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Libyans increasingly frustrated with a country in turmoil

July 8, 2022

Recently Libyans have been demonstrating against their leaders, arguing politicians are more concerned with their own needs than the country’s. They also see foreign interference from the likes of Russia as a burden.

Protest in Libyen
A July 1 protest in central Tripoli, LibyaImage: Hazem Ahmed/REUTERS

Burning tires, calls for elections, a better electricity grid and demands to lower the price of bread — Libyans are deeply dissatisfied with how things are going in their country.

Last weekend, many took to the streets to express their anger at the country's leaders, urging them to do a better job and fulfill citizens' needs. While some voiced their grievances peacefully, protesting in the capital Tripoli, protesters in Tobruk — Libya's rival power center — set fire to the local parliament building. Footage of the scenes shows a bulldozer ramming the building's entrance.

While protests have since simmered down, it is not unlikely they could pick up once more, and possibly even become more intense. The UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, implored all to exercise restraint. She has called the storming of Tobruk parliament "unacceptable."

Tobruk parliament building set on fire
Tobruk's parliament building was set on fire Image: REUTERS

Williams said the protests should compel Libyan lawmakers to overcome their differences and pave the way for fresh elections.

Failed state

Above all, Libyan protesters want to see their country peaceful and reunified, a process that has stalled for years, said Thomas Claes of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation. "The elections failed because of political opportunism; a range of political actors held into their power, trying to stop them."

Many politicians prioritize their own interests. This has far-reaching consequences for people in Libya. Even though their country is technically a wealthy, oil-rich state, ordinary life in Libya suggests otherwise.

Long lines of cars waiting to get petrol at gas stations are common, the Libyan dinar has been in decline, and the cost of food is rising. State-run infrastructure is dilapidated, Libya's water network and energy grid does not function properly.

"Instead, militias are in charge, who have developed mafia-like structures," said Claes. "They have captured certain state sectors and are now trying to siphon off as much money as possible."

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah — one of Libya's two rival prime ministers — has attempted to restore calm. "If elections take place, we will hand back power afterwards," he said on Monday. Initially, however, he was only supposed to remain in office until December 2021, when elections were to be held.

Fathi Bashagha — Dbeibah's political adversary — was named Prime Minister of Tobruk's parliament in February. His political legitimacy is also questionable.

Violent clashes between supporters of Dbeibah and Bashagha have erupted numerous times. After a failed coup attempt in May, heavy fighting broke out in Tripoli. The unrest was sparked when Bashagha attempted to oust Dbeibah by force.

"Now, instead of progressing towards a legitimate government that can finally stabilize the country, Libyans are once again hostages to a showdown between two self-serving centres of power," Libya analyst Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote earlier this year.

International actors want their piece of the pie

This volatile situation is exacerbated by foreign actors pursuing their respective national interests in Libya.

Regional powers like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are interfering in the country, trying to achieve their own economic, security and power gains. So, too, are the US, France and Italy along with Turkey and Russia. Some western nations fear that if Bashagha cements his hold on power, Russia's influence could grow in Liya. Others, in turn, worry that Dbeibah will allow Islamist forces to gain traction.

Forces loyal to Dbeibah in Tripolis
Forces loyal to Dbeibah in TripolisImage: Yousef Murad/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Thanks to international assistance, a ceasefire was agreed in 2020, which has been honored, despite occasional setbacks and escalations. National and international actors are keen to avoid hostilities, finds a study by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. It warns, however, that political tensions resulting from war in Ukraine could worsen the situation in Libya.

Worrying Russian involvement

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has changed how the western world views the Libya. Many are troubled by the presence of Russia's Wagner mercenary group in the country. Even though the company has sent some of its fighters to Ukraine, about 1,000 are thought to remain in Libya.

"They are mainly stationed around strategic oil infrastructure such as oil fields and refineries," said Claes. "This means they have direct access to oil production."

An oil and gas platform off the coast of Libya
An oil and gas platform off the coast of LibyaImage: Antonio Sempere/Europa Press/abaca/picture alliance

Oil production has plummeted in recent weeks. It is unclear whether this is Russia's fault or if Libyan actors are to blame. Reducing oil production allows allies of the Tobruk-based government to exert pressure on the central government in Tripoli, said Claes, adding that "the less oil produced in Libya, the less ends up in Europe, which could also worsen Europe's energy crisis."

The Wagner Group may seek to expand its influence in Libya beyond the oil sector. "European capitals fear that growing confrontation with Russia could lead Moscow to use Wagner to make trouble in Libya, on NATO's southern flank,"  Crisis Group wrote recently.

Such instability could cause a migration flow, the think tank argued, thus presenting Europe with yet another challenge.

This article was originally published in German. 


Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East