Country Profile: Libya

Almost any Libyan can tell you the story of a relative or friend imprisoned, tortured, exiled or simply disappeared. Zoe Holman profiles this complex country. 

It is sometimes joked that, of the multiple governments now staking a claim to rule in Libya, some exist purely on Facebook. Indeed, between a UN-backed Presidential Council, a rival House of Representatives, a self-declared prime minister and an army commander with aspirations to power, it can be difficult to discern any coherent source of national authority in Libya. Today’s political disintegration could not come as more of a contrast to recent history, when the country was ruled by the Arab world’s longest-standing, most totalitarian leader.

Libya’s current atomization has its roots in 2011 with the overthrow of its flamboyant dictator Colonel Muammar Qadafi. Almost 60 years after Libya’s 1951 constitution was enacted – the only document enshrining citizens’ rights since the country was created in 1911 – the man most responsible for its violation was pulled from a drainpipe in the city of Sirte and shot. His body was then displayed to the public from an industrial freezer for three days, ‘to make sure everybody knows he’s dead’.

The manner of Qadafi’s demise testified to the popular fear and animosity he instilled throughout his four decades of rule. Almost any Libyan can tell you the story of a relative or friend imprisoned, tortured, exiled or simply disappeared on his brutal watch. When the regime was finally challenged by a mass uprising during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Qadafi declared a ‘rat hunt’ to purge his opponents ‘alley by alley’.

European powers were quick to mobilize a NATO intervention, led by France and Britain, claiming a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ given the risk of mass slaughter. The ensuing UN-backed military operation was framed by some as a revised model for intervention in the post-Iraq era. But, having prematurely claimed victory, the West has since largely abandoned Libya to bloody chaos.

The immediate post-revolution years were marred by violence and instability, as new powers grappled to establish political consensus under the governing General National Congress (GNC). Then, in 2014, a former Qadafi general, Khalifa Hafter, returned to the country to declare a coup, claiming the GNC had been infiltrated by Islamists and terrorists. In the armed confrontation that followed, Hafter’s so-called ‘Libyan National Army’ laid claim to a number of cities, including Benghazi.

Since then, two rival governments have emerged and eclipsed the GNC. In Tripoli, the Presidential Council, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, was established in 2015 under a UN-brokered political agreement that sought unsuccessfully to unite Libya’s rival institutions in a ‘Government of National Accord’. The Tubruq-based House of Representatives, backed by Hafter, has meanwhile refused to endorse the Presidential Council, scuppering any efforts to convene elections.

Meanwhile, an array of military actors scramble for influence across the country, including armed militias, tribal authorities, ‘city-states’ and Islamist extremists. Among these, ISIS held sway over large tracts until its stronghold in Sirte fell in 2011, but Libya has still seen the fourth-largest influx of foreign fighters in global jihadist history.

The chaos has also provided fertile ground for the exploitation of migrants who continue to arrive, seeing it as a gateway from Africa to Europe. Latest estimates suggest almost 350,000 migrants are now in Libya, alongside an internally displaced population of some 200,000. They risk all kinds of abuses, including imprisonment, kidnap, torture and even a nascent slave trade. Wary of safeguarding their own shores, EU leaders have again turned to Libya for ‘co-operation’ – in the form of a $250-million assistance package on migration matters – despite the government’s negligence, or even active complicity, in these abuses.

Zoe Holman