Menu Close

How a decade of conflict and division put Libya in peril of disaster

Share This Article:

Picture: Ali Al-Saadi/REUTERS/Taken on September 11, 2023 – People are stuck on a road as a powerful storm and heavy rainfall hit Shahhat city, Libya, causing deadly floods.

By Miriam Berger and Sarah Dadouch

Entire neighbourhoods levelled. Bridges and roads shattered. Electricity lines downed. Hospitals overwhelmed by casualties. Bodies left lying in the streets. Mass graves filling with corpses.

The scenes of devastation in eastern Libya following catastrophic floods this week are eerily reminiscent of other moments of destruction in the country’s recent history – conflicts that left thousands of people dead, and the country riven by political turmoil.

Picture: Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya via REUTERS/TPX – Members of Libyan Red Crescent Ajdabiya work in an area affected by flooding, in Derna, Libya, in this social media image released September 12, 2023.

Those same divisions have exacerbated the ongoing disaster: Years of war and political rivalry have laid waste to Libya’s state services and infrastructure, leaving the country severely unprepared to respond to a mass-scale humanitarian catastrophe.

Here’s what to know about the state of affairs in Libya, a country battered by war and without a central authority.

Why is Libya divided between two governments?

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya as a strongman from 1969 until 2011, when he was killed by rebel forces during a Nato-backed Arab Spring uprising. Gaddafi – whom The Washington Posts described as the “eccentric, unpredictable and brutal face of Libya” at the time of his death – centralised power, exploited the country’s oil resources and stunted the role of state institutions to preserve his rule.

The fall of Gaddafi left a power vacuum in Libya, one of the Arab world’s largest countries, home to just under 7 million people. Within three years, efforts broke down to build a post-Gaddafi government through elections and to write a constitution. By 2014, another civil war broke out between internationally backed rival armed groups, among them Islamist militants allied with the Islamic State.

Since 2020, Libya has settled into a chaotic stasis, with two competing governments. In the east, Khalifa Hifter heads a coalition of factions and irregular fighters known as the Libyan National Army, or LNA. Libya’s massive oil reserves are concentrated in the east. In the west, the US-supported Government of National Accord, or GNA, rules from the capital, Tripoli, where Libya’s central bank and national oil company are based.

How does the divide affect life in Libya?

Libyans have been forced to contend with the challenges of life in a country governed as two failing states.

“Armed groups and authorities remain responsible for systematic abuses including long-term arbitrary detention, unlawful killings, torture, and forced disappearances,” according to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds remain missing since the end of the 2019 Tripoli war and thousands remain displaced in Libya due to damaged properties, presence of landmines, or fear of persecution.”

The country, with terrain ranging across desert and coastal communities, is highly vulnerable to human-induced climate change. But improvements to and maintenance of basic services and infrastructure, such as the country’s networks of dams, has been deprioritised, says Mary Fitzgerald, a Libya expert at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

“Between 2011 and 2014, there were already concerns about the state of Libyan infrastructure,” Fitzgerald said. “And then Libya went through a six-year civil conflict from 2014 to 2020 and a lot of infrastructure was damaged during that conflict. In the three years since, you have a situation of rival government, which has yet again complicated political dynamics.”

“Political elites, whether in Tripoli or eastern Libya, haven’t prioritised the huge infrastructural challenges Libya faces,” she said.

For Derna, the eastern coastal city struck by this weeks floods, the situation was particularly dire. Nearly a quarter of Derna was destroyed. Much its infrastructure dates back to Italy’s occupation of the country in the early 20th century. More recently, Islamist rebels controlled the city, until Hifter’s forces captured it in 2019.

The area is home to “the marginalised of the marginalised of the conflict”, said Natasha Hall, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, who focuses on humanitarian emergencies in the Middle East.

Disputes between leaders in the east and west over political positions and oil profits periodically flare, leading to shutdowns and drops in production.

Mired in lawlessness, the North African nation has become a major transit point for migrants and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East trying to reach Europe and escape war and poverty.

Picture: Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS/Taken on September 30, 2017 – Migrants on a wooden boat are rescued by a patrol vessel of the Tunisia Navy, seen from the migrant search and rescue vessel MV Seefuchs of the German NGO Sea-Eye in the search and rescue zone south of the Al Jurf Oilfield in international waters off the coast of Libya, September 30, 2017.

Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers die each year in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe from North Africa. But because of exploitation by human smugglers, militants and Libyan authorities, Human Rights Watch has said, migrants in Libya “face systematic and widespread abuses including torture, arbitrary detention, forced labour, and sexual assault”.

What international support do its governments receive?

The United States and the European Union, along with the United Nations, recognise the Tripoli-based government, the GNA, as legitimate. Turkey has allied with the GNA and provided it drones.

But some other key US allies in the region – such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan – have sided with the renegade Hifter and LNA in the east. France aided Hifters forces in fighting Islamist militants, though Paris has denied backing the LNA.

Russia has been a key Hifter ally – and in particular the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit that until recently was led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash over Russia in August after leading a short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin. In 2019, Wagner operatives joined Hifter as he renewed efforts to oust the US-backed government in Tripoli.

What do these divisions mean for response to the floods?

Extreme weather, vulnerable geography, and weak dams and roads made Sunday and Mondays floods Libya’s worst in almost a century, The Post reported.

But politics will be an overriding factor complicating the search and rescue and humanitarian response, analysts said.

“The limit of the Tripoli-based government is that it does not access the east,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank headquartered in Belgium. “The limit of the eastern-based authorities is that they need [financial] support from Tripoli … and support from the international community that goes through, that co-ordinates with Tripoli for the relief efforts.”

Gazzini said efforts so far had involved “some form of coordination”, but no official step toward “the two sides joining hands”.

Adding to the access issues, the eastern government, Fitzgerald said, has “not been particularly open to outsiders, and so forth”. “But I think the needs are so huge, that no one, in the east or west, has the capacity to respond to this situation.”

So far, LNA allies such as Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have sent search-and-rescue teams and medical aid. Turkey, which has an economic presence in the east, sent several planes carrying aid and more than 150 emergency personnel. Qatar, another GNA backer, sent at least two planes worth of aid, including for field hospitals. France is sending a field hospital.

The United States said it is sending support through relief organisations in co-ordination with Libyan authorities and the United Nations. The US Central Emergency Response Fund said it has allotted $10 million to the flood response.

Algeria, Italy, Kuwait, Spain, Tunisia and the United Kingdom, among others, have sent food, specialised emergency equipment and search-and-rescue teams.

The “disaster that has hit Derna has really brought together the country, the people, most importantly”, Gazzini said. “I would not give political weight to the co-operation that exists between east and west, this is people-to-people co-operation.”

Sarah Dadouch is a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. Miriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news for The Washington Post from Washington, DC

This article was first published in The Washington Post