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Libyen Sirte Kampf gegen IS
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/M. Brabo

Libya sinks into chaos

Matthias von Hein
October 20, 2016

Five years after the death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya is highly fragmented and on the brink of anarchy. Mattia Toaldo, Libya expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations, explains the situation to DW.


Mattia Toaldo: There are hundreds of different armed groups and at least five or six different centers of power in Libya. One major power is the government of General Khalifa Haftar, it is in the east of Libya but moving westward. In Tripoli there are two governments: One is unrecognized as such and currently holds just one building, but it still calls itself a government. The other is the internationally recognized government of Fayez al-Sarraj. There are lots of groups calling themselves governments in Libya, but none actually does the things that a government must do, such as: managing a budget, maintaining an army, issuing passports, and so on.

DW: How much is outside interference to blame for the fragmentation of Libya?

It is probably one of the main causes of the country's fragmentation and the anarchy that followed the fall of Gadhafi. Even the operation that removed Gadhafi from power, which is usually thought to have been purely a NATO operation, was in fact, also an Arab League operation in which the United Arab Emirates and Qatar each played important roles. And each of those countries had allies in Libya to whom they delivered weapons. Today's main coalitions are the ones that were created back in 2011: Those that were supported by the UAE are now mostly loyal to general Haftar in the east, and those who were supported by Qatar and Turkey are now mostly located in the west

What is the sentiment in Libya itself? AFP has reported that people actually look back fondly on the Gadhafi years.

Porträt - Mattia Toaldo
Mattia Toaldo, Libya expert with the European Council on Foreign RelationsImage: privat

I don't like generalizations. And I think it would be a generalization to say that Libyans long for the days of Gadhafi. There are also no real means to gauge public opinion in Libya right now because of the conflict. It is certainly true, however, that everyday life has gotten worse for most Libyans. There are very frequent power cuts. There were 109 kidnappings in Tripoli just in the past month. Cash is in short supply and very difficult to get. Most Libyans spend their days lined up in front of banks from which they can only get a handful of euros. So daily life has gotten worse, security has gotten worse, the economy has gotten worse - but still, many of the root causes for this anarchy stem from the Gadhafi years.

With Libya so unstable, is it exporting violence to its already volatile neighbors?

The export of violence from Libya started in 2011. The flow of weapons out of Libya was one the causes of the conflict in Mali. And it has fueled insurgency all over the Sahel. But the opposite is also true: Libya, because of its vast ungoverned spaces, has imported violent people and jihadists from around the region. ISIS, which has now been all but defeated in Libya, was comprised mostly of foreigners coming from the rest of North and West Africa. So the instability is now moving both ways.

A lot of other jihadist groups are active in Libya besides ISIS, sometimes in coalition with other forces. How difficult is it to find political figures and groups that can be trusted enough to work toward establishing some sort of unified government?

There are several jihadist groups in Libya. It should be remembered that the country was a hotbed for jihadism even under Gadhafi. And that it was he that released a number of the jihadi leaders active in Libya today from prison in 2009. On the other hand, there are a lot of other armed groups, all with varying degrees of Islamist conviction. But most armed groups don't have an agenda at all, beyond personal power and wealth for their members. Others are the expression of local communities. So you have militias from the city of Misrata, for instance, which answer to the city and in some cases even individual neighborhoods. Similar circumstances exist elsewhere in Libya.

Is there a way out of the current stalemate?

One possible way out was charted in December of last year, when several factions signed an agreement brokered by the UN. It is known as the Skhirat agreement, named for the Moroccan city in which it was signed. It created a Government of National Accord. This "GNA," however, never really worked. And now it is simply one of the governments in Tripoli. Strengthening that government has been a challenge because regional powers have supported its opponents, and because GNA members have exhibited incompetence in managing Libya's public services and economy. The GNA has also proven ineffective in bringing about reconciliation between the different warring factions.

Was this present mess foreseeable in March 2011?

It is often said in the West, for instance in a recent report by the British parliament, that more planning should have been done for the post-conflict situation. That is true. But we should also bear in mind that throughout 2011, the leadership of the revolt against Gadhafi kept pushing back at any Western attempts to intervene in the transition - to offer security help and so on. The message was: We can do it by ourselves. And the West, of course, was happy to hear that answer. The failure of Iraq was still fresh in our minds, and there was no appetite in Europe or the US to put boots on the ground in Libya.


Mattia Toaldo is the Libya expert for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This interview was conducted by Matthias von Hein.



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