The Libyan Quagmire: The failure of the international community to engage in a constructive peace process

Following a peace summit in Berlin on 19th January 2020 about the civil war in Libya, and the intensification of violence from February until July, Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations’ (UN) resident and humanitarian coordinator for Libya, argued that “We are witnessing a protracted conflict severely impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale that Libya has never seen before”. According to the UN, the foreign leaders who are involved in the conflict failed to answer the needs to start a peace process that could stop communal violence. Since the Arab spring of 2011 which put an end to the rule of Dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the country witnessed a great period of instability and a civil war backed up by proxies. Today, the country is split between two forces ; most of the territory is controlled by the Libyan National Army (LNA), which obeys the orders of its supreme commander, General Khalifa Haftar - himself supported by the Tobruk House of Representatives. On the other hand, in Tripoli, the country's capital, the Government of National Unity (GNU) is headed by Faïez Sarraj. Although the territories under his authority are shrinking, Faïez Sarraj remains Libya's only head of government recognized by the international community.

The power vacuum of Libya and the lack of political representativeness

On July 7, 2012, less than a year after the fall of dictator Gaddafi, the first democratic election in the country's history were held. Liberal parties emerged as the majority, followed by Islamist parties. They formed together the National General Congress (NGC). However, this new legislative authority of Libya faced many issues. As the existence of the civil society was undermined and political activism banned during much of the reign of Muammar al-Gaddafi, the distribution of powers among ethnic group and their subsequent subgroups which compose Libya was largely unequal. This situation played as a fertile ground for the reinforcement of militias which were formed during the fight against Gaddafi and were not disarmed afterward. Even if they were united by the common goal of bringing Gaddafi down, the different groups were largely divided in the way to rule the country. This fragmented political landscape characterized by rapidly shifting alliances and groups having different or even antagonist agenda was a great source of instability. In a context of political and economic insecurity, the law passed in 2013 aiming to definitively remove from power all those who had responsibilities in the time of Gaddafi played as another major factor of division in the country and exacerbates tensions between the different political parties. It is in this already unstable climate that new elections took place on 25th June 2014 in order to replace the NGC. The new political entity that was formed known as the House of Representatives triggered a civil war as the Islamist parties did not recognize the vote and were willing to reform the NGC in which they had much more power. Libya thus found itself with two parliaments, which then formed two competing governments. Overall, the election process did not include the different minorities of the countries and security concerns prevented many people from voting. The use of discrimination or intimidation of voters, candidates, and political parties which was largely used during the electoral process led to the collapse of the central authority and key institutions, notably law enforcement and the judiciary. It also lay down the foundation to the transformation from a fragile state to a failed state.

The regionalization and polarization of the conflict

In this context, the Islamic State took advantage of the situation to settle down its power in Sirte - which is located between the territory controlled by Tripoli and the one controlled by Tobruk. To fight against the growing influence of the terrorist organization and to solve the Libyan crisis, the international community under the leadership of the UN, proposed to share the powers between the two camps in an agreement known as the Skhirat Accords. In this new framework, the government of the NGC and the Tobruk House of Representatives accepted the authority of a third entity : the Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, the NGC became a High Council of State, while the Tobruk House of Representatives turned into the parliament of the country. The last peace summit in Berlin mentioned in the introduction shows that today, there are many foreign powers that have different interests in the region which subsequently undermine a sustainable development and secure environment . Even if the government of Tripoli has the backing of Europe and the UN, some countries such as Italy and France, because of concerns linked to the migration flows, and terrorism, as well as interest in oil resources support the general Haftar. On the other hand, while the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Moscow backed up the government in Tobruk, Turkey is one of the supporter of the GNA. This international proxy war and foreign meddling in the country adds another dimension to the conflict and creates a relationship of interdependency between local, regional, and international actors.

The reinforcement of two antagonists forces in a stateless country

It is precisely as a result of the Skhirat agreements, led by the UN, that the two figures that currently control Libya emerged. Faïez Sarraj is the prime minister of the government of national unity set up by the Skhirat agreements. He was not elected, but he is recognized by the international community. On the other hand, General Haftar is the supreme commander of the Libyan National Army and greatly influenced the Tobruk House of Representatives to renege on its Skhirat commitments; and subsequently did not invest in the Sarraj government. In April 2019 the LNA decided to start an offensive on the capital city to Tripoli which exacerbated violence in the civil war and put an end to all the prospected peace talks and negotiations. Fostering a legitimate authority and secure environment that meets the Human needs of the Libyan population should be one of the main priorities to address the conflict and put an end to the environment of ethnic, religious and ideological violence. The succession of meetings over the first two months of 2020 in Berlin, Geneva, and Munich aimed to renew the multilateral efforts to resolve the Libyan civil conflict (including arms embargo and a comprehensive cease-fire). The repeated violations of the arms embargo imposed by the international community and the recent military support by Turkey to the GNA and Russia to Haftar’s forces, despite the peace conferences of February 2020, highlight the complexity of the situation and the repeating cycle of violence. In order to change this situation a sustainable peacemaking process could include some of the following concrete policy recommendations:

• At the end of the journey, the different parties should reach an agreement where socio-economic and political power are equally, fairly and safely (re)distributed within the different communal groups and/or the components of the society.

The report of the National Conference Process (NCP) that was made thanks to the participation of 7,000 Libyans across the country could be a great roadmap to follow. The reports argued that the peace process failed because of the “growing disconnection between those involved in the negotiations and the ordinary Libyans truly affected by the crisis.”

• Taking into account the strong ethnic of the country and integrating it in the whole peace process is also important to favor the emergence of a legitimate central authority which would allow the representation and inclusion of diverse communities of the country.

• Promoting local initiatives rather than foreign meddling in the Libyan conflict should also be considered to engage a successful peace process.

• Encouraging commitment from the different segments of the society by building an independent judiciary system and fostering a secure inclusive and sustainable environment -disarmament, job opportunities, public infrastructure safeguarding the integrity of communal groups, should also help to end the war culture including direct and indirect hostile interactions, and promote both a negative and positive peace


Gibon Clement is currently an undergraduate student at the university of Poitiers pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science and literature. He took part in the Erasmus exchange program at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (2019, Lebanon) and at the Karl-Franzens Universität Graz (2020, Austria). He is a contributing writer for the online French magazine “La revue géopolitique”, where he focuses on issues related to the MENA region, international security and peacemaking in post-conflict societies.