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Why is Libya so lawless?

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Libya has been beset by chaos since Nato-backed forces overthrew long-serving ruler Col Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.

The oil-rich country, a key departure point for some of the thousands of migrants travelling to Europe, once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa, with free healthcare and free education.

But the stability that led to its prosperity has been shattered and the capital, Tripoli, is now the scene of serious fighting between rival forces as negotiations to build a post-Gaddafi Libya stall.

Short presentational grey line

Is anyone in control?

Only Libya’s myriad armed militias really hold sway – nominally backing two centres of political power in the east and west with parallel institutions.

  • Tripoli administration, the internationally recognised government, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA)

This is under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, an engineer by profession. He arrived in Tripoli in March 2016, four months after a UN-brokered deal to form a unity government, to set up his administration. Over the last three years he has worked to gain the support of the various militias and politicians, but he has little real power over the whole country or of the forces ostensibly under his control.

  • Tobruk administration, includes the parliament elected in 2014 after disputed elections

When those who held power in Tripoli refused to give it up in 2014, the newly elected MPs moved to the port of Tobruk, 1,000km (620 miles) away, along with the old government. In 2015 some of these MPs backed the UN deal for a unity government, but the parliament has since refused to recognise it and has been blocking efforts to organise fresh elections because it wants military strongman Gen Khalifa Haftar, who leads a powerful force called the Libyan National Army (LNA), to be guaranteed a senior role in any new set-up.

Control map of Libya
Presentational white space

Some go as far as to suggest that Gen Haftar has ambitions to be “the Sisi of Libya”, a reference to Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power in neighbouring Egypt.

And it is guns that matter. Some security analysts describe Libya as an arms bazaar. It is awash with weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenal and from allies in the region supporting rival factions.

Militia allegiances often shift out of convenience and with the need to survive.

Weren’t they all once allies?

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

Muammar Gaddafi during a news conference at the Quirinale palace in Rome June 10, 2009Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionCol Gaddafi was in power for 42 years

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

And after more than four decades of authoritarian rule, they had little understanding of democracy.

Libyan women celebrating in Tripoli in October 2011Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe euphoria following Col Gaddafi’s demise has vanished

Former US President Barack Obama, in an interview published in April 2016, said that the “worst mistake” of his presidency was the failure to prepare for the aftermath of Col Gaddafi’s overthrow.

He partly blamed then-UK Prime Minister David Cameron for “the mess”, saying he had not done enough to support the North African nation.

Who is Gen Haftar?

He helped Col Gaddafi seize power in 1969 before falling out with him in the 1980s and going into exile. He returned amid the uprising against Gaddafi to fight against his former boss – and in the aftermath cast himself as the main opponent of the Islamist militias in eastern Libya.

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