Libya has struggled [PDF] to rebuild state institutions since the ouster and subsequent death of former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in October 2011. Libya’s transitional government ceded authority to the newly elected [PDF] General National Congress (GNC) in July 2012, but the GNC faced numerous challenges over the next two years, including the September 2012 attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the spread of the Islamic State and other armed groups throughout the country.
In May 2014, General Khalifa Haftar launched Operation Dignity, a campaign conducted by the Libyan National Army (LNA) to attack Islamist militant groups across eastern Libya, including in Benghazi. To counter this movement, Islamist militants and armed groups—including Ansar al-Sharia— formed a coalition called Libya Dawn. Eventually, fighting broke out at Tripoli’s international airport between the Libya Dawn coalition, which controlled Tripoli and much of western Libya, and the Dignity coalition, which controlled parts of Cyrenaica and Benghazi in eastern Libya, escalating the conflict into a full-fledged civil war.
The battle for control over Libya crosses tribal, regional, political, and even religious lines. Each coalition has created governing institutions and named military chiefs—and each has faced internal fragmentation and division. In an effort to find a resolution to the conflict and create a unity government, then-UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon, followed by Martin Kobler, facilitated a series of talks between the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR)—based in Libya’s east and a key supporter of Haftar—and the Tripoli-based GNC. The talks resulted in the creation of the Libyan Political Agreement [PDF] and the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2015. However, the GNA faced obstacles to creating a stable, unified government in Libya.
Taking advantage of the widespread political instability, armed Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia—the terrorist group allegedly responsible for the attack on the U.S. consulate in 2012—and the Islamic State, have used the country as a hub to coordinate broader regional violence, further complicating efforts to create a unity government. After seizing territory [PDF] in Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabiya, the Islamic State’s power in Libya peaked in 2016 when it captured the coastal city of Sirte—formerly the group’s most significant stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq. While in control, its members committed numerous human rights abuses for which they now face trial in Libya. In July 2018, Haftar announced that the LNA had recaptured the city of Derna, the last outpost of the Islamic State militants in eastern Libya. However, the group continues to operate throughout the country.
Though the Islamic State was largely defeated in Libya in 2016, the GNA and HoR remained divided on a path to unification. In August 2018, violence in Tripoli ended the relative calm that had been maintained for over a year. However, the UN quickly brokered a September 2018 cease-fire between the involved militias.
Foreign states have also taken an interest in Libya, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, and Russia backing Haftar’s LNA and Turkey, Qatar, and Italy supporting the UN-backed GNA. Egypt and the UAE have been particularly involved with military support for Haftar, as they fear the GNA’s connections to political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Evidence also suggests that Russia is allowing the Wagner Group to aid Haftar in a bid to gain favorable access to Libya’s natural resources. Meanwhile, Turkey supports the GNA because of maritime oil and gas deals they have brokered. The other foreign backers have taken a more subtle approach, providing aid and diplomatic support to their preferred partner. Militarily, Turkey and Egypt have gone the farthest by approving troop deployments, though Russia also has a presence through the Wagner Group and the UAE has conducted airstrikes for Haftar.
The GNA declared a state of emergency in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli in September 2018, less than a week after a UN cease-fire went into effect. Attempts to create a unity government failed as the HoR and the GNA continued to compete for power. Both governing bodies created their own central banks [PDF] and consolidated control over oil fields. In May 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a meeting between Haftar, GNA leader Fayez Seraj, and parliamentary leaders to discuss an end to the conflict and future elections. Though the rival groups agreed to hold elections in December 2018, UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame said elections would be postponed until the spring of 2019.
Meanwhile, rival armed groups, including militia groups loyal to Haftar, and the GNA’s security forces continued to fight over access to and control of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), as well as regional oil fields. In December 2018, the NOC closed Libya’s largest oil field, El Sharara, due to security concerns; Haftar later declared the field secure and ready to restart operations but cut off all oil fields when fighting resumed.
On April 3, 2019, Haftar upended peace efforts by launching a campaign to take western Libya and Tripoli with the backing of Egypt, the UAE, France, and Russia. Haftar’s LNA made fast progress until stalling on the outskirts of Tripoli, achieving only small gains over the next year. At the GNA’s request, Turkey sent troops to Tripoli in early 2020 to reinforce the city’s defense and increased the size of the force ahead of the GNA counteroffensive. Meanwhile, the UAE conducted airstrikes in support of Haftar. UN-led mediation efforts made little progress [PDF] as the war escalated and civilian casualties rose through May 2020. In June, GNA-aligned forces, with Turkish support, achieved a breakthrough and pushed the LNA back to Sirte. Tensions escalated when Egypt warned that Sirte was its “red line” and in July authorized the deployment of troops to help prevent the GNA from taking the city.
In August 2020, violence eased as the GNA declared a unilateral cease-fire, and Haftar ended an oil blockade shortly after, paving the way for a nationwide cease-fire signed in October. The 2020 cease-fire established the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), made up of officers from the GNA and LNA, to work on the implementation of the cease-fire and other security issues. The JMC made progress, but it has struggled to achieve the withdrawal of foreign fighters. Most important, though, despite a lack of trust and a faltering cease-fire, levels of violence remained low following the 2020 truce, allowing for a reopening of political dialogue.
Improved security allowed Libya to hold its first vote in five years in May 2019, but turnout totaled only 38 percent across the nine municipalities where local elections took place. Dozens of other municipalities held staggered elections from 2019 to 2021, delayed by violence and the pandemic. UN-led talks also established a roadmap for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held on December 24, 2021. As part of this plan, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) formed a provisional government, the Government of National Unity (GNU), in March 2021 to unify the GNA and HoR in preparation for national elections. The LPDF appointed Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah prime minister and Mohamed al-Menfi, representing the eastern faction, president. The HoR nearly unanimously approved the new government’s cabinet, and Seraj’s GNA and the eastern-based parliament both ceded power to the new GNU.
The United States has a contentious history in Libya, having helped overthrow Qaddafi and suffering an attack on its mission in Benghazi in 2012. Most of all, the United States seeks a peaceful and stable Libya capable of providing for its people, which it had hoped to achieve by overthrowing Qaddafi. It has primarily pursued that goal by supporting UN-led efforts to form a unity government and hold national elections, which have so far been elusive. The United States, European allies, and the United Nations have expressed concern over the fracturing of Libya as armed militant groups have tried to divide the country. Moreover, in the absence of a primary governing body, migration [PDF] and human trafficking have remained problematic.
A member of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC), Libya’s oil revenues constitute more than 80 percent of its total exports. As armed groups continue to fight over oil fields and restrict production, concerns have also increased over whether the country will be able to support itself economically. An increasingly unpredictable global energy market in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also makes the prospect of greater Libyan oil exports attractive to Europe.
Reflecting the relatively low levels of violence since 2020, the humanitarian situation has eased in recent years. In 2023, approximately three hundred thousand people needed humanitarian assistance in Libya, down from 1.3 million [PDF] in 2016. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 695,516 people have returned home, but 134,787 people remain internally displaced. Libya also hosts an estimated 40,540 registered refugees and asylum-seekers and likely more who are unregistered. Its porous borders and fractured security situation make Libya a top transit country for people trying to reach Europe, with smugglers sending migrants across the Mediterranean in unsafe, overcrowded vessels. Their business has contributed greatly to the over twenty thousand people who have died or disappeared crossing the sea since 2014.
On September 21, 2021, the HoR dashed hopes of elections when it passed a no-confidence motion against the GNU. Dbeibah called on Libyans to protest the HoR decision and reneged on his promise not to run in the election, declaring his candidacy along with Haftar and Qaddafi’s son, the other prominent candidates. However, the High National Electoral Commission indefinitely postponed the election just days before the planned vote as tensions arose over candidate eligibility and presidential and parliamentary powers. The HoR called for the dissolution of the GNU, arguing its mandate expired on December 24, but Dbeibah refused to step down and said his government will remain in place until elections are held. In March 2022, the HoR approved a new cabinet with Fathi Bashagha as prime minister, effectively setting up a rival government based in Sirte.
The formation of rival governments reignited struggles for control over territory and resources. In March 2022, Haftar’s forces seized the GNU Benghazi headquarters and cut off access to oil and gas fields to deprive the GNU of revenue since it refused to give Bashagha access to state funds for his government’s budget. With no prospect of a political solution and the HoR facing protests, Bashagha entered Tripoli and tried to install his government. He failed, and fighting broke out in the capital between rival government forces in August following months of skirmishes.
Conditions improved in late 2022, but tensions have remained high as the HoR solidifies its own institutions, and political negotiations have fractured. As UN-led talks failed to gain traction, the HoR embarked on its own path, passing a constitutional amendment in March 2023 that could lay the ground for elections and proposing to appoint a new national executive committee to replace the GNC and HoR.
The HoR has also engaged in talks with the High State Council (HSC), a committee established in 2015 to advise the GNA and HoR, forming a 6+6 joint council to create a roadmap for elections. In June 2023, that body recommended the formation of a new interim government in preparation for elections. While Haftar said he supports the proposal, Dbeibah, who has consolidated power after two years at the helm in Tripoli, rebuked any effort to form a new transitional governing body, insisting his government will continue to serve as the “interim” government until elections.
Dbeibah’s nephew and Haftar’s son have engaged in direct talks in Egypt on a separate plan that would see Dbeibah stay in power but concede some ministries to Haftar. Those talks follow the May 2023 replacement of Bashagha with finance minister Osama Hamad as the eastern-based prime minister. The various peace talk tracks have each seen some progress, but low-scale violence persists and any deal that does not have strong support from Dbeibah and Haftar is likely to only cause deeper polarization.
Complicating peace prospects, Libya has also been drawn back into regional disputes, this time over maritime oil deposits. In October 2022, the GNA signed a deal with Turkey to begin oil and gas exploration off its coast, and in January 2023 it signed a deal with Italian company ENI to increase oil and gas output. Greece and Egypt have disputed maritime borders with Libya and condemned Turkey’s moves, increasing the possibility of confrontation in the Mediterranean. Separately, Haftar has been accused of supplying weapons to the RSF in Sudan’s civil war, putting Haftar on the opposing side of his ally Egypt in that conflict.
While the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates no longer control territory in Libya, they maintain the capability to launch attacks and disrupt oil operations, especially in interior regions. In May 2023, a Libyan court sentenced twenty-three people to death for their role in Islamic State attacks and beheadings in 2015.
On September 10, 2023, Storm Daniel hit northeastern Libya, triggering catastrophic flooding. More than eleven thousand people have been reported dead, with many more missing, in the port city of Derna, where the flooding caused nearby dams to burst. The country’s political turmoil has hampered rescue efforts and the delivery of humanitarian aid, prompting hundreds of protestors in Derna to demand government accountability. As the hope for locating survivors continues to diminish, relief efforts are turning to tackle the worsening humanitarian crisis with more than forty thousand Libyans displaced, mounting medical supply shortages, and contaminated drinking water, raising fears of possible disease outbreaks.