MS Risk Blog

Is Libya a Failed state?

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Libya has fallen into chaos since the 2011 overthrow of long time dictator Moammar Gadhafi. On 15 October, Egyptian warplanes bombed positions in Benghazi, citing a request by the Libyan administration in Tobruk to assist in battling the militias that have overrun the country. One senior Egyptian official said, “This is a battle for Egypt not Libya.” The fear of the chaos in Libya spreading beyond its borders has caused neighbouring countries to initiate a series of defensive actions, from strengthening border patrols and evacuating citizens, to engaging in attacks. Inside Libya, the country remains paralysed as the country continues its third year of battles.

Failed states often have certain key characteristics:

In light of these characteristics, is it fair to argue that Libya has become a failed state?

It can easily be argued that Libya has a weak central government. On 4 September, the newly elected Libyan government announced that it no longer had control of Tripoli. Militant group Fajr Libya took control of the nation’s capital after several weeks of fighting, and recalled the outgoing government, the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) to resume operations. Meanwhile, the elected government, the House of Representatives, is currently conducting operations from within a 1970s hotel in Tobruk, a thousand miles from the capital. Attempts by the United Nations to negotiate peace talks between the two rival governments came to a standstill in early October. Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Tripoli to hold talks with the warring factions. A UN statement on Twitter said Ban “will urge Libyan parties to push forward with political dialogue to restore stability to (the) country.”

Currently, neither of the rival governments carries significant central control over the nation. The country has been divided along tribal groups and militia loyalties. In the east, Ansar al Sharia and other organisation have engaged in battles to create an autonomous region. General Khalifa Hifter has engaged in numerous battles to ‘eliminate’ the radicalised elements that are working to destabilise the nation’s unity. In the west, the region is battling between supporters of the outgoing GNC and the House of Representatives. In the south, clashes between clans have dominated the battles; in April, France referred to the region as a “viper’s nest” of Islamist militants.

The battles among the armed militias and their attempts to enforce dominance in various regions, has led to rampant corruption and crime. The nation has seen an uptick in kidnapping (including the kidnapping of government officials), assassination attempts, offices of businesses and the government held hostage, rampant shootings. Activist group Human Rights Watch has observed that in 2014, there have been at least 250 politically motivated assassinations in Benghazi and Derna alone. They add, “No one has claimed responsibility and there have been no known arrests for the killings. Libyan authorities have failed to conduct investigations, or prosecute those responsible for any of the unlawful killings since 2011, fostering a culture of impunity that has fuelled further abuses.” The lawlessness and clashes in major cities, has caused many residents involuntarily relocate their families to safer regions. This is particularly true in Tripoli and Benghazi.  The United Nations Human Rights Council has estimated that 287,000 people in 29 cities and towns countrywide have been displaced.

Libya has suffered steady economic decline in recent years. Several militias, as well as the rival governments are battling for control of the nation’s vast oil reserves. In 2013, the economy was frozen by blockades of oil export terminals in the East. Last month, ship operators announced that cargo imports into Libya have dropped by an estimated 75%, in large part due to the closure of banks in the nation. These closures affected the ability of Libyan importers to make payments or open letters of credit. Further exacerbating the imports are violence at ports and destinations, the absence of inland transportation, damage to warehouse facilities and the increasing cost of insurance premiums for operations in Libya. It is estimated that Libya’s budget deficit could more than double to 19 billion Libyan dinars ($15 billion) in 2014.

Finally, Libya is struggling to maintain public services including water and electricity. In August, power was cut across most Libyan cities and towns, including Benghazi and Ajdabia. Libya’s General Electricity Company said the blackouts were due to “the acute shortage of fuel supplies to generating stations in the southern areas. Major power transmission circuits which supply Tripoli and neighboring areas have been damaged as well. Other major circuits are also out of service in the eastern area.” Meanwhile, last month leaders in Sirte held an emergency meeting to discuss the shortage of drinking water.

Libya currently has a number of worrying factors, suggesting that if it is not a failed state, it could certainly become one. The UN is currently working to reignite talks between warring factions in hopes of creating a smooth transition of power between the GNC and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives, for its part, is working to cut the budget deficit for 2015, establish a strong and loyal army, and ensure an increase of public services and a decline in crime and corruption. However, these endeavours may only become successful in the absence of armed militias and radicalised groups. Libya may lean heavily on outside support to bring it back from the brink.

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