Is Libya A De Facto Failed State? – Analysis


In 2011 when Gaddafi was killed by the mob or the militias, everybody believed that it was a new beginning for the country: a free and democratic Libya. In the aftermath, Libya did not become free and was not democratic, in the least. Instead, it became fractured, violent, tribal, patriarchal and divided. Rather than starting a new chapter and a new life, Libya, alas, was sliding slowly but surely into a tenebrous abyss resembling some sort of a hell or purgatory chamber.

United Nations Support Mission in Libya
United Nations Support Mission in Libya

Over the years, as violence became a daily casual occurrence, Libya almost became synonymous of disorder and dissonance in the news and the views and there were even thoughts that it is on its way to become a sister country of God-forsaken Somalia. However, hope emerged anew with the United Nations attempt to negotiate a national agreement through UNMSIL (United Nations support Mission in Libya).

In its Resolution 2144 (14 March 2014), article 6,i the Security Council tasked the Mission, in full accordance with the principles of national ownership, to support Libyan government efforts to:

a – Ensure the transition to democracy;

b – Promote the rule of law and monitor and protect human rights, in accordance with Libya’s international legal obligations;

c – Control unsecured arms and related materiel in Libya and counter their proliferation; and

d – Build governance capacity.

Glimmer Of Hope, But

On December 17, 2015, the different protagonists of the Libyan crisis reached a historic agreement in the Moroccan city of Skhirate south of the capital Rabat, under the active leadership of UNMSIL, but that did not mean, in the least, the end of turmoil in Libya because there are a lot of splinter groups that were not part and parcel of this accord and that have the means and the will to stand on the way of peace. Besides, there is the lethal ISIS, that is present through proxy organizations all over the country, ready to step into deadly action, and for which such an agreement means nothing.

Martin Kobler, The Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN and Head of UNMSIL Mission made it quite clear in his statement after the signature of the accord:ii

“We must not forget that this is the beginning of a difficult journey. There is a critical need for national reconciliation and an inclusive national security dialogue. Urgent solutions must be found to bolster the Libyan-led fight against terrorism and in particular the threat of Daesh. The dire humanitarian situation in Benghazi and other areas needs to be addressed as a matter of highest priority, including through the establishment of a dedicated reconstruction fund for Benghazi. The concerns of the Eastern and Southern constituencies should be brought to the forefront. This work must start immediately. The signing of the Libyan Political Agreement is the first step on the path of building a democratic Libyan state based on the principles of human rights and the rule of law.”

And no sooner that this agreement was concluded by the main warring factions that the “no, no” answer came from either the marginal groups not invited or the trouble maker ISIS, itself. Indeed, on January 7, 2016 a truck bomb was detonated outside of a police training center in the western city of Zliten, leaving 65 people dead, the worst bomb attack in years. No group claimed this deadly attack, but the message was crystal clear: peace is not for tomorrow.

This, however, entails two possible explanations, at the outset:

  1. Tribal tug: the several armed groups that represent the various tribes of the country care less about national union because they would lose power and consequent wealth in favor of the federal government and, as a result, would become insignificant and die out, in the long run, and that is not an acceptable solution for them and they would surely resist it as long as Libya is in chaos and they bear arms; and
  2. Caliphate solution: many hard core Islamists believe strongly that if strict and radical Islam is made to prevail in the Muslim world through the re-islamization of the society and the countering of Western influence, it would be made to become an important contender and player on the international scene and, consequently, regain the prominence it had in the Golden Age. As such, it must be made clear that any UN-brokered accord is a Western-imposed subterfuge to halt the inexorable advance of the glorious Islam of such people.

The Dangers Lurking In The Dark

Since the time of the Ottoman Empire, Libya was always ruled by a heavily-centralized government that delegated minimal power to the regions and this insured peace and stability to the people and continuity for the state. Tribes existed, but had only a honorific role and a cultural existence, no more. They were used, at times, as auxiliaries to strengthen the power of the state and, in return, they were given rentier privileges as gratification.

Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt
Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt

When Colonel Gaddafi toppled King Idris Senusi in 1979, in the name of the revolution, he consolidated further the state and made it all-prominent. In return, he subdued the population through direct generous cash handouts and a wide array of rentier privileges. The population did not have to work, in the least, and if they did they held senior positions that did not require much effort. This way Gaddafi guaranteed himself total control of the state and the revolutionary legitimacy to get rid of the recalcitrant individuals or groups, which he did at will.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the ensuing uprising of the Cyrenaica region against the rule of the dictator Gaddafi, NATO decided to side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi to topple him. However, NATO directed the war operations from the skies and never fielded any foot soldiers to mop up the floor. In an article in Foreign Policy, Ethan Chorin,iii argues just that:

“The current situation in Libya is the product of a series of significant mistakes, erroneous assumptions, and myths that date back to NATO intervention in 2011.The United States and its NATO allies made a fundamental mistake in not imposing a robust reconstruction plan on Libya and stabilizing the country before radicalism was able to flourish. Even U.S. President Barack Obama understands that this was a mistake: In an interview last year with the New York Times, he cited lack of a plan for “the day after Qaddafi is gone” as potentially one of his biggest foreign-policy regrets. (The Libyans, of course, share much of the blame too.)”

As Gaddafi’s forces started withdrawing from various regions, religious and tribal groups moved in and helped themselves to the huge arsenal left behind and with that came the temptation to rule and have access to a share of the oil cake. At the fall of the dictator in October 2011, there were over 300 armed groups, all dreaming of leadership and control.

Tribal-Religious Instincts

On May 2014, the, then, retired General Haftar, armed with US benediction and support from Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia led an army from the east with the objective to rid the country from the powerful Islamist groups strong in the west. His movement was dubbed: Operation Dignity. In spite of a few limited successes, his secular-oriented movement soon faltered miserably.

In reaction to the establishment of this front, the Islamists, supported by Turkey and Qatar, put together their own front bearing the name of Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) on July 13, 2014.iv The declared aim of this front was to correct the direction of the revolution and set up a stable government, the undeclared objective is to turn Libya in an Islamist country.

The front, in principle, was made of a myriad of Islamist militias all dreaming of power and wealth and on top of that religious consecration:

  • Libyan Shield Militia of Misrata with links with the Ikhwane (brotherhood);
  • The Tripoli Brigade of the famous Islamist leader Belhaj, who opposed openly Gaddafi, in his lifetime;
  • The Libya Revolutionaries Operation Room; and
  • The Brotherhood.

The Fajr Libya front was, in addition, allied to a large group of heavily armed brigades that each controlled one tribe or region of the country reflecting the disintegration of Libya in small kinglets reminiscent of the taifas in Arab Spain starting in 1009 and lasting until 1287.v

During the Barbary Coast era, that lasted from the 16th to the 19th century, North Africa developed a taste for piracy, under the religious justification of jihad al-bahr (sea jihad) that protected dar al-slam (the land of Islam) from the onslaught of dar al-kufr (the land of the infidels), especially after the fall of Grenada in 1492 and the ensuing Reconquista. It was very much an easy gain of goods and slaves.

Today, the tribal piracy instinct seems strong, yet again, for various reasons, mainly affirmation of tribal undemocratic and patriarchal power under the cover of Islam, the ability to dispose of the riches of the country directly by selling oil and benefiting from its revenues without having to pay any taxes to a central government, undertaking contraband commerce and, most importantly, organizing immigration traffic to Europe, unhindered.

For the above-mentioned reasons, many of these groups and the warlords of Libya would see a Libyan national reconciliation as a threat to their unlimited power and lucrative business and are certainly behind the terrorist attack, one way or the other, that took place in Zliten on on January 7, 2016, in the aftermath of the Skhirate Libyan accord of December17, 2015, to send a clear message to the Libyan politicians of Skhirate that their political agreement will not go further than the Moroccan city where it was signed.

ISIS, before its military decline, needed Libya badly for its operations in North Africa: to spread its paramilitary brigades and organize its terrorist networks and, most importantly, prepare its political pawns to take over power, after the chaos.

Taking control of North Africa, which is the soft belly of Europe, would amount to getting ready to recuperate, by terror and force, al-Andalus from the Catholic Christians of Spain, according to the political message in the literature of this terrorist organization.

In an article published in the New York Times in 2014,vi David D. Kirkpatrick argued that “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War” and he was dead right the civil war is still raging on and the end of turmoil is not at hand, on the contrary it is pushing the country to become a failed state, very much like Somalia.

“Until now, a rough balance of power among local brigades had preserved a kind of equilibrium, if not stability. Although the transitional government scarcely existed outside of the luxury hotels where its officials gathered, no other force was strong enough to dominate. No single interest divided the competing cities and factions. But that semblance of unity is now in tatters, and with it the hope that nonviolent negotiations might settle the competition for power and, implicitly, Libya’s oil.”

Today, in 2017 the state of Libya has not changed a bit, everyone is fighting everyone and no group wants to make concessions for the sake of stability of the country. It seems that the belligerents are thinking more in terms of tribal identity and allegiance than in terms of a nation-state, if it has ever existed in the Libyan psyche at all.

Islamic State's Five-Year Plan
Islamic State’s Five-Year Plan. Map of part of the world, according to ISIS.

In the same article of Foreign Policy, mentioned here above, Ethan Chorin puts his finger on the reasons why Libya is not finding the peace most of its people and politicians want:vii

“Over the last four years, Libya has become a key node in the expansion of Islamic radicalism across North Africa, West Africa, and the Sahel, and into Europe. Arms and fighters have crossed Libya’s porous borders, feeding radical organizations from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to Boko Haram and reinforcing radical trends in the heart of the Middle East. If events in Libya continue on their current path, they will likely haunt the United States and its Western allies for a decade or more.”

What Is Next Now?

If Libya is not pacified in the near future, the whole world will regret it, at some point later on, as it is regretting today that NATO did not disembark from its airplanes to cleanse the country from extremists, once for all.

Pacifying Libya will help undoubtedly fight religious radicalism in West Africa and cut the lifeline of the lethal Boko Haram, active in the whole of West Africa, as well as, al-Qaeda in the Muslim West that is threatening stability of the Sahel countries like Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Now, the following actions must be implemented, at once, to insure peace for Libya and stability for the rest of the world:

  1. Transform UNMSIL into a peace-keeping force besides what it is:
    This peace-keeping force must be of, at least, 10,000 elite soldiers with heavy equipment and NATO air support to undertake the pacification of the country, with obviously the help of government forces sympathetic to the Skhirate accord. This much wanted peace-keeping force could be made of the following countries: Spain, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Senegal;
  2. Disarm militias: Disarm all paramilitary groups by persuasion, incentive or sheer force and make, by law, bearing arms strictly illegal;
  3. Train a national army and a police force: Offer the militias the possibility to integrate the army and police force and be under the rule of law;
  4. Undertake a cultural study: There is an urgent necessity to understand the social and cultural make-up of the Libyan society. The Amazigh and Tuareg people must be granted unconditionally their cultural rights;
  5. Adopt a federal system of government: Probably the best government system that could befit the numerous needs and the varied wishes and hopes of the Libyan population in political, cultural and religious terms is undeniably the federal system, with which tribal groupings, cultural minorities and religious lodges can, eventually, all identify; and
  6. Help the country set up an open and competitive economy: International economic institutions will need to help Libya restructure its economy especially now that the oils prices have dwindled dangerously and, bearing in mind, that Libya is and has always being a rentier country.

Swift Action Needed, At Once

Libya is on the verge of implosion, due to both internal and external challenges. The Skhirate accord is a good move forward to resolve the Libyan internal conflict, but it is not enough, given that many national groupings have different agendas for the country and have the necessary firepower to see them through.

Now if the armed groups are kept on the loose and not checked, Libya will turn into a new Somalia, that could ultimately be hijacked by terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda, that have grand designs of their own for the region and the world.

On this subject both Giorgio Cafiero and Daniel Wagner, in an article entitled: “Four Years After Gaddafi, Libya Is a Failed State,” published in Foreign Policy in Focus on April 6, 2015viii argue quite rightly:

“The number of weak or failing states across Africa suggests that such international networks will continue to take advantage of frail central authorities and lawlessness throughout the extremely underdeveloped Sahel and other areas of the continent to spread their influence. In the absence of any political resolution to its civil war, Libya in particular — as a failed state with mountainous oil reserves — will remain vulnerable to extremist forces hoping to seize power amidst the ongoing morass.”

Alas, the Libyans are unable or unwilling to unite and solve their internal tribal disputes. The internationally-recognized government of al-Serraj in Tripoli is in feud with the self-proclaimed government of General Haftar based in Tripoli, they both seem to think more about achieving their personal designs rather than saving their country that is on the edge of the precipice. While these two ambitious politicians are fighting it out crudely, the star of Seif al-Qaddafi is rising in the firmament and, indeed, many Libyans who regret the era of his father would want him to take over the reins of the country and unite Libyans anew, if possible and still feasible.ix

In the present set up the future is very grim and Libya is a lethal danger to Europe, Africa and the Middle East and to its own people and its unity, so action from the international community is needed urgently, before it is too late.x

A Stable Libya Is An Urgent Necessity For The Whole World

Today, the instability of Libya is a source of worry for North Africa, Europe and the world at large. It is used by economic migrants coming from poor Africa as a stepping stone to go to Europe for better prospects. But, the problem is that not all the migrants are looking for better living conditions in the European Eldorado, among them there are people with criminal inclinations, as well as, terrorists in the form of sleeping cells.

The militias in power in Libya are allowing migrants in and out of the country for a fee, unconscious of the outcome of such a behavior on stability in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. The instability that has resulted from the fall of Qaddafi’s rule had already brought to the country the plague of ISIS which took the Libyans months and many casualties to get rid of. The country in its failed status of today is an easy prey to religious violence and terrorism and there are still many terrorists lying in the dark in the Sahara desert waiting for the propitious moment to strike at Europe or the Americas or elsewhere.

A stable Libya requires a charismatic leader, a strong army able to control the whole country, a viable and potent police force, an elected parliament and a democratic state. Would Seif al-Islam be able to deliver all of this to the Libyans and the rest of the world or would he just be a mirror image of his brutal father?

Only time will show.

v. First Taifa period (1009–1106), Second Taifa period (1140–1203) and Third Taifa period (1232–1287)
vii. Op.cit.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

4 thoughts on “Is Libya A De Facto Failed State? – Analysis

  • April 30, 2017 at 10:49 am

    This article left out so much critical information as to make it entirely worthless.Libya was destroyed by neocon intervention.Qaddafi’s “sin” was instituting the gold dinar to replace the dollar in their oil bourse.Rothschild bankers would never tolerate that.

  • April 30, 2017 at 2:21 pm

    While everyone that Chtatou met, talked to, communicated with believed the overthrow of Qaddafi would lead to a NATO allied oil producer, I foresaw accurately that Libya would join Afghanistan, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq as failed states or corrupt US supported dictatorships.

  • May 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm

    Regarding your suggestion: “Undertake a cultural study: There is an urgent necessity to understand the social and cultural make-up of the Libyan society. The Amazigh and Tuareg people must be granted unconditionally their cultural rights;..” This is an important and interesting point. I think of how Carthage was used by the former Tunisian regime(s) when I read your first sentence. However, when I read the second, I wonder how one might be assured that the cultural study you suggest, if implemented as you suggest, too, does not create even more social divisions and move the country even deeper into turmoil?

  • May 3, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Please allow me to clarify: I believe that Carthage, among other examples of Antique heritage, was used not just as a tourist site but also as a unifying symbol across other social divisions within the society.


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