Why is poverty a problem in Libya

Domestic conflicts

Wolfram Lacher

To person

Wolfram Lacher, born 1977, has been a researcher in the Near / Middle East and Africa research group of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) since 2010. His work focuses on Libya and the Sahel zone. His work is largely based on regular discussions with actors and observers on site. He studied Arabic, African and political science in Leipzig, Paris, Cairo, London and Berlin. He is the author of the book "Libya's Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict" (London: I.B. Tauris, 2020) as well as numerous articles and analyzes on the conflicts in Libya.

Since the violent overthrow of dictator Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been largely without state authority. In two civil wars (2014 and 2019), no conflicting party was able to gain the upper hand. The interventions of regional and great powers are playing an increasingly decisive role in the conflict.

The civil war in Libya is wreaking havoc. (& copy picture-alliance, Photoshot)

Current situation

In April 2019, General Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, began a large-scale military offensive with the aim of seizing the capital Tripoli and thus power in the country by force. Haftar mobilized a coalition of armed groups, the core of which are units led by his sons, relatives or close confidants. A broad alliance of forces formed against Haftar, mainly from western Libyan cities, which were only formally subordinate to the internationally recognized unity government in Tripoli. After more than a year of ongoing fighting in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, government forces succeeded in displacing Haftar's troops from western Libya in June 2020. Since then, the two sides have faced each other in the center of the country. They signed a ceasefire in October 2020, but implementation has stalled.

In the course of the war for Tripoli, foreign interventions in the Libyan conflict increased dramatically. Haftar initially received military support primarily from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Turkey, which competes with the UAE for regional influence, therefore began to support the government forces. Both sides used combat drones. Haftar later gained a military advantage through the use of Russian mercenaries. The government forces found themselves in an increasingly threatening position. At the end of 2019, Turkey massively expanded its intervention and stationed thousands of Syrian mercenaries in support of the government in Tripoli, which ultimately led to Haftar's defeat in Tripoli. Haftar also recruited mercenaries from Syria and had Russian fighter planes stationed. Turkey's military success also prompted Egypt to threaten direct military intervention. The foreign powers are now determining the conflict. Without them there is no solution.

The two camps that faced each other during the Tripoli war were alliances of convenience. Haftar had assembled a broad alliance of forces who hoped to come to power with him in Tripoli - including radical Salafists, former supporters of the Gaddafi regime and criminal gangs. On the other hand, the danger of a violent seizure of power by Haftar united his opponents, the majority of whose armed groups could be traced back to the revolutionary forces of 2011.

Since Haftar's offensive failed and his takeover of power no longer seems realistic, both camps have slowly begun to disintegrate. In Tripoli in particular, power struggles over control of state institutions are developing. The numerous militias, which often appear as units of the Interior or Defense Ministry, are also involved in this. There are hardly any state security forces in Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. While Haftar's forces control the east and center of the country, the rest of Libya is fragmented under spheres of influence of local armed groups.

The escalation of the conflict since April 2019 has also worsened the country's precarious economic situation. The Libyan economy is completely dependent on oil exports. The funding areas are within Haftar's sphere of influence. Since January 2020, it has largely paralyzed oil production in order to put the government in Tripoli under financial pressure. Many Libyans are dependent on civil service salaries and suffer from government unpaid payments. Health care and power supply are also on the verge of collapse due to long years of state collapse, corruption and war damage.

Causes and Background

The 2011 Libyan revolution was not only a struggle against the forty-year rule of Muammar al-Gaddafi, but also a civil war between supporters and opponents of the regime. The coastal cities of Benghazi and Misrata as well as the western mountain region became strongholds of the revolution. Regions in which the regime retained control for a long time and from which Gaddafi's security apparatus was heavily recruited, on the other hand, received a reputation for supporting the regime. Both sides used arbitrary violence against residents of certain cities. With the fall of Gaddafi, the regime's arsenals were plundered across the country and numerous new militias were created. The civil war of 2011 created the breeding ground for new violence and conflict.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, there has been no state monopoly on the use of force in Libya. The transition process that began in October 2011 was marked by fierce power struggles. Even after the election to the National Congress in July 2012, the revolutionary forces failed to form a closed government alliance. Rival groups used their position in the state apparatus to set up their own militias under the guise of official institutions. These power struggles escalated into another civil war after the parliamentary elections in mid-2014.

The conflicts are an expression of the division and the deep legitimacy crisis of the remaining rump state. The split in state institutions goes back to the outbreak of the second civil war in 2014. From then on, two governments and parliaments competed with each other - one based in Tripoli and the other in the east of the country. Both denied each other's legitimacy. Even the negotiation of an agreement to form a unity government at the end of 2015 was unable to overcome the split. The parliament in the east did not recognize the agreement and the new government; the government in the east, allied with Haftar, continued to exist. A draft constitution drawn up in 2017 was never submitted to the scheduled referendum. That is why there is still no generally accepted basis for new elections.

The struggle for power in Libya is also a struggle for the country's riches. The state institutions in Tripoli are fed by oil exports and offer numerous opportunities for self-enrichment. Incumbents and parliamentarians on either side have little interest in resolving the conflict. Armed groups across the country also benefit from the collapse of the state, which allows them to pursue their criminal activities. This also includes business with migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa who want to reach Europe via Libya and who are often held in camps under terrible conditions and tortured by criminal networks in order to extort ransom.

Processing and solution approaches

The UN Assistance Mission in Libya (UNSMIL [1]) is in charge of efforts to find a political solution. It was set up in September 2011 to advise the transitional government. After the collapse of the transition process, the mission focused primarily on negotiating and implementing the agreement to form a unity government, which was signed in December 2015 in Skhirat (Morocco) through the mediation of the German UN special envoy Martin Kobler.

The unity government failed to achieve its goal, however, as Haftar refused to submit and subsequently became stronger and stronger thanks to continued support from the UAE and France. Efforts by the UN Political Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) to include Haftar in a new agreement with the unity government also failed.

After the renewed outbreak of civil war in 2019, UNSMIL and the federal government launched the Berlin process. It should reach an agreement among the intervening states on a political solution and induce them to stop fueling the conflict with military support. Since western states exerted hardly any pressure on the states involved, however, arms deliveries and the stationing of mercenaries continued to increase sharply even after the Berlin conference in January 2020. That did not change after the EU naval operation Irini, which was set up to monitor the UN arms embargo. A large part of the arms deliveries to Libya come by air.

Since Haftar's defeat in Tripoli, UNSMIL has made renewed efforts to mediate between the conflict actors. These are made more difficult not only by the conflicting interests of the intervening states - especially the UAE, Egypt, Turkey and Russia. The fragmentation of the political landscape and the armed groups is also a challenge when trying to get all relevant actors to the negotiating table.

History of the conflict

In February 2011, riots broke out in several Libyan cities. The Gaddafi regime tried to suppress the protests by force, but in doing so contributed to further escalation. On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council authorized an intervention to protect the civilian population in Resolution 1973. The subsequent air strikes under NATO command soon turned out to be a unilateral intervention in the civil war in favor of the revolutionaries. The civil war ended with the capture and subsequent murder of Gaddafi in October 2011.

The transition process initiated after the fall of the regime achieved some successes, including the parliamentary elections in July 2012. Initially, armed conflicts only flickered sporadically here and there. However, due to the disagreement between the successive transitional governments, the security situation deteriorated noticeably. In Benghazi there were more and more attacks against members of the former security apparatus. Jihadist groups became more active in Darna, Benghazi and Sirte.

With the beginning of a military offensive in Benghazi by Haftar in May 2014, the conflicts developed into a national power struggle. Two months later, the fighting spilled into Tripoli, where an alliance led by armed groups from Misrata fought against Haftar's western Libyan allies. In the spring of 2015, a stalemate arose which enabled the conflicting parties in western Libya to negotiate local ceasefires. In Benghazi, however, Haftar continued to wage war and eventually gained control over the entire east of the country. In the years that followed, Haftar slowly expanded its territory without encountering significant resistance from the unity government formed in Tripoli at the end of 2015. It was not until his offensive against Tripoli in April 2019 that a broad coalition of armed groups formed behind the unity government, which Haftar's troops ultimately repulsed with Turkish support.


Lacher, Wolfram (2020): Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict, London: I.B. Tauris.

Laessing, Ulf (2020): Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi, London: Hurst.

Wehrey, Frederic (2018): The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Keilberth, Mirko / Schaap, Fritz (2019): The Warlord. Der Spiegel, August 30, 2019.

Andreas Rinke, conference instead of escalation. International Politics 3 (2020).

Lacher, Wolfram (2016): Was Libya's decline predictable? From Politics and Contemporary History 33-34 (2016).

John Lee Anderson, The Breakup. Libya is divided into an eastern and a western part. International Politics 3 (2015).

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Libya Analysis.

International Crisis Group: Libya Analysis.

Deutsche Welle reports on Libya

Article on Spiegel-Online about Libya

Wolfram Lacher's publications on Libya