Civil War in Libya
The UN-backed Government of National Accord (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 have met with limited success as the House of Representatives (HoR)—based in Libya’s east and a key supporter of Libyan National Army's (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar—and the GNA compete for power. Both governing bodies have created their own central banks and have 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.
Rival armed groups, including militia groups loyal to the LNA’s Haftar—a Tobruk-backed former Qaddafi loyalist—and the GNA’s security forces have 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; the LNA has since declared that the field is secure and ready to resume operations, but NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla refused to restart production in February 2019, stating that the field was still unsafe due to militant activity.
The presence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which established a foothold in the country in February 2015 and quickly gained control of the coastal city of Sirte—formerly the group’s most significant stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq—has further complicated the struggle for control. 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 and conducted an attack on Libya’s foreign ministry in December 2018.
Libya has struggled 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 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, Haftar launched Operation Dignity, a campaign conducted by the 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, and a civil war emerged.
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 Bernandino Leon, followed by Martin Kobler, facilitated a series of talks between the Tobruk-based HoR and the Tripoli-based GNC. The talks resulted in the creation of Libyan Political Agreement and the UN-supported GNA. The GNA has continued to face 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.
As a result of the continued fighting, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 217,000 people have been internally displaced and approximately 1.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Libya.
The United States, European allies, and the United Nations continued to express concern over the permanent fracture of Libya as armed militant groups have tried to divide the country along political and tribal lines. Moreover, in the absence of a primary governing body, migration and human trafficking have remained problematic.
A member of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC), Libyan oil revenues constitute more than 80 percent of Libya’s 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.