While the Arab Spring was lauded internationally as an opportunity for Middle Eastern and North African nations to root out oppressive governments and foster hope for legitimate government, the reality in many of these nations is quite different some eight years later. This is particularly pertinent in Libya, which after having ousted Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011 has since seen an increase in violence, militia conflicts and all out civil war.
As recently as April 2019, hopes for the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Sarraj faded when military figure Khalifa Haftar attempted to seize control of Tripoli, which serves the centre of control for the GNA. Since then Haftar has been in control of large swathes of the Libyan state, suspending elections in early 2019 and also finding support from Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. International bodies and institutions have condemned Haftar’s actions while the Libyan people are caught between loyalty to two rivaling groups that both have international backers.
In what is essentially a military led coup, Haftar is slowly but surely gaining a footing within one of Africa’s largest countries that also contains the world’s 10th largest proven oil reserves. This fact alone is telling of why international actors are so interested in the affairs of today’s Libya as much as they once were during the Gaddafi era. However, fighting around airports has also been prominent with a focus on Tripoli International. The battle in the North African state is eerily reminiscent of fighting that took place during the Second World War, only this time with a focus on natural resources rather than the supreme power of a giant like Nazi Germany.
As a leading supplier of weapons, the United States continues to supply foreign powers with armaments. However, as a report in June revealed, the US doesn’t always control what happens to those armaments when they are sold. US and Chinese weapons and anti-tank javelin missiles were discovered in the city of Gharyan that forces loyal to Haftar were using as a base to attack Tripoli. Not only does this reveal what can happen to armaments sold off to smaller, richer gulf nations it also shows that China is increasingly involving itself in the region to counterbalance the reach of the United States. It is indeed a telling time for international affairs.
Since 2011, approximately 100,000 people who have fled Libya with an additional 200,000 internally displaced within the country. As the fighting continues between Haftar’s loyalists and GNA supporters, it is unlikely that a permanent resolution to the conflict is any closer. The simple truth is that the GNA (although receiving broader support from the international community) is not strong enough to counter the threat posed by Haftar. Furthermore, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for a number of military figures and also for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the country’s former leader.
The next few years will be crucial for Libya’s future in the region as international actors see opportunities to secure access to natural resources, as well as the geostrategic benefit for the Middle East. Whether these benefits flow on to the Libyan people remains to be seen, which, judging from the present situation, is unlikely to be solved soon. While the end of the Gaddafi regime was a positive step for the people of Libya, the resulting conflict and violence have undermined that positive step. Libya now stands on the cusp of returning to autocratic rule if Haftar manages to topple the GNA – perhaps it is only a matter of time.