September 14, 2022
IntelBrief: Libya Backslides Toward Civil Conflict and Political Violence
Libya’s neighbors, regional states, and international mediators are increasingly frustrated at the continued fissures in Libyan politics that have produced rival governments competing for control of the country, escalating civil conflict. Far from implementing a 2020 United Nations roadmap to achieve political unity through elections, Libya appears to be backsliding into conflict between forces loyal to eastern Libya strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar and militias backing a Tripoli-based administration led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. In late August, the deadliest violence in more than two years took place as eastern Libya-backed prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, again attempted to enter Tripoli to swear in his government as the sole national authority. Bashagha was named prime minister by the eastern-based parliament (House of Representatives, HoR) in May 2022 after Dbeibah refused to yield power. The clashes resulted in 32 deaths, representing the highest death toll since Haftar’s 2019 effort to conquer western Libya by force.
The August fighting indicated that pledges by the two rival administrations to avoid further conflict - pledges made after similar although less intense and deadly clashes in early summer - have not been honored, and that a potential return to heightened civil conflict is high. Clashes in May and June, which involved limited numbers of militia fighters on both sides, resulted in the deaths of one militia fighter and one civilian. Tensions escalated further in late July when at least 13 people were killed in Tripoli as a result of fighting between competing militias.
The deadly August fighting indicates that neither Dbeibah’s nor Bashagha’s administrations are amenable to the compromises needed to hold national elections. Under a United Nations reconciliation roadmap agreed to in October 2020, national elections for a unified president and parliament were to be held in December 2021. However, the elections were delayed indefinitely when the rival political leaders were unable to agree to the laws and rules needed to hold the vote and determine election winners. Dbeibah, who was appointed as prime minister in the U.N.-backed Tripoli administration in early 2021, asserts that he is the country’s prime minister until national elections are completed. The eastern-based leaders contend that his term ended in December 2021, even though the elections were not actually held. In June 2022, U.N. mediators sought to forge a compromise on a new constitution framework for a rescheduled national vote, but negotiations broke down. Dbeibah, Bashagha, and their armed supporters refused to form a unified administration. In addition to preventing Bashagha from installing his government in Tripoli in September, pro-Dbeibah militiamen have also reportedly prevented some Libya parliamentarians from leaving the city to attend meetings of the House of Representatives in Benghazi. In turn, this has led to some parliamentary sessions being canceled.
The deterioration of the political situation in Libya has frustrated not only U.N. mediators but also regional and international stakeholders, all of whom are consumed by major issues triggered primarily by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. EU countries fear that renewed major conflict in Libya might set off a new wave of refugee flows to Europe and compound the major economic problems EU countries face in the coming winter from Russia’s cut-off of gas supplies. As a lead European mediator, Germany convened in early September the latest session of the “Berlin Process” - a series of meetings and working group initiative on Libya launched in 2019. The September 8-9 Berlin meeting convened the “P3 +2 +2” group of Libya stakeholders - the United States, United Kingdom, and France (three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council), plus Italy and Germany (two other EU countries), plus Egypt and Turkey (two regional powers). However, the meeting appeared to only restate U.N., regional, and other international calls for the contending parties to avoid further conflict and to compromise on forging the legal framework that would lead to national elections.
Russia, through the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group private military contractor, has provided armed support to Haftar; however, Moscow has recently been forced to redeploy some of its forces from regional conflicts, including Libya and Syria, to support its flagging fortunes on the battlefield in Ukraine. Egypt, another pro-Haftar stakeholder, has had to address recent fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, as well as the economic consequences of the Ukraine war, which has caused grain and other import prices to escalate sharply. Even though Cairo seeks compromise and stability in Libya, its pro-Haftar tilt remains; in early September, Egypt’s foreign minister boycotted a session of an Arab League meeting that was being chaired by a Dbeibah-appointed Libyan representative. Qatar, a mediator in numerous regional conflicts, is relatively unaffected by the economic effects of the war in Ukraine and has stepped up to try to mediate in Libya. Doha has generally supported the Tripoli-based political leadership, but Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani sought to bolster his ties to the contending sides in Libya by receiving eastern Libya political leaders Aguilah Saleh (speaker of the parliament) and Haftar’s son Belgassem, on their first visits to Doha on September 11.
One global concern about the escalating tensions in Libya appears to have receded. In mid-2022, pro-Haftar militias used attacks on Libyan energy infrastructure to strangle Dbeibah’s Tripoli administration financially. Those attacks have largely stopped since a July deal between Dbeibah and Haftar to appoint the Haftar-allied Farhat Bengdara as state oil company chief. The attacks drove down Libyan oil production to its lowest level in two years - less than 650,000 barrels per day - a fraction of the approximately 1.2 million barrels per day baseline level. Since Bengdara took over the sector, Libya’s oil production has been at roughly the 1.2 million barrels per day level, easing global fears that Libyan instability would compound global oil supply shortages. Still, no regional or international mediator has yet uncovered a formula for persuading the two rival administrations to unify and work toward successful national elections with clear results.