The ceasefire agreement of October 23, 2020 led to political and diplomatic detente and relative calm. With the elections of February 5th, 2021 being held under the aegis of the UN, Libya has given itself a new executive headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Mohamed al-Menfi as head of the Presidential Council. The “Government of all Libyans”, called to lead the country in the path of democratic transition until the elections of 24 December 2021, has formally put an end to the separation between that of Fayez Al Serraj in Tripoli, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA) and internationally recognized, and that loyal to Marshal Khalifa Haftar, based in Tobruk.
The situation in mid-2021 is fluid. The meetings between the new Libyan authorities and foreign representatives are proceeding well: fr example, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi went to Tripoli on April 6th for his first State visit. However, the situation on the ground remains delicate and could escalate. Human traffickers and the militias that support them have accelerated their activities (with the heat, landings and tragedies at sea have increased), trying to cash in as much as possible before a possible blockade. Another problem still unresolved is that of foreign mercenaries who not only did not adhere to the appeal to leave the territory, but have instead strengthened their positions in some areas.
In Benghazi, General Khalifa Haftar, the “field marshal” friend of the CIA, who led the second civil war and tried in vain to conquer Tripoli and the rest of the country with weapons, is trying to regain ground. According to his plans, he would now be preparing to run for the December elections, but he has lost much of his popular support. The tribal chiefs of Cyrenaica accuse him of having many of their children killed for nothing. In order not to abandon the fight, he could try to destabilize the new government which sees a renewed, and apparently more serious, commitment of the European Union. “We are ready to work with Libya for its security and development” said the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, during his visit to Tripoli on May 28, together with the Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio and his Maltese colleague Everist Bartolo. As always, the theme of migrants and detention centres in Libya was on the foreground: centres that Tripoli, according to the words of the Minister in charge Ajdid Maatuq Jadid, would plan to close if “Europe will provide modern devices to monitor and follow this tide of people”.
What is being fought for
Gaetano Salvemini, arguing against the Italian-Turkish war of 1911, claimed that Libya was just a “box of sand” without any interests. In 1939 it was the geologist Ardito Desio who proved that the Italian politician was wrong by discovering deposits of magnesium and potassium and the indication of the presence of hydrocarbons in the oasis of Marada, 120 kilometres south of El Agheila, where Graziani had set up the largest concentration camp for Libyan rebels. It was the American companies, after the war, that confirmed the enormous wealth hidden under the soil of the country. According to an estimate by the US Energy Information Agency, Libya has the largest crude oil reserve in the entire African continent, with 48 billion barrels (6.5 billion tons), and the fourth-largest natural gas reserve, after Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt, with 55 trillion cubic feet (about 2 billion cubic meters). The quality of the oil, defined as “sweet”, is considered the best in the world; its extraction cost is low, its proximity to Europe means that 85% is exported to our markets.
It is a cake that is tempting to many; this is at the basis of the vast interest of external and internal actors, interest confirmed several times by the parts in the civil conflict. Thanks to the presence of the Italian Energy supplier ENI, the link between Libya and Italy (which buys 21.1% of Libyan oil and gas) has never been interrupted.
The past has returned like a ghost to haunt Libya’s present. It is not the memory of the ancient past, when Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were conquered and colonized by Rome and Leptis Magna was one of the three most important cities in all of North Africa, but rather, the history of the different phases of competition between Muslim and Christian powers. Conquering then, as today, meant dividing: the “Libya” we know today was never a unitary State even in the long years of Byzantine or Arab and Ottoman rule. It was under Fascism that the current borders were more or less drawn, and after the war, with the approval of London and Washington, the country became the “United Kingdom of Libya”, a hereditary and constitutional monarchy under King Idris al-Sanusi. With Muammar Gaddafi there was the first real attempt to unify the populations of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan.
The income from oil allowed the young officer-turned-leader to develop the country’s infrastructure, but if the scattered interventions raised the standard of living of the population, they did not eliminate the historical jealousies among the inhabitants of Libya. Benghazi felt entitled to be the capital and its inhabitants felt they were neglected compared to those of Tripoli, a thousand kilometers away. Both, often displaying racist attitudes, did not even take into consideration those who lived in desert oases (often rich in hydrocarbons) or in the mountains further South. In the 1970s, in the three volumes of his “Green Book”, Gaddafi had indicated a complex path to socialism that married Western philosophy and secular readings of the Koran: proposals that went against the Muslim tradition and the archaic reality of the local tribal society. As a model of development, he often cited that of the Israeli kibbutz. The petrodollars guaranteed him wide support but his anti-Western positions, joined with economic and sometimes military support for the most disparate revolutionary movements, were considered a threat by many chancelleries and local leaders. He crushed with a firm hand the internal dissent, partly fomented by the Islamic clergy. He was the first to warn Washington of the dangerous radicalization of ex-combatants (many Libyans) who went to fight in Afghanistan against Soviet troops and who formed al Qaeda.
In the years immediately preceding the assault on his regime, when he had closed his dispute with the West (allegations of terrorism, then embargo), he was again courted by Washington and London. Spurred on by one of his sons (Seif), he launched signals of change, largely rejected by economically powerful groups and by the very establishment he had created by favouring some tribes (there are 140, 30 are the largest). Their powerful leaders often opposed to the unity of the country itself. Protests arose in the wake of the “Arab Spring”, but with different reasons than in the neighbouring countries-, sometimes, motives for uprise were also divergent between regions and strata of the Libyan population itself. The first outbreak occurred in Benghazi on February 16, 2011. The news was full of truths and lies: the riots became a civil war, the UN intervened to support the rioters by attacking troops loyal to the Regime. Seven months later, on October 21st, 2011, the Libyan leader (who had taken refuge in Sirte) was captured and assassinated in an operation coordinated by the French and US secret services.
The failure of any agreement between those who had participated in the anti-Gaddafi riots led, after three years, to the second civil war and to the addition of new actors, including the new ISIS fighters: an increasingly confusing game. Two rival governments were formed, then another one, failed, of national agreement. In 2017 it was clear that tribal interests, old hatreds and antagonisms together with the increasingly active involvement of external actors had taken over the attempts at national reconciliation. A peace process has been underway since August 2020, while efforts are being made to quantify the damage. According to some estimates, the number of Libyans expatriated to Tunisia since the start of the civil war in 2011 is 1.8 million, about one-third of the population. Tens of thousands are internally displaced. The figures for deaths and serious injuries in ten years of conflict vary from 3 to 25 thousand. The UN has called for an investigation into war crimes after the discovery of mass graves with at least 200 bodies in Tarhuna, which was under the control of General Haftar.
Key figure or organization
In 2019, the Jordan-based Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center placed him at the top of the list of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, current President of Turkey, has taken up many of the traditions and aspirations of the ancient empire Ottoman. It is easy to see, from his growing presence in the complex games of the numerous powers, European and non-European, around Libya, that he has a hegemonic design on the southwestern shore of the Mediterranean. As mayor of Istanbul, he was an excellent administrator: as a politician, Prime Minister, and even in his current position, he has shown increasingly dictatorial tendencies by stifling criticism and freedom of the press. In Libya, where he has sent thousands of mercenaries, as well as in Syria and Palestine, Erdogan supports the most radical Islam. The party he founded, the AKP, is linked to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood.
FOCUS 1 – The migrants’ tragedy
The blackmails and transversal games of human traffickers continue, and embarrassing confirmations emerge regarding the confidential contacts of some of them with the Italian authorities. The 2021 spring saw a sharp acceleration in the activity of criminal organizations and an increase in migrants who left the Libyan coast. From January 1st to mid-May, 12,894 migrants landed on the Italian coasts – three times more than the 4,184 in the same period last year. 13% of those who landed originates from Tunisia, 10% from the Ivory Coast, 9% from Bangladesh and 7% from Guinea. Unaccompanied minors disembarked from January 1st to May 3rd are 1,373, compared to the 4,687 who arrived throughout the whole of 2020. According to UN sources, at least 700 have drowned since the beginning of the year. “The photos of the corpses of children and babies shipwrecked on a Libyan beach and abandoned there for days should awaken our consciences and that of all of Europe”: these are the declarations of the Five Star senators of the European Political and Foreign Affairs Commissions of Palazzo Madama. For now, overcrowded detention centres continue to flourish.
FOCUS 2 – Mercenaries’ assault
The number of foreign soldiers and mercenaries in Libya, according to UN diplomats, is estimated at over 20,000, including 13,000 Syrians and 11,000 Sudanese. To these must be added hundreds of fighters affiliated with Turkey and Russia. Sirte and al-Jufra are run by Russian military personnel supporting Khalifa Haftar, while the Al-Watiya base was said to be reorganized by Turkish officers and Syrian mercenaries in support of the outgoing Government of National Accord. African mercenaries pose a threat to the entire continent, and the UN has expressed its intent in having them disarmed before being expelled from Libya.