Libya, a source of instability in North Africa

Libya, a source of instability in North Africa

Libya flag

Of all the North African states Libya is the most predisposed to internal divisions and instability. At the same time it’s also the only North African state to have failed to eliminate the ethnic and tribal barriers and to create a national identity. The main obstacle to achieving this goal has been and still is geography.

Geography, the determining factor

By now we are accustomed with the idea that geography plays almost always – if not always – the determining role in how a state evolves internally. The difference between states is that for some geography has a negative impact, while for others a positive one. Libya is one of those states which is geographically disadvantaged, its territory having no major sources of water, no mountains or fertile areas – like the other North African countries have for example – which to enable large-scale agriculture. It is simply a desert. In the absence of a geographic element which to inhibit ethnic and tribal differences, isolated communities have persisted – usually formed around sources of water – each with its own identity, in some cases dating back hundreds or thousands of years. The only important resources of the country are oil – which for example is of higher quality than the Russian oil – and gas, but neither of those did nothing to contribute in a positive way in homogenizing the Libyan population, mostly because they were always under the control of a small group of people, led by Gaddafi. On the contrary, energy resources have deepened the division within Libya due to the emergence of two producing regions, one producing mainly oil and the other producing mostly gas, each with its own bureaucracy and infrastructure.

Even so, until the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in October 2011, Libya was a highly centralized and stable state, the repressive apparatus, the army and the political system created by Muammar Gaddafi having maintained the status quo for decades. But none of those contributed in any way in creating a national identity, which is why when the system collapsed, the divisions that until than had been more or less dormant, resurfaced. Of course not only geography played a role in shaping Libya, but it is the main reason.

 The militias, law enforcement forces and sources of instability

One of the ways in which internal divisions resurfaced was the emergence of various well-armed militias in cities like Misrata, Benghazi or Zentan. While Gaddafi was still alive they had a common goal and therefore posed no threat, but when the former dictator was physically eliminated – possibly since before that – differences between these groups and differences between the militias and the new leadership in Tripoli started to take birth. Ironically, the new government in Tripoli was initially forced to turn to the militias for maintaining internal order, which otherwise would not have been possible. Gradually though, they became the biggest obstacle in the way of achieving internal stability and in restoring the government’s authority. And given the large number of weapons the militias posses – weapons which originally belonged to the Libyan army – it is unlikely that the regime in Tripoli will be able to disband the militias too soon, not without massive external support. In a fairly limited manner the General National Congress – the body which theoretically governs the country – managed to put the militias in a position of financial dependence, but this did not prevent the occupation of governmental buildings when pressure on the government was needed.

It should be noted however, that since before the civil war Italy was hinting to a possible split in two of the country – as it had had happened in the past – and the NATO commandment suspected that the militias will refuse to disarm themselves. So the countries that granted aid to the rebel cause were aware of the existing divisions in Libya, so what followed the civil war came as no surprise.

 Ethnic division

Most of the Libyan population is divided into four major ethnic groups: Arabs – the bulk of the population – Berbers, Tuaregs and Tebo (Tibbu). Of these, the Berbers and Tuaregs were the ones with the greatest freedom of action, even during the Gaddafi era. That’s because it’s virtually impossible to control a group which when it feels threatened can simply pass the border into Mali or Niger or take the road to the Sahara Desert, and later return unhindered. Again, geography prevented effective control, especially in the southern territories. Such an effort would require the continued presence of substantial military forces, which Libya never had. This did not prevent Gaddafi to recruit and equip Tuareg militants into his army in order to fight against the rebel forces. It was this way that the Tuaregs came into possession of large quantities of weapons, which after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, they used to foment a rebellion in northern Mali and perform operations in Chad. It took a direct military intervention by France to push the Tuareg militants out of Mali.

 The political division

 The above mentioned problems are amplified by the existence of two centers of power, one in the west – Tripoli – and one in the east – Benghazi -. In parallel, both military and intelligence services had been affected by the internal conflict and thus have a very limited operational capacity. Also, even within the General National Congress there are competing factions. Or, in the lack of a single powerhouse with effective instruments for the exercise of authority, it’s very difficult to solve these internal problems.

The authority of the General National Congress in Tripoli is further eroded by the fact that within its administration there are people who were once part of the Gaddafi administration. On the one hand this is due to corruption, but also because Libya simply does not have many people with administrative skills. In other words, there aren’t many who can actually govern the country … or what’s left of it. Given that the country had the same regime for over 40 years, it’s easy to understand why.

 The consequences

 The division of the state, the lack of a capable central power and the persistence of large numbers of heavily armed militias with often conflicting interests led to a general state of insecurity. Moreover, Libya has become a corridor for arms and drug traffickers, who can move in virtually any geographical direction and in any neighboring country they wish.

The Islamist threat is quite low due to the militias and tribes. But this does not stop the Islamists to use the isolated territories – particularly those in the south and south-west – as launching pads for attacks in neighboring countries, such as the one on the natural gas processing plant at In Amenas in Algeria, which is very close to the border with Libya and where, among others, two Romanians died more than a year ago. For this reason Algeria, Mali, Egypt as well as Chad have increased the number of patrols and monitoring operations at their borders with Libya.


Libya’s suffering is not caused so much by the civil war, as it is by the internal problems left unresolved by Muammar Gaddafi. The war simply revealed a series of weaknesses and vulnerabilities which had remained more or less dormant for decades. And it’s almost impossible to solve these problems anytime soon, especially since the General National Congress does not have too many human and financial resources, so we can expect a weak, divided and on the edge-of-survival Libyan state for many years to come.

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