Libya in Turmoil
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

Nearly seven years after the revolution, Libya remains in the grip of civil war. The country’s ranking in terms of the UN Human Development Index has continued to fall from 43rd in pre-revolution period (2010) to 50th in the immediate post-revolution period (2012) and 102nd today. The country’s oil production has fallen from 1.7 million barrel before the revolution to less than 400,000 barrels per day last year. It has since recovered to nearly 1 million barrel per day, though the situation remains tenuous due to security concerns. The silver lining is that despite the country’s split in local fiefdoms, the sense of national identity remains strong.

Libya is located on Europe’s door-steps. It is used as a base for migrant flows from Africa into southern Italy. The fear of Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) establishing a base in Libya, as it retreated into Iraq, brought renewed western interest to the country. UAE and Egypt have been drawn into the civil war to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence. For the opposite reason, Qatar and Turkey have been supporting elements in western Libya, around Tripoli. The presence of external actors has further aggravated the political situation. Instability in the country, with sudden disruption in oil exports, also affects the world market at a time of a tightening supply situation.

The authority of the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj is limited to the western part of the country. It is not recognis

ed by the House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk. The Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Haftar is the most potent military force in the country. Based in the east, it is supported by Egypt and UAE. Russia and France have also established contact with LNA. It has steadily increased its hold to include the oil crescent around Sirte. Its forces have also reached the south. However, Misrata, Tripoli and western Libya remain outside its reach.

There have been different attempts at crafting a political consensus. The General National Congress (GNC) created post the revolution, refused to dissolve itself even after an elected HOR came into existence in 2014. The HOR had to be re-located to the east following attacks by Islamic groups. In December 2015, in a move backed by the EU, the Libyan Political Agreement was signed in Skhirat, Morocco. The agreement established the GNA, which held its first meeting in Tunisia. The structure of the government includes a Presidential Council and a High Council of State. Though this was endorsed by the UN Security Council, and the Prime Minister Fayez Serraj’s arrival in Tripoli was not met with any opposition, it is still not accepted by many stake-holders.

While GNA was to be the executive authority, HOR was to continue as the legislative authority. The HOR voted against the GNA headed by Faiz Serraj in the summer of 2016, undermining its authority. Since then the HOR’s mandate has also expired. It has established a government headed possibly by Abdullah al-Thani, which is not recognised by the international community. The HOR is allied with the Libyan National Army.

In a situation, where the government is not recognised by the legislature, and the alternate executive established by the HOR is not recognised by the international community, it is virtually impossible for a strong central government to take root. Various militias controlling different parts of Libya do not accept the authority of the LNA of General Haftar.

Paris Talks

A fresh attempt to reach political consensus was made by France. The Paris talks on 29th May, 2018 were held under the auspices of the UN and hosted by President Macron. Four Libyan actors attended the meet – Prime Minister Faiz Serraj, Speaker of the House of Representatives Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider, President of the High Council of State Khaled al-Mishri and General Khalifa Haftar of the LNA. They agreed to develop a constitutional basis for the elections, which are to be held by 10 December, 2018. The Paris Conference adopted a political declaration by the four Libyan parties. This referred to consultations of the Special Representative of the Secretary General with Libyan authorities ‘on a proposal and timeline for adopting the constitution’. The tentative language suggested that there was no consensus either on the constitution or the specific time-frame to adopt it. It did commit the parties to adopt the necessary electoral laws by September 16, 2018 and hold Parliamentary and Presidential elections on December 10, 2018.

Holding elections while simultaneously negotiating an agreement on the constitution, is a difficult task. There are two other tracks of negotiations. One is the reintegration of military forces. The lead here has been taken by Egypt-led security dialogue. Last but not the least, the need to reunify the financial institutions, including the Libyan Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation (NOC).

The Paris initiative was launched in parallel to the UN led process based on the UN Action Plan. France holds that its efforts are meant to reinforce, not supplant the UN efforts. The UN is focusing on a National Conference process with the organization of meetings in cities and towns, holding of municipal council elections and voter registration for the national election. While the UN’s approach is ‘bottoms-up’, the French initiative is seen as a ‘top-down’ approach. The Paris Agreement was endorsed by the UN Security Council through its Presidential Statement of 6th June, 2018. The statement reflects a delicate balancing act between different negotiating processes, while trying to preserve the primacy of the UN’s efforts. The 16-paragraph statement reaffirmed support to UN Action Plan. The political declaration adopted at the Paris Summit figured after the municipal elections in El- Zawia.

The Paris Conference took place against the background of advance by the LNA against Darnah, a city in the east held by the Mujahedeens. The city was declared liberated by General Haftar on 25th June. There were also attacks, and counter-attacks on Ras Lanuf and Sidra – two key ports in the east for oil export. The offensive against the oil facilities was launched by the former Petroleum Facilities Guard and the Benghazi Defence Brigades. The Libyan National Army succeeded in re-capturing the facilities on 21st June. Thereafter, General Haftar proceeded to hand over the facility to the parallel NOC set up in the east. This was restored to the Tripoli based NOC, only after the matter was referred to the Security Council. The episode highlighted the tenuous nature of the agreement reached in Paris about immediate unification of the Central Bank and the phasing out of parallel government and institutions.


What has kept the country together is shared oil wealth. The two functioning institutions of the State are the Libyan Central Bank and the NOC. Where oil accounts for 90 percent of the government revenue, there is bound to be a tussle for control of oil production and export. A separate Force was created to guard far-flung oil establishments. Called Oil Facilities Protection Force, its commander Jadran was a key figure in the power structure. As the LNA expanded westward, it took over control of the Oil Crescent in Central Libya. This included the prolific Sirte basin and the areas around it. It has also taken control of the Oil Facilities Protection Force, displacing Jadran. The civil war resulted in sharp drop of Libyan oil production and exports. Before the revolution, the Libyan oil production was 1.7 million barrels per day. By 2015, it had dropped below 4 million barrels per day. In fact, for two years – 2015 and 2016, it remained around 3,70,000 barrels per day. This sharp reduction in volume also coincided with a steep fall in oil price, compounding the negative effect on the government revenue. It has since recovered to around 9,00,000 barrels per day. But the production, and export, can vary sharply depending upon the fluctuations of war.

The increased production this year has coincided with surge in oil prices, as President Trump announced US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. This has improved the government’s finances. But there remains uncertainty with the creation of parallel Central Bank and National Oil Company in the east. The report of the UN Secretary General for August 2018 cited the report of the State Audit Bureau released on 23rd May. The report estimated that the public expenditure reached $ 202 billion during the last 5 years between 2012 and 2017. During the same period, public debt reached $ 42 billion. This is amazing in a country with a tiny population and enormous oil wealth, which has not seen any development work since the revolution. Admittedly, this period included two lean years – 2015 and 2016, when sharp drop in oil prices was compounded by fall in volume. But it also included the fat years – 2012 to 2014, when the oil price was above $ 100 per barrel. The report also mentioned that ‘the increase in public revenue in 2017 had not translated into an improved economic situation.’ The audit report contained allegations of corruption and mismanagement and created unrest.


Libya was on the migration trail from Africa to Europe even during the Gaddafi days. The traffic picked up in the chaos of post revolution Libya. This has unsettled the EU, which initiated a series of measures, including interception at sea and holding people in detention centers in Libya. However, according to the spokesman of the International Organisation of Migrants (IOM), ‘this interception or, as some see it, rescue operation, has been so successful that the number of migrants placed in official detention centers has nearly doubled from 5,500 to 9,300 between 2017 and 2018.

ISIS, Al Qaeda and Jihadist groups

The eastern region was a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism even during the Gaddafi’s days. A number of Libyan and foreign fighters arrived from Syria in 2014. This raised concern about growth of ISIS elements, which reached a peak of 6,000 personnel across the country (Source: CRS report Libya Transition and US Policy, May 2018). As they tried to move eastward, and take control of vital oil and water infrastructure in the oil crescent around Sirte, they were confronted by pro-GNA forces from Misrata. These forces were aided by US airstrikes dubbed Operation Odyssey (Source: CRS report Libya Transition and US Policy, May 2018). Their strength has been degraded, and they no longer represent a nation-wide threat, though they retain local presence in some pockets. However, Jihadist elements have substantial presence in the east, including Darnah, where they battled Haftar’s LNA.

Humanitarian Intervention

Libya’s travails are also a reflection on the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which provided the ideological justification for NATO intervention in the country. President Obama in his interview to Atlantic magazine in 2016 criticized the failure of UK and France to stay the course. He said: ‘When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.’ (Source: The Atlantic, Press Releases, March 10, 2016). Obama’s comments brought angry rebuttal from the two US allies. But it is a telling commentary on a reckless intervention, whose consequences are felt by the Libyan people to-date. Europe and America did not escape the after-effect. The US Ambassador Stevenson paid with his life in an attack by the Islamic forces in the city the western intervention had saved from Gaddafi’s retribution.

The Arab Spring had produced regime change in Tunisia and Egypt. While they have found a modicum of stability, Libya continues to be in turmoil. Unlike the other two, the revolution in Libya was not the result of economic discontent. Libya’s riches, and its proximity to Europe, has ensured international interest. This has also been its bane.

(The author is a former Indian Ambassador to Libya from 2003 to 2007)

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