How Libya’s conflict got so complicated, and why there’s now hope

North Africa

Libya’s civil war has led to conflict, poverty, slavery and people trafficking – but the country has a chance to change for the better through its upcoming elections.

With Libya still embroiled in conflict and a political crisis that has divided the country, it is important to examine how a once peaceful and economically prosperous country got to where it is now, where bloodshed, violence, human trafficking and slavery are all commonplace.

The current conflict in the country can be traced from the rise and reign of Muammar al-Gaddafi. In 1969, the then 27 year old army officer staged a coup in his country with the support of fellow officers, where he deposed the Senussi monarchy of Idris. Having taken power, Gaddafi converted Libya into a republic governed by his Revolutionary Command Council. Ruling by decree, he ejected both the Italian population and Western military bases from Libya while strengthening ties to Arab nationalist governments.

In the 1970s and 80s the country experienced an economic boom thanks to the discovery and monetisation of large oil reserves. This allowed Gaddafi to introduce free healthcare and education for Libyans. Through his rentier state, he used his wealth and authority to repress dissidents and drag his country through costly international conflicts. These included the conflict with the government of Chad. In 1987, after years of skirmishes between the two countries, Gaddafi sent thousands of troops led by Khalifa Haftar.

The move was a disaster for Gaddafi, who called off the attack and retreated leaving hundreds of soldiers including Khalifa Haftar in captivity. Haftar vowed to overthrow Gaddafi’s regime and when protests took place across the country in 2011, Haftar returned to form the Libyan National Army (LNA), which was key to the defeat of the Libyan dictator in October of that year.

Following the overthrow and death of Gaddafi, the country started to slowly descend into chaos as two rivalling governments began to emerge, the first in the east led by Haftar, and the second in thewest of the country, first led by the General National Congress’ Nouri Abu-Sahmain and then later by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016.

While the GNA was considered the country’s unity government that could finally bring stability back to the country, relations between this new government and General Haftar have broken down given the conflict across the country, in particular for control of the country’s oil reserves. This has entrenched the divisions in the country and has left the country bitterly divided until today.

Recent efforts such as the Palermo Conference, hosted by Italy, have been made to find a solution to the crisis. All the major actors in the Libyan conflict met together in Sicily and have decided to go ahead with the United Nation’s plan to hold elections for summer next year. While there is renewed hope for peace, the volatile nature of the conflict in the country still leaves Libya on the brink of uncertainty.