Libya, a country in North Africa bordered by Egypt to the east and Sudan in the southeast with its capital Tripoli has been under conflict since 2011. The Arab Spring protests of 2011 led to a civil war in the country and the overthrow of Gaddafi, an authoritarian politician at the time. The NATO-led operation accounted for Gaddafi’s death and the beginning of unrest and turmoil in Libya.
The country rests on top of the third-largest oil reserves in Africa. Much of the country’s economy depends on the oil production industry, which also attracts much attention from the international community. In January 2020, a blockade of terminals and closure of pipelines imposed by a rebel group in Tripoli saw a 75% reduction in oil production, which proved devastating for its economy.
Since 2012, a new interim government has been governing Libya, namely the Government of National Accord (GNA). The United Nations Security Council had recognized the GNA after forming the General National Congress in a democratic election in 2012. Later, in 2015, the Libyan Political Agreement placed the GNA in power in Libya. Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj heads the government with 17 other ministers in the cabinet.
However, in 2016, they were voted out of favor by their rivals, the Libyan House of Representatives or the HoR. This would result in a period of uncertainty with the country staying divided into political and ideological fronts. The HoR became a legislative body, replacing the GNC and refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy. However, a Tripoli-based Supreme Court declared the 2014 elections unconstitutional and therefore called for the HoR to be dissolved.
Another player in the Libyan conflicts is the Libyan National Army (LNA) presided over by Khalifa Haftar. Haftar served in the Libyan Army under Gaddafi and was part of the coup, which brought Gaddafi to power. And yet, he was also a notable member of the 2011 initiative, which led to the end of Gaddafi’s regime. He launched a campaign against the GNC, garnering the support of the House of Representatives. Haftar is reportedly an anti-Islamist, believing in a secular form of government, and he has garnered a following of militia in his LNA.
The Libyan conflict has other players on the field, including several Islamist militia groups active in Tripoli and supporting the GNA and foreign powers, including Turkey, Italy, and Qatar. Khalifa Haftar has garnered support from Russia, Egypt, France, and the UAE. It is backed by the HoR and receives Russian mercenaries as well as firearms. The GNA being the officially recognized government of the country has the official military at its disposal along with some militia groups.
In an arena such as this, the fight for legitimacy ceases to be black and white. It is difficult to objectively state who has the authority to exercise power in the country. Since several powerful foreign states recognize both the GNA and Haftar’s Libya National Army, this recognition cannot be the basis for their legitimacy. It is apparent that GNA, in this case, has the upper hand due to its recognition as the official government of Libya by the United Nations.
And while the United States has not picked a side, many presume it will follow in the UN’s footsteps. The Libyan conflict has proven to be quite a tricky field for the US, due to Haftar being a US ally in the past. However, his progression towards authoritarian tendencies and the inability to be flexible mean that the patience of his supporters will be short-lived. Haftar’s refusal to talk to his rival has invoked the annoyance of his ally: Egypt.
The entrance of foreign states in Libyan matters is a topic of concern since the goodwill of the Libyan people would not be an actor’s primary motive for interference. The two local contenders, namely the GNA and LNA, must settle their disputes, with Libyan interests at the forefront. The GNA can be safely assumed to be the legitimate authority in the region, not only due to its recognition by the UN but also because it was brought into power by democratic elections in 2012. It was Haftar who later boycotted the GNC and unjustly refused to acknowledge the government. The GNA also continues to ensure peace as Haftar repeatedly endangers civilians and imposes oil blockages that threaten Libya’s economy.
Harchaoui from the Netherlands Institute of International Relations states that “Russia is interested in any mechanism that allows it to undermine NATO and promote disunity within European bloc…Libya is perfect.” On the other hand, Turkey has started to engage in diplomatic activities to establish a cease-fire and acquire its share of returns from its military investments in Libya. It showed that even with misaligned intentions, the common goal of democracy might be achievable in the country.