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Re-emerging Libya?

2024-02-13 08:59

Jan Záhořík

#Libya , #Recovery , #Division , #Optimism , #Resilience , #Unity , #Hope, #LibyaRecovery , #PostQaddafiEra , #SocietalResilience , #OptimisticFuture , #UnityAndDivision , #ScholarlyInsights , #WestAfricanSahel , #LibyanHope,

Re-emerging Libya?

"Academic exploration highlights Libya's dichotomy of division and optimism, showcasing societal resilience and the anticipation of a united, hopeful future."

Until 2011, Libya enjoyed relatively stable environment and prosperity under the long-term rule of Colonel Mu’amar Qaddafi. Since 1969 when Qaddafi took power after the coup which overthrew the Sanusi dynasty, Libya became one of the most economically successful countries in Africa. This was facilitated by a combination of two factors: large deposits of oil and low number of inhabitants. These factors allowed Qaddafi to sponsor free education and health care and minimize dissent and opposition coming primarily from the Islamists and the remnants of what used to be the Sanussiya order. 


The fall of Qaddafi’s regime came as a result of interrelated set of factors that included the rise of Islamic opposition (already from the 1970s),[1] political stagnation, alienation of important elite groups as well as underestimation of demographic impacts (majority of the Libyan population, just like anywhere else in Africa, is of very young age), and the impact of social media spreading the news from other Arab countries where the so-called Arab spring began earlier than in Libya.[2]




Years of civil war (2014-2019) have turned Libya into a country which is not exactly a tourist destination, partly a consequence of the Arab Spring of 2011 and the subsequent overthrow of Qaddafi with the generous support of NATO and other countries, who was first seen by the West as a dangerous supporter of terrorism around the world, then as an eccentric buffoon, and finally as a partner in the fight against migration, for example. It is impossible not to notice that the majority of construction workers or street workers, cleaners or sellers of anything are precisely migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, from Niger, Burkina Faso and a host of other countries, who dream of earning money to continue their journey to Italy or elsewhere in Europe. 


Libya is still a country divided into two parts, with two governments and parliaments, the seats being Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east. But in the meantime, a number of militias, essentially tribal, operate in the country, controlling, for example, the main roads to Niger and Chad, and checkpoints are dotted around the country on the roads between the main cities. The Libyans themselves look to the future with a modicum of optimism and a belief that the worst is behind them, even though the presidential elections are constantly postponed and no one knows when they will take place. The country is still under dual rule, with the Caliph Haftar, supported by the Russians and the Egyptians, in control of the east and the internationally recognised government in Tripoli in control of the west, but in the meantime there is plenty of room for all sorts of militias to operate. “Libya is like a powder keg in this respect,”[3] adds a colleague from one of the universities in Libya.  




Arriving in Tripoli is already a somewhat unusual experience, as foreigners are not allowed out of the airport without securing a ride, kidnappings are still a frequent problem here, and although the security situation is much improved from just last year, according to locals, it is still not won. Tripoli, like other cities on the Mediterranean coast, benefits from its location. At the same time, however, it combines Islamic architecture with colonial, Italian architecture. And so it's no wonder you often find Libyans speaking Italian. Libyans also have a charming way of joking about these memories of the past. 




Driving along the coast, it is impossible not to notice the flood of plastic bottles along this highway that stretches the entire coastline. Mohammed, one of the Tripoli university students accompanying me, says, “you know, there is a garbage collection system in Tripoli, but not outside Tripoli.”[4] Thus, on the way from Tripoli to Misurata, every car passes through several of the aforementioned checkpoints, but nothing extraordinary happens there. It seems to be safe now, but a year or so ago it was quite difficult even for many Libyans to get from Tripoli to Misurata, for example. At each checkpoint there are gunmen in different uniforms, presumably belonging to different militias. Fortunately, they do not search cars when there is a woman inside, which was also the case of the car in which I was. In general, it gave the impression of a routine police check.


Presidential and parliamentary elections were set to happen in Libya in December 2021 but kept being postponed ever since. Given the insecurity, operations of various militias and long-term disputes over candidates’ eligibility (the most know was probably the case of Qaddafi’s Saif al-Islam) and other factors that led electoral committee in Libya to postpone elections to an unknown future.[5] There are obviously several scenarios of what can happen if (or when) the elections take place one day from wide-spread violence to peaceful resolution and co-existence of various political actors with different agendas and regional background. 





Libya is a fairly hierarchical society, formed by the merger of three regions, Cyrenaica in the east, Tripoli in the west and Fezzan in the south. It is the south that Libyans from the coast look down on. “It's not even Libya anymore, there are Tuaregs and Toubou and you often can't even speak Arabic with them, they are closer to Chad and Niger and most importantly it's not safe, you can't even go there,”[6] says another colleague from Tripoli. In this sense, Libya still is divided but hope for the better future is felt on the coast. It seems that the young Libyans are full of optimism and believe that things will only get better. In the meantime, a fleeting visit to Libya makes one want to believe that the country is indeed rising from the ashes. This would be very much needed for the whole region of West African Sahel where the security situation deteriorated soon after the fall of Qaddafi’s regime. 




[1] George Joffe (1988): Islamic Opposition in Libya. Third World Quarterly 10(2), pp. 615-631. 


[2] Ali Abdullatif Ahmida (2012): Libya, Social Origins of Dictatorship, and the Challenge for Democracy. Journal of the Middle East and Africa 3(1), p. 71. 


[3] Personal communication, Tripoli, 30th May 2023. 


[4] Personal communication with a university student, Tripoli, May 2023. 


[5] Addison Emig (2023): Libya’s Elusive Elections: Will 2023 Be the Year for Elections?, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/libyas-elusive-elections-will-2023-be-year-elections (accessed 22nd December 2023).


[6] Personal communication, Tripoli, May 2023.

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