Lawless Libya: Can peace be achieved?

  • 17 December 2015
  • From the section Africa
Media captionAnarchy in Libya - in 45 seconds

Libya has been beset by chaos since Nato-backed forces overthrew long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. Now a peace deal has been signed to end the conflict, which has threatened the stability of neighbouring states and has been a factor in Europe's migrant crisis.

Will the deal hold?

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The UN has taken a huge gamble by pressing ahead with the signing of the deal - some key politicians, let alone armed groups, have opposed it.

The UN hopes they will eventually back the deal. Otherwise, Libya could sink deeper into conflict, as supporters and opponents of the deal try to strengthen their positions.

What are its main points?

At the heart of the deal lies the formation of a unity government, bringing together lawmakers from Libya's rival parliaments - one based in the capital Tripoli and the other about 1,000km (620 miles) away in the port city of Tobruk.

The UN and Western nations hope it will bring about stability, defeat jihadi groups, and help control the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean.

They have taken a greater interest in Libya since the so-called Islamic State (IS) group gained a foothold in the country last year. Italy is spearheading plans to send 6,000 troops to Libya to assist local troops in curbing IS-linked groups from gaining more territory.

But it is still unclear where the new government will be based, how it will be chosen, or who will head it.

How did Libya end up with two governments?

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Elections held in 2014 were disputed. Those who held power refused to give it up, and remained in the capital, Tripoli. Another faction then set up its own parliament in Tobruk. It had the backing of the UN, and major world powers.

So, the Tripoli faction is deeply suspicious of the UN-led initiative - the head of its parliament, Nouri Abusahmen, has said "we will not accept foreign intervention against the will of the Libyan people".

How chaotic is the country?

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During the uprising, anyone with a gun could command respect, and lots of armed groups - up to 1,700, according to some estimates - emerged.

Some security analysts describe Libya as an arms bazaar. It is awash with weapons looted from Col Gaddafi's arsenal, and some have ended up in the hands of armed groups in Algeria, Mali, Sinai, Gaza and even Syria and Iraq.

The armed groups are linked to influential politicians who will have to persuade them to lay down their arms, and join a new national army.

They are also ideologically divided - some of them are militant or moderate Islamists, others are secessionists and yet others are liberals. Furthermore, the militias are split along regional, ethnic and local lines, making it a combustible mix.

Weren't they all once allies?

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They were united in their hatred for Col Gaddafi - but nothing more. There was no single group in charge of the rebellion. Militias were based in different cities, fighting their own battles.

Several felt they had paid a particularly high price during the conflict and should be rewarded. And after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little understanding of democracy. So, they were unable to forge compromises and build a new state based on the rule of law.

Which are the main militias?

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Libya Dawn controls much of western Libya, including Misrata and Tripoli. It is led by fighters from Misrata, the city which took pride in putting up the most fierce resistance against Col Gaddafi's forces.

Its seizure of Tripoli in August 2014 had the backing of Libya's most senior Islamic cleric, Sheikh Sadik al-Ghariani, who had broadcast messages of support from a location in the UK, urging Libya Dawn to take a "firm hand" in their newly acquired city.

However, loyalties have since changed, and many of the larger Misrata militias have distanced themselves from the Islamist militias in western Libya.

Ansar al-Sharia is in control of parts of the second city Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolution. Until the emergence of IS, it was said to be the most dangerous Islamist armed group in Libya, along with its ally, the 17 February Martyrs Brigade.

Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, and is said to have forged links with other Islamist groups. Some analysts say it includes men who fought in Syria, though there has been no independent confirmation of this.

Islamic State's main base is Sirte, the birthplace of Col Gaddafi. The group is made up of defectors from local jihadi groups, and foreign fighters. Its most prominent affiliate in Libya is the Islamic Youth Shura Council (IYSC).

In October 2014, the IYSC declared that Derna, a small town on the north-eastern coast and some 720 km (450 miles) from Tripoli, had become the first Libyan town to join the global caliphate that IS has vowed to create. However, it has since been pushed out of the town by the al-Qaeda-linked Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna.

General Khalifa Haftar also has a powerful militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA). He has cast himself as the main opponent of the Islamist militias and has the backing of the Tobruk-based government and is said to have co-ordinated military activities with Egypt.

Guide to Libya's militias

Profile: Khalifa Haftar

Rogue general divides Libyans

Have foreigners been targeted?

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Yes. There have been a spate of attacks on diplomats - the most prominent of which was the 2012 killing of Mr Stevens in Benghazi, where the uprising against Col Gaddafi began.

IS carried out its first major attack in Libya in January, when it killed nine people, including five foreigners, in a gun and bomb attack on an upmarket hotel in the capital Tripoli.

In April 2015, its fighters killed more than 20 migrant workers, most of them Ethiopian Christians.

Militias have also seized oil terminals, operated by Western firms. This has led to a huge fall in production, but has not had a major impact on the global oil market.