least 115 people killed, had two remarkable effects. On the one hand, the level of violence, which the capital had not witnessed in four years, highlighted the persistent volatility of the security situation and, thereby, Libya’s unpreparedness to hold parliamentary and presidential elections by December 10 — as set out by the May 29 Paris declaration to which representatives of Libya’s main rival factions verbally agreed. On the other hand, the fighting provided an opening for the renegotiation of Tripoli’s security arrangements.

Following several unsuccessful attempts to create stability in a country marred by violence and fragmentation since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is entering a new transitional period. The characteristics of this period will become clearer over the coming year and will have effects on the country’s governance structures and security dynamics. Despite signs of persistent political fragmentation, entrenched disagreements between rivals and continued insecurity across the country, there have been positive developments over the past two years that can be built upon for a successful transition to peace.

Governance-Security Nexus

While Libya’s government structures are split between rival national-level sets of authorities, the most effective form of governance is often local. This is due to divisions along tribal, regional and ethnic lines as well as to the living memory of political rivalries and armed struggles since 2011. These factors, along with disagreements between international stakeholders on how to stabilize Libya, have undermined the UN-led efforts to reunify the country’s fragmented state institutions and end the turmoil.

There has been no shortage of international initiatives to broker a political settlement in Libya and bring about stability over the past 18 months. These have engaged national-level stakeholders, who mostly had limited influence over their constituencies and constrained capacity to change realities on the ground. This has undermined the effectiveness of those initiatives.

Moreover, political and security stabilization tracks cannot be separated from each other. In the absence of unified regular security forces and central authorities that Libyans across the country regard as legitimate, armed groups have significant influence over political institutions and figures, while political groups have their associated militias. Political fragmentation also provides an opening for a wide range of criminal and militant groups to flourish.

The international community’s efforts to broker reconciliation efforts in recent months have focused on the need for Libya to move on toward adopting a constitution and holding parliamentary and presidential elections as a step toward reunifying the country. The latest round of fighting in Tripoli further exposed the internationally recognized Government of National Accord’s (GNA) weaknesses and the need to transition to a new form of governance. As elections are unlikely to be held by the end of the year, there are growing signs of a potential reshuffle of the GNA’s Presidency Council over the coming months to allow a new body that better represents the Libyan stakeholders to oversee elections and efforts to reunify state institutions.

Building Blocks

Three major positive trends developed over the past two years and can serve as a foundation for the country’s stabilization.

First is the partial recovery of Libya’s oil production. In September 2016, the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) took over the Sirte Basin’s oil terminals, and production restarted in late 2016 at the southwestern Murzuq basin’s oilfields following the resolution of communal disputes. These two developments paved the way for a steep increase in Libya’s oil output, which reached 1.35 million barrels per day in October 2018 for the first time in five years.

This was only possible through a tacit agreement by which the LNA would guard the Sirte Basin’s export terminals and oilfields, which account for 80% of Libya’s oil reserves, while the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) continues to manage the sector. Accordingly, oil revenues would also flow into the Tripoli-based central bank. Despite recurrent disruption to oil production and tensions between rival authorities over the management of revenues, Libyan factions realized the benefits of cooperation to keep oil revenues — Libya’s principal source of income — flowing in.

Second, there are strong signs that designing a more efficient and sustainable security architecture is underway — though at a slow pace — and that Libya is highly unlikely to descend into another full-scale civil war comparable to that of 2014. The latest clashes south of Tripoli prompted the GNA to implement new security arrangements that consist of the withdrawal of Tripoli’s principal militias from protecting the capital’s vital infrastructure facilities (such as Mitiga airport, Tripoli’s port and government buildings) and handing them over to a police force. If the new arrangements are efficiently implemented, they would reduce security risks in the capital and diminish the likelihood of inter-militia fighting.

On the national level, there are signs that major armed groups lack the intent and capability to engage in large-scale fighting against each other. These groups are also deterred by their foreign allies from escalating hostilities to a level that would trigger another civil war.

Finally, there is a growing international momentum to find a sustainable solution to Libya’s turmoil. It is true that there are competing views between international stakeholders over how best to move forward. Different countries’ drivers vary between stemming the flow of illegal migration toward Europe, preventing the creation of a safe haven for Islamic State militants in Libya, reducing instability in the Sahel region and securing business deals in the oil and gas, power and reconstruction sectors.

However, there are signs of efforts aimed at reconciling the positions of international stakeholders regarding Libya. For example, France in recent weeks has become less insistent on the need for Libya to hold elections by the end of 2018, which brings it closer to Italy’s stance that advocates a more careful approach to Libya’s transition. Moreover, there is evidence that coordinated international action can have positive effects on the ground and produce more stability. For example, significant international pressure — including from the US — on the commander of the LNA, Khalifa Haftar, compelled him hand back the administration of the Sirte Basin’s oil ports to the internationally recognized NOC (after briefly transferring them in June 2018 to an unrecognized authority based in Benghazi), thereby resuming oil exports.

While Libya’s coming transition is likely to witness persistent political tensions, fragmentation and violence, the scenario of a full-scale civil war has most likely been avoided, and the country is presented with an opportunity to progress, albeit slowly, toward a more stable order.

*[Updated: November 5, 2018.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.