LIBYA – A failed state… and no way to return to stability


Since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, Libya is struggling to regain stability. Various international initiatives to stabilize the country did not bring the anticipated results. Today, depending on the definition, Libya is close to a failed state – or already there, with civil war-like scenarios in several parts of the country. All the warring factions are quite fragmented. There is no centralized control of power on any of the sides. The root causes for this disaster are the inability of the government to impose its will and retain the monopoly on violence, the rising influence of radical Islamists, the legacy of the chaotic administration of the state under the Gaddafi regime and the numerous century old tribal conflicts in several parts of the country.

Is Libya already a lost case? A state without future?

The systematic analysis of key indicators for stability, namely governance, international relations, demography, economy, social standards, and security, allows an assessment of the prospects of this important North African country.


Historically, until the Italian occupation in 1911, Libya was never ever a unified state. The three historic regions Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan developed separate from each other for thousands of years. Gaddafi had marginalized the east and funnelled most of the income of Libya’s tremendous oil wealth towards coastal Tripolitania. After the revolution, many easterners saw some good reasons to anticipate that nothing would change. This reinforced federalist tendency in the Cyrenaica (or “Barqa”, as it is called in Arabic).

There is no continuity in leadership whatsoever. Since the ousting of Gaddafi in 2011, seven (!) persons were prime ministers of Libya or at least claimed to be. Mahmoud Jibril served as the new Libya’s first (interim) head of government from March 5, 2011. As previously announced by himself, once the country was liberated, he resigned. On October 23, three days after Gaddafi’s death, his deputy Ali Tarhouni took over as acting prime minister until Abdurrahim El Keib was elected by the National Transitional Council, Libya’s first (albeit unelected) interim parliament, on November 24, 2011. He was replaced by Ali Zeidan on November 14, 2012. Zeidan was appointed by the General National Congress (GNC), which was elected by popular vote on July 7, 2012. After numerous troubles, he was fired by the GNC, which had in the meantime become widely dominated by Islamists, and replaced with Abdullah al-Thinni on March 11, 2014. Al-Thinni served on when the House of Representatives (HoR) took over from the GNC after the elections on June 25, 2014, as Libya’s new internationally recognized parliament, although merely 15% of the population in the voting age participated.

In September 2014 Islamist Operation Libya Dawn militias seized control of Tripoli. Al-Thinni and the HoR moved to the eastern cities of Al Beida and Tobruk, where they have stayed ever since. On November 6, 2014, Libya’s Supreme Court ruled – under heavy pressure from Tripoli and Misrata Islamist militias – that the June elections were unconstitutional and the HoR must be dissolved. Based on this decision, the GNC became Libya’s parliament again. It had already re-constituted in September 2014, albeit with less than 80 of the original 200 members, and appointed Omar al-Hassi as a prime minister of the National Salvation Government (NSG). Only six months later, on March 31, 2015, al-Hassi was fired by the rump-GNC and replaced by Khalifa al-Ghwell.

On December 17, 2015, the UN-brokered “Libyan Political Agreement” (LPA) was signed in Skhirat, Morocco. It confirmed the HoR as Libya’s internationally recognized parliament, and institutionalized a Presidential Council (PC) and a Government of National Accord (GNA). Furthermore, a High Council of State (HSoC) was established as an advisory body. It comprises 145 out of the 200 original members of the GNC. The president of the PC and prime minister of the GNA Fayez Serraj was hand-picked by that-time UN Special Representative Bernardino Leon, as well as – per the opinion of many Libyans – some other members of the PC. Already on December 23 the UN Security Council welcomed the Skhirat Agreement and endorsed the GNA as the sole legitimate Government of Libya, although it was never ever elected by the Libyans or appointed by a legal Libyan institution. An endorsement of the GNA by the HoR, as foreseen by the LPA, did not (yet?) take place.

In October 2016, al-Ghwell occupied the Hotel Rixos, place of residence of the HSoC, with the support of some hard-line Islamist militias and claimed to be back in power again.

Obviously, somehow al-Thinni, Serraj and al-Ghwell as well as the HoR, HSoC and GNC can claim legitimacy. From a legal point of view, it is not clear, who governs Libya.

The work of Libya’s governments and the administration under Gaddafi had always been characterized by an inefficient bureaucracy, inadequate infrastructure and a waste in government spending. The level of corruption in Libya has always been very high.

But since the revolution, the situation became even worse. In some parts of the country an administration is virtually non-existent.

Freedom of media, expression and civil rights are guaranteed by Libya’s “Interim Constitutional Declaration” (2011), but the rule of militias and threats by Islamists undermine these rights in most parts of the country. In 2013/14 civil rights activists and journalists were together with security forces priority targets of an Islamist assassination campaign in Benghazi.

Although Article 1 of the “Interim Constitutional Declaration” states “[…] The State shall guarantee for non-Muslims the freedom of practicing religious rituals”, this is in practice due to the influence of radical Islamists impossible. In February 2015, 21 Egyptian Copts were beheaded by Islamic State (IS) terrorists.

There are severe shortfalls in human rights, in particular regarding the use of excessive force by militias/security forces, modern slavery and women’s rights. The 10,000s of illegal migrants passing through Libya on their way to Europe are subject to brutal human rights violations.

The organization of an efficient civil society is – with some exceptions in the capital Tripoli – in the fledgling stage.

International relations

For several nations, Libya is linked with their own national interests. Frequently those interests are security related (for Egypt and the other neighbours, Italy and Western Europe) and/or economic (especially for Egypt, Tunisia, Italy, Turkey). Some other nations are primarily promoting their specific values (e.g. Qatar, UAE pro & con Islamists).

As there are several governmental bodies claiming legitimacy and controlling different parts of the country, there are also different strands of international relations.

The GNA as the internationally recognized government is strongly supported by the UN, Italy, France, UK, Germany, Turkey, and the U.S. Those are frequently releasing statements in support of the GNA and invite representatives to international conferences. Special Forces from the U.S. and UK have been directly engaged in the fight of GNA loyal militias against the IS. Without American air support the battle against IS in Sirte could not have been won. Italy, which has probably the highest stakes of all western nations in Libya, deployed a military field hospital to Misrata and jumped forward to reopen its embassy in Tripoli mid-January 2017. As Libya is still subject to an arms embargo, no weapons or ammunition are provided to the GNA, at least not officially. But there is information, that there are deliveries from Turkey, Qatar, and some other countries to the Misrata and other militias close to the GNA.

Backing of the GNA by other states like Egypt, Jordan, UAE, and Russia is somehow lukewarm. Russia insists that without endorsement of the GNA by the HoR, al-Thinnis government is still in charge. All those countries have close contacts to the HoR and its Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by the controversial Field Marshall Khalifa Heftar.

The NSG had been strong backed by Turkey and Qatar when it was established in 2014. Probably today al-Ghwell and the militias supporting him can still count on them.

The southern Libyan Toubou and Touareg are in close connection with their respective kinsmen in the neighbouring countries, receiving limited assistance from them, and operating together in the smuggling and human trafficking business. Young members from Toubou tribes in Chad without perspectives in their home country join militias of their relatives in Libya to make some good money.

Sudan’s Islamist government is struggling with various rebel groups in Darfur and other parts of the country. One of the most important groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) uses Libya’s southwest frequently as a safe haven. Allegedly, JEM fighters have occasionally directly supported the LNA in combat. Consequently, Sudan has previously backed the NSG, also with weapons and ammunition, and now the GNA. If the NSG survives and eventually replaces the GNA in Tripoli, it can probably count again on the support of Sudan.


Libya’s population is very young. Almost 44% of its 6.5 million people are younger than 25 years. On the other side, only about 9.5% are older than 55. This demographic pyramid makes the recovery of Libya even more challenging. More than 100,000 new jobs would be required every year, just to keep the current unemployment rate of about 20% stable. However, many of the young people are “employed” by militias.

As a consequence of the revolution and its aftermath more than one million Libyans have left their country and sought refuge mainly in Tunisia and Egypt. Up to half a million people live in various parts of Libya as internally displaced persons.

The population of Libya is homogenous. 97% are Arabs or of mixed Berber-Arab descent. The rest includes Berber (Amazigh), Touareg and Toubou minorities.

A specific case are the 25,000 dark-skinned Tawurgha. Until the end of the revolution they settled in a city of the same name near Misrata. Since the Middle Ages, work on the palm plantations surrounding the town was done by Black African slaves, which gave the city a black majority. Nominally emancipated from slavery by the Italians, their real status remained very low. Gaddafi treated the Tawurgha a lot better. Several of them achieved higher positions in the military and the administration. As some Tawurgha had their share in the war crimes of the Gaddafi regime against the Misrata, they became a subject to Misrata’s revenge. Many of them were killed or tortured and jailed. All of them had to leave their home town. While they stay now in refugee camps in Tripoli and other cities, Tawurgha is a ghost town.

Libya is a Muslim country. Roughly 97% are Sunnis, about 1% Ibadis. Among the Sunnis there are several different schools and branches.

In the 19th century the Senussi, a Sunni Sufi order raised to importance. At the end of the century it was a dominating political force in many parts of Libya and became a driving element behind the resistance against the Italian occupation. Although after independence in 1951 Idris, the head of the order, became King of Libya, the order itself has vanished during the colonial rule. However, Sufism remained deeply rooted with many Libyans up to today. Most Libyan Sufis are peaceful and do not adhere to violence.

Salafists, followers of an ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam, have grown to importance since 2011. Many Sufi mosques and Sufi tombs were raided and destroyed by them and other radical Islamists. Their militias apprehended alcohol and drug dealers as well as homosexuals. But the Salafists are far from being a united group. While Madkhalists support a secular form of government, Salafi activists, like Libya’s Grand Mufti Sadekh al-Ghariani seek an Islamist State based solely on the Islamic Law, the Sharia. Means of the activists include also involvement into the political process. Salafi jihadists, like many of the terrorist groups active in Libya and in other parts of the Muslim world, pursue a similar aim, but use all kinds of violent means to reach it.

Salafists can be found on various sides of the conflict in Libya, not only among the terrorists. Madkhalists are fighting for Field Marshall Heftar, as well as within Tripoli’s Special Deterrent (or “Rada”) Force, one of the key militias protecting the GNA. On the other side, the activists around al-Ghariani are firmly opposed to the internationally recognized government.

Concrete figures of the adherents of those religious groups are unknown.


Libya’s economy is heavily reliant on the hydrocarbon industry. The country exports crude oil and natural gas, before the revolution also refined petroleum products and chemicals, but needs currently to import almost everything else, in particular most of the consumer goods, textiles, machinery, transport equipment, and food (with the exception of some agricultural products).

Under Gaddafi, expatriates from Western, Asian, and neighbouring countries were the backbone of many branches of economy. People from Black Africa accomplished most of the lower-class jobs. However, unemployment was not a big issue for the Libyans. Now, most of the Western expatriates and many of the others are gone.

The recovery of the Libyan economy depends primarily on the future performance of the hydrocarbon sector. After a year’s long blockade of the oil terminals in the Sirte Basin by the Petroleum Facility Guards, forces which should have guarded them, an occupation by the LNA last September made their re-opening possible. Oil production could reach 750,000 bpd soon, a huge increase compared with less than 300,000 bpd last summer, but still far away from the 1.6 million bpd in 2010.

However, the oil & gas infrastructure in most parts of the country was damaged by fighting and terrorist attacks, degraded by disuse and a lack of maintenance due to the absence of foreign specialists in the recent years.

A further rise of production will not only require the opening of pipelines still blocked in the west of the country and huge maintenance efforts, but – first and foremost – security around the hydrocarbon infrastructure from the production sites to the refineries and terminals. Those facilities are on risk from renewed fighting between the LNA and other, mostly Islamist militias and terrorist attacks. It is increasingly likely that the IS will select the oil fields and pipelines in the Sirte Basin and Fezzan as easy targets to achieve a high impact with minimum risk. On the positive side, funding for maintenance and repair of damages can probably be secured through the GNA and the CBL.

Quite unique, although there are so many “governments”, the country’s most important economic institutions, the National Oil Corporation (NOC), the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) managed to remain by and large the sole representations of their country in their respective business areas. This was made possible by the refusal of the international community to deal with anybody else but the “original” NOC, CBL and LIA. Those economic institutions are now an incentive and a glue keeping the country together.

Social standards

Basic foodstuff and fuel is heavily subsidised by the state to keep the prices low for everybody. While this is certainly beneficial for the population, it makes smuggling of these goods to neighbouring countries very attractive. Every year, smuggling costs the state several billion Libyan Dinars. It is doubtful that the current level of subsidies can be maintained very long, if the economy does not recover very soon.

Living costs of the population are increasing as the value of the Libyan Dinar is in a free fall. Although most families have at least a basic income from the state, access to cash is very difficult.

Water supply is guaranteed as long as the Great Man-made River is operational, Gaddafi’s gigantic fresh-water system drawing water from aquifers beneath the Sahara and channelling it along a network of pipelines and pumping stations to the coastal areas of Libya. But it was already targeted by terrorists, probably from the IS, in remote areas.

Environmental pollution is of major concern. Garbage disposal does not work properly. Toxic substances are frequently disposed together with the other waste. Illegal dumping grounds are widely in place around the country. In Tripoli, only one of three undersized sewage filtering systems is working. Most of the sewage of the capital and other coastal cities ends up unfiltered in the Mediterranean.

Libya’s power grid is in urgent need of maintenance. Supply of gas to the power stations is frequently irregular for various reasons. Due to outstanding debts, electricity cannot be imported from Tunisia and Egypt any more. Mobile power plants provided by international companies were withdrawn by their providers because of security concerns and a lack of payments. Frequent power outages and even blackouts are the consequence. Fezzan and northern Tripolitania are the most affected parts of the country.

Health care under Gaddafi had relatively high standards for an African country. Nowadays the situation is terrible and in dire need of urgent and significant improvement. There is a lack of all kinds of medical supplies, skilled health professionals and maintenance. Whoever can afford it, travels abroad for medical care. Many of the war-injured are evacuated to Turkey, Tunisia or Egypt.

Traffic infrastructure is widely in a poor condition. Most of the construction work has stopped. Some facilities, like the Tripoli International Airport, are heavily damaged and out of service for the foreseeable future.


Crime is a major problem in Libya today. Especially the capital and the coastal road to Tunisia is plagued by criminal gangs and rogue militias. Some of them claim to be “thuwar” (former revolutionary fighters), but conduct ordinary street crimes, like robbery, kidnapping and car-jacking. In the south, in Fezzan and Kufra, there are frequent clashes between the various tribes, mainly about the control of smuggling routes and human trafficking.

Something like regular police is widely non-existent in Libya. Various militias are acting instead of them.

The LNA, the army of the HoR, includes land forces, air force and navy. Although arguably the strongest military power in Libya, it has difficulties in defeating Islamists in Benghazi and some other locations. Derna, an Islamist hotbed in the north-east, is not under control of the LNA. Its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Heftar, is widely praised for his leadership in the east, but condemned for his staunch anti-Islamist position by many in the west. Although Heftar is probably the single most influential person in the east, he is dependent on the support of some mighty tribal leaders.

The LNA receives support from Egypt (training, vehicles, jets and helicopters, ammunition), Jordan (training), UAE (equipment, training, and air support), Pakistan (training) and other countries. The UAE has even deployed a mixed squadron of light attack turboprop aircraft and combat UAVs to an airbase near al-Beida to deliver direct air support to the LNA. Private Russian and other Eastern European companies are providing some air transport and limited other support to the LNA, particularly to the air force (technical expertise, spares, and pilots).

The militias from Misrata are the most powerful military group in western Libya, although they are weakened by internal quarrels. Some of them are Islamist or Islamist-leaning. Misrata militias were the backbone of Operation Libya Dawn. The official Misrata is strongly supporting the PC/GNA, while others are in favour of the GNC/NSG. The Misrata-led Operation Al Bunyan Al Marsous defeated the IS in Sirte with U.S. air support, but the cities’ forces suffered about ⅕ of their combat strength as casualties.

There are hundreds of other militias all over Libya, ranging from a couple of dozen fighters to several thousand. Most of them are financed by the CBL as former revolutionary fighters, eligible for payments from the state.

Currently there are various terrorist groups active in Libya. All of them share the vision of establishing a “Caliphate”, a conservative Islamists state based strictly on Sharia laws. Among the most important are the IS, Ansar al-Sharia (AaS), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After the defeat in Sirte, IS is significantly weakened, but not destroyed. The group is still present in many parts of the country and is probably changing its strategy to a small-scale guerrilla-style campaign, which will be also a serious threat to the hydrocarbon industry, as mentioned above.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) was established in the early 1990s by Libyan Afghanistan Veterans. Crushed by Gaddafi, many got killed or jailed in the infamous Abu Slim prison where they established a lasting relationship with other Libyan Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Some LIFG fighters escaped abroad. One group moved to UK and became more involved in the political struggle against Gaddafi. Others moved to Sudan and further on to Pakistan and back to Afghanistan, where they got in touch with Al Qaeda (AQ). Several Libyans climbed up the ranks of AQ. Beginning in late spring 2011, LIFG re-established its network in Libya. It is now a key player in the background, connected with many radical Islamist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.


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The expected development of the key indicators does not suggest that the situation will get better any time soon. For the time being an improvement of governance is not in sight. Libya’s neighbours and the other international stakeholders deal primarily with those government(s) which are most useful to pursue their own interests. Although this is understandable, this does not contribute to the stability of the country. Libya’s demography and religious landscape have several elements, which will complicate the conflicts in Libya in the future even more than it is already the case today. Keeping the unsolved security challenges of Libya in mind, the country’s economic future is not too bright. Social standards under Gaddafi were very uneven between the regions, but today the situation is worse for almost everyone. In Libya there is not only no central government, there is also no monopoly of force by the governing authorities in any part of the country. There is no indication that this will change anytime soon.

The LPA is in a dead-end road. It is highly unlikely that it will lead to the stabilization of the country. Most of the international actors, who supported the LPA, have lost their credibility on the ground and are not taken for serious any more.

Without a new, successful initiative it is likely that Libya will break-up in an uncontrolled way which will allow various radical Islamists to use parts of the country for their expansion strategy well outside of the borders of Libya.

It is obvious: a reversal of the current negative trend would need an entirely new approach for the stabilization of Libya.


About Author

Wolfgang Pusztai

Security and Policy Analyst - Former Austrian Defense Attaché to Tunisia and Libya (2007-2012) Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on U.S. - Libya Relations


  1. Pingback: LIBYA – A failed state… and no way...

  2. Good article, however, I disagree with writer in claiming that Libya was never unified before the Italian occupation. Libya was first unified after the Ottoman Empire which began in 1551 under the name Trabulus AL-Gharb (Tripoli the West) distinguishing it from Tripoli, Lebanon. The Turkish Pashas used Tripoli as the capital of state and appointing a clerk to rule the district of Benghazi, a second one to rule the district of Derna and a third one to rule Fezzan. In 1711, Ahmad AL-Gharamanly Pasha decided to split with the Ottoman Empire to establish a state-like government and a family dynasty that ruled Tarabulus AL-Gharb until 1835. its area went even beyond current Libya borders. Gharamanly State open diplomatic relations with many European state at the time (Napoli, Sweden, France, Marrakesh…to name few). They even went to war with American navy fleet and captured the ship Philadelphia. By the year 1835, the Ottoman Empire recaptured Tripoli and Gharamanly dynasty was ended, But current Libya was shaped during that period prior to the arrival of Italian occupation forces.

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