Libya’s descent into the abyss continues unabated

To be sure, the emergence of an “emirate” based on Salafist-Jihadist thought would be a troubling development for Libya

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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A few days ago, the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia declared Benghazi an “Islamic emirate” after claiming to have taken total control of Libya’s second-largest city, seizing military barracks with rockets and ammunition. The official spokesperson of the extremist group told local Radio Tawhid that “Benghazi has now become an Islamic emirate.” The extremely unstable situation in Libya is mutating again into what appears to be a more dangerous phase.

To be sure, the emergence of an “emirate” based on Salafist-Jihadist thought would be a troubling development for Libya. Although this “emirate” illustrates the collapse of governance across a broad expanse of territory, endangering lives, creating chaos, and forcing the evacuation, deportation, arrest, and even execution of those not “inclusive” of the new “regime,” there are also other attributes at play in Libya: the mosaic of ethnicity, tribes, religion, and secularism that are at war with each other on multiple levels that allow Salafist-Jihadists to come to power. According to an Arab official, an “emirate” in Libya provides an alternative state structure that excludes everyone but the pious. But there are other more subtle attributes that make such a state – an Islamic Emirate - more dangerous for the entire region.

If warlords in Libya become bureaucrats, which certainly seem the case, then the fragile country will certainly be broken for years to come

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Some Libyans had high hopes that General Haftar’s Operation Dignity would bring more stability and security to the country, yet the exact opposite has been true. The operation has caused an even greater division and competition between the existing militant factions. Simultaneously, the Libyan factions are so numerous and fluctuating in identity that no one of them is able to overpower the other or to sustain popularity from the people. Furthermore, Libyans are cautious about taking sides, not only because they do not favor one over the other, but also because as in the case of Haftar, they have doubts about the person himself. They are hesitant to give their loyalty and support to a leader that has a controversial past, one that is associated with late dictator Qaddafi and later with the CIA. There are also worries that if Haftar were to assume power, he would favor the old-Gaddafi business elite. The Libyan people are wary of the uncertainty and the predicted dangers which are linked to possible future governance of General Haftar.

Increasing fears

Amid the escalation of the conflict between the different factions in Libya, foreign governments have accelerated prompt evacuations of non-essential personnel from the country. This urgency comes due to increasing fears that Libya will experience even greater anarchic conditions leading to its plunge into complete state failure and warlordism. Along with foreign envoys from countries such as the United States, Turkey, China, UK, Greece, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, the United Nations and other aid groups have joined the evacuation mission. However, considering that the violent combat has engulfed the airports, especially the Tripoli Airport, evacuation of foreign personnel has been carried out via land and maritime means. Mainly, three such passages have been used; the first is overland through Egypt or Tunisia, while the second extends to the usage of military airports in Egypt and other neighboring countries. The third evacuation route involves sea passage through Malta and other close-by areas. Government administrations have chosen evacuation in the hopes to minimize risks and to avoid the repetition of previous attacks on their staff and personal such as the ones that occurred in Benghazi in 2012.

Meanwhile, the fierce battle over the Tripoli Airport does not come without solid reasons. Since the previous parliament which had supported the Misratans politically and financially lost power, the Islamist alliance has been even more keen to capture control over the airport as they believe that faction which has total control of the airport will be able to govern the whole capital. In other words, the Tripoli Airport is equated with power. In addition, the fact that the Zintanis are able to sustain and fund themselves by occupying the airport for three years now is a fact. The airport reportedly provides the Zintanis with the means and resources to conduct their smuggling operations; the most profitable commodities like gold and hard currency are transported by air. The airport also is a location where oil resources were stored.

Finally, the Libyan House of Representatives met in Tubruk, 1,300 kilometers east of the capital, Tripoli. The scene, within a heavily guarded compound, had the air of isolation and powerlessness. Oppositionists elected to the body said meetings should take place in Tripoli without delay. Unmistakably, having two different meetings in itself is illustrative of the fragmented nature of Libyan society currently. This split, based on local politics and militia prowess, is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon of varying forms of warlordism in some way similar to what is seen in Afghanistan, Lebanon or in African countries including Somalia. The ongoing collapse of central Libyan state authority and the rise of provincial or regional militia rulers exercising considerable power and autonomy over local politics and economics drive the post-Qaddafi state. Warlords thrive on chaos and prey on a failing state such as Libya today. If warlords in Libya become bureaucrats, which certainly seem the case, then the fragile country will certainly be broken for years to come thereby affecting many of its North African and north Mediterranean neighbors. Having a “Somalia” or an “Afghanistan” on Europe’s south is not healthy for the European Union and its member states. As of now, everyone seems to be running away.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

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