Libya: Between chaos, corruption and geopolitics

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An arson attack on a parliament building was a drastic expression of the dissatisfaction of many Libyans at political and economic stagnation. But Russian influence there is also causing concern.

Protesting citizens in the capital Tripoli, early July 2022

Burning car tyres, loud calls for early elections, but also for better electricity supply and lower bread prices: Last weekend, the Libyan citizens vehemently called on their politicians to finally get to work and take care of the concerns of the citizens. They did so in different ways: while most protesters in the capital Tripoli remained peaceful, protesters in the city of Tobruk, the rival center of power, set fire to the parliament building there. A video shows a bulldozer ramming into the building's entrance.

In the meantime, the protest has died down, but it cannot be ruled out that it could flare up again and increase in vehemence. The UN special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, appealed to everyone involved to remain calm. Acts of violence such as the storming of parliament are “completely unacceptable”.

The protests are a call to Libyan politicians to overcome their differences and initiate elections, she explained in another tweet.

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Visible state failure

According to Thomas Claes, project manager of the Libya office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is based in Tunisia, the main concern of the demonstrators is to move the unification and peace process forward, which has been stagnating for years. “Because the elections failed due to political opportunism. A number of leading actors are clinging to power and trying to stop the elections.”

On fire: The Parliament building in Tobruk, early July 2022

The fact that many politicians continue to put their own interests above the national interest is having an impact. And the Libyans have felt it for years. Although they live in a potentially prosperous oil state, it is clearly failing on many fronts.

Long queues form in front of gas stations, the value of the dinar falls, and food prices rise. The state institutions are dilapidated, the water and energy systems only work inadequately. “Instead, militias rule that have increasingly developed mafia-like structures,” says Thomas Claes. “The militias have hijacked individual sectors of the state and are trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of them.”

Meanwhile, Abdel Hamid Dbaiba, one of two – ultimately equally controversial – prime ministers in the country, is trying to calm the situation: “If elections take place, we will hand over power afterwards.” Originally, however, his mandate was only supposed to last until the elections scheduled for December last year. His competitor, the businessman Fatih Baschagha, also does not have sufficient legitimacy: he was appointed Prime Minister by the Council of Deputies in Tobruk in February of this year – but to what extent whether this step was legitimate is disputed.

There were repeated, sometimes violent, clashes between the supporters of the two prime ministers. After a failed coup attempt in May, heavy fighting broke out in Tripoli. The trigger was the Bashagha's attempt to drive Dbaiba's government out of Tripoli by force of arms.

“Rather than moving towards a legitimate government that can ultimately stabilize the country, Libyans are once again held hostage in a showdown between two self-interested centers of power,” recently wrote Libya expert Tarek Megerisi from the renowned Think tank “European Council on Foreign Relations” in an analysis.

Pillars of power: soldiers of the Libyan Government in Tripoli, May 2022

International actors

The situation is exacerbated by the interests of international actors. Not only regional heavyweights like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are involved in Libya, but also the USA, France, Italy and last but not least Turkey and Russia are each pursuing their own economic, power and security policy interests. Some countries – not least western ones – fear that with Baschagha as prime minister, Russia's influence could grow. Others worry that Islamist forces in Libya could play a bigger role under Dbaiba.

After all, with international help, a ceasefire was initiated in 2020, which by and large has held up so far despite recurring violations and partial escalations. In fact, according to a study by the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), both international and local actors currently feel little inclination for another round of armed conflicts.

However: “In the In the tense political atmosphere triggered by the Ukraine conflict, the situation could quickly deteriorate again,” the ICG paper warns.

Potential wealth: an oil rig off the Libyan coast, February 2022

Anxious view of Russia

The Russian attack on Ukraine has changed the international perception of the Libyan conflict, at least in Western countries. They see the continued presence of the Russian mercenary company Wagner in Libya as an enormous challenge. Although the latter has moved some of its troops to Ukraine, around a thousand mercenaries are said to remain in the country. “These are mainly around strategic oil facilities, i.e. oil fields and refineries,” says Thomas Claes from the Ebert Foundation. “That means they have direct access to the production.”

In the past few weeks, this production has plummeted. It is still unclear whether this is due to the influence of Russia or internal Libyan actors. In this way, government allies in Tobruk could actually try to put pressure on the central government in Tripoli, according to Claes. “But it's also a fact: the less oil is produced in Libya, the less gets to Europe. That can exacerbate the European energy crisis.”

But the Wagner Group may not only be able to exert its influence on oil -Put questions. In European capitals there is concern that the confrontation with Russia “could prompt Moscow to use the Wagner Group to cause unrest in Libya, on NATO's southern flank,” according to the study by the Crisis Group . This could potentially lead to a new flight movement. Europe would then have to deal with another crisis.