The impending victory by Libyan militias over Islamic State in its Libyan stronghold of Sirte is liable to being seen as a positive turning point for the prospects of Libyan unity and stability. However, this perception would be fallacious in its failure to appreciate Libya’s historical underpinnings.
Libya exemplifies the counterintuitive historical reality that political, economic and cultural adaptation is slowest in states where revolutionary change is the norm, the quid pro quo being that such societies are perpetually balanced on a knife edge.
Libya’s creation as an artificial amalgamation of three distinct geographical regions in 1934 provides the basis for the contemporary instability. Tripolitania, the western region which traditionally traded with and was oriented towards its southern European neighbours, was combined with the eastern region of Cyrenaica, which historically was aligned eastward with its Egyptian and Arab neighbours, as well as with the south-western region of Fezzan, a region of nomads who had little in common with either of the two coastal regions. As such, following Gaddafi’s downfall in 2011 it is hardly surprising that the nation quickly became divided along traditional regional and tribal lines.
Indeed, the 2014 election typified these divisions, with the outcome producing two rival governments: the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) located in Tripoli in the west, and the House of Representatives (HOR) based in Tobruk in the east. These two governments have their own alliances and alignments with separate militia coalitions, and the division continues with virtually every town having its own militia, which either operates independently or as part of one of the larger militia coalitions, depending on what best serves their interests at the time.
This quagmire of competing interests highlights how the victory over Islamic State in Sirte, while a short-term success, also creates a potential flashpoint. Sirte’s liberation from Gaddafi in 2011 – where, following the infamous public execution of the dictator, the victorious militias then butchered over 300 people who as inhabitants of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, were deemed his supporters – graphically illustrates the destruction that tends to follow such “victories” in Libya.
The warning by Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s first Prime Minister of the post-Gaddafi era, that gutting the Gaddafi-era regime risked repeating the mistake of the de-Baathification of post-Saddam Iraq, has proved prescient. The fact that Libya was held together primarily by the sticky tape of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya doctrine of communal socialism should have highlighted the fallacy of a post-Gaddafi Libya being inherently stable. However, it is not only in this respect that lessons from Iraq have not been learned; indeed there are multiple aspects of the current Western engagement in Libya which resemble the West’s campaign in Iraq post 2003.
The Western nations in Libya have been so eager to engage Islamic State that they have undermined the role of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). Both France and the US have engaged unilaterally with various Libyan militias to pursue isolated counter-terrorism goals, thereby undermining UNSMIL’s attempts at unification and potentially perpetuating instability. This Iraqesque short-termism smacks of tactics without a strategy.
Due to the historical trend that authoritarianism often begets authoritarianism, Western involvement is a necessity. However, it is imperative that this intervention matures from its present nature; that of a mix of states pursuing individual self-interest and disparate, uncoordinated short-term goals. The pressing requirement is to pivot Libyans away from their traditional apathy towards centralised government, a product of the more than 600 People’s Committees of the Jamahiriyya era which invested localities with authority at the expense of central administration. Achieving this degree of unification is highly unlikely when Western nations themselves cannot present a unified multilateral front. The price of failure in reversing this apathy is high.
Firstly, the Berber nomadic populations, especially the Tuareg people, of the Fezzan region will likely increase their orientation away from Libya and continue pushing into the geographical belt stretching from the mountains of Morocco to the Saharan regions of Mali and Egypt. This upheaval has already resulted in escalating conflicts with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and has seen Mali plunged into chaos.
Secondly, the further proliferation of Islamist movements filling the vacuums of public space could in turn provide potential havens for Islamic State fighters who have fled Sirte and strengthen the existing Islamic State cells that exist across the country. Such movements could also prove attractive to the burgeoning numbers of urban youth who are suffering high unemployment.
Unfortunately, on current form Western policy looks more likely to exacerbate than ameliorate these outcomes.
Nicholas Lyall is a recent Honours graduate in International Relations from the University of Sydney.