Libya: Back to square one? B. Mikail

By Barah Mikail, Associate professor, Saint Louis University, Madrid, Spain

Libya keeps garnering a lot of interest from countries and observers. But it is this same interest that tends to complicate things. This generally makes it easy for Libyans to complain about the responsibility of others, while part of their situation also has to do with themselves.

In June 2019, a delegation of politicians, journalists and experts from various European countries visited Tripoli, Libya. The trip was organized by ICRD in cooperation with the Institute for European Security and Prospective. It was an opportunity for the delegation to meet with Libyan mayors, members of political parties, members of Civil Society Organizations and key political and institutional figures. Among these, Prime minister Fayez Sarraj, Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame, and Head of the High State Council Khaled Al-Mishri.

Visiting Tripoli in the context of war that prevails between the West-based militias that belong to the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the East-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has to be done when possible. But this does not necessarily give an exact idea of what is going on in the whole country, especially since the Libyan society is polarized.

At the same time, meeting with persons based in the West, listening to their claims, and observing life and the way it goes on a day-to-day basis, gives indications about how things are going on their side. And there are here important differences between the image that is conveyed generally by media, and where things really stand.

Tripoli is safer than what you would think

There is no question that Libya is in a situation of war. Early April 2019, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar initiated hostilities by launching an offensive on Tripoli, with the objective of taking the capital.

Rumors about this offensive had been around for almost a year, but nobody knew if or when they would translate into deeds. Prior to it, Khalifa Haftar had his troops allegedly taking control of the Southern region of the Fezzan. In parallel, he had asked leaders of some West-based militias to help him take over Tripoli, by either keeping neutral or by combating with him. Some promised to do, but they ended up backing the GNA.

The media tends to portray Tripoli as a war zone where chaos and fear would be prevailing. The reality is slightly different. The GNA and the LNA are seriously at war, and they engage combats. But the military struggle is concentrated in the Southern and the Eastern outskirts of Tripoli, with limited numbers of troops engaged on each side. Broadly speaking, fights are concentrated around the capital’s international airport, at Tripoli’s Southern administrative limits, as well as in and around Tarhouna, Gharyan, and some surrounding regions.

An average 600 persons died since Khalifa Haftar started the Tripoli offensive in April 2019. Around 50 of them are civilians; more than 3 000 have been wounded; but equally worrying is the number of displaced persons for the current conflict, a total of around 90,000.

All of this is serious. But it does not have much to do with the apocalyptical situation that many, starting with Tripoli-based people, portray.

France is way less popular than what you would think

The overthrowing of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi end of 2011 was good news; but Libyans have suffered tremendously since then. Initial hopes were high regarding the way forward to opening a new phase in Libya. Eight years later, war still prevails.

None of the events that unfolded since 2011 can be read separately from foreign interference, starting with the overthrowing of Moammar Gaddafi. A coalition of close to 20 states working with and/or gathered under NATO’s umbrella allowed it. Among these: the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and France.

Libyans may have taken distance or changed their mind regarding their views on these states. But the resentment of the Libyans of the West against the states that are backing Khalifa Haftar today is clear. Next to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France are subject to public scorn.

The four countries are backers of Khalifa Haftar, each its own way. But while the first three do so without ambiguity, France happens to be a support for both Khalifa Haftar and the “internationally recognized government” of Fayez Sarraj. Libyans of the West reject this contradiction.

Many of them consider that any backer of Khalifa Haftar is a traitor that deserves punishment. They see in the death of French Special Forces in Libya in 2016, and in the arrest of alleged French spies at the border with Tunisia in April 2019, the unacceptable expression of an abusive French attitude toward their country. France is definitely not welcome in Western Libya; French are subject to strong criticism, and even rejection. This is an expected consequence for France’s ambiguous stance towards Libya.

Why did we reach the opposite of what we wanted?

The common belief is that Libya would have evolved more peacefully if it had been preserved from foreign interferences. This has yet to be proven. External involvement came together with the political void that followed the fall of Moammar Gaddafi. It is hard to say to what extent Libyans would have agreed peacefully on a political project even if they had been preserved from foreign interference.

We generally tend to think generally that foreign meddling imposes itself on countries. But Libya’s reality is the opposite. Khalifa Haftar depends on strong external backers as a matter of political survival; but it is his choice. Likewise, Fayez Sarraj inherited a situation that preceded his arrival to power in 2016. Back in 2011, Qatar and Turkey were strong backers of actors that would end up supporting Libya’s first government (2011-2012), and the General National Congress (2012-2016). He is as dependent on foreign funders and weapons suppliers as Khalifa Haftar is.

Furthermore, the militias that are backing the Tripoli-based Prime Minister do so because they reject Khalifa Haftar, not because they accept Fayez Sarraj. The day the conflict ends, it won’t be long before inter-militia divergences come back.

About the future and what we can think

In this context, could there be any positive future for Libya? Maybe not for the foreseeable future. The country is living a low-intensity conflict that is roughly limited to Tripoli’s eastern and southern suburbs. Unless actors get access to stronger armament and military technology, the stalemate will prevail.

What we can expect is that actors go back to the lines of division that had prevailed up to January 2019, before Khalifa Haftar entered southern Libya. Those lines only would be acceptable by both sides, because they would give the impression that none of them has suffered serious geographical losses. Holding their heads high would also get protagonists to eventually agree on opening a political track more easily.

The problem is that none of the Libyan protagonists will agree to speak to each other anytime soon. From what he said to the delegation that visited him in Tripoli, Fayez Sarraj even plans to launch these days a political initiative that does not include Khalifa Haftar. But by choosing his partners, the Libyan Prime minister will not change the reality of things. Unless people in Cyrenaica rise up against Khalifa Haftar, he will remain the strongman of Libya’s eastern part.

In other words, we are going back to square one, slowly but surely. The international community’s divisions keep the origin for Libya’s main troubles. And it will be very long before Libyans stop paying the price for both an international wicked game and the incapacity of their political leaders to look beyond their narrow interests.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Barah Mikali (2019). “Libya: Back to square one?”, Observatory on contemporary crises, June 14, 2019, URL: