Governing ungoverned spaces: The case of Libya

The collapse of Libya into failed statehood following its 2011 revolution has been a widely lamented and yet largely misunderstood and understudied phenomenon. The general narrative suggests that this failure followed the 2014 civil-war, which ruptured the state, generated parallel administrations, and further fractured Libya’s militia-centric security provisions. The fact that the migration crisis erupted, and the city of Sirte fell to Daesh in 2015 is considered testament to this narrative which has underscored most international attempts to stabilise Libya through reconciling political factions.

However, whilst the violence and polarisation of 2014 undoubtedly exacerbated Libya’s decline, it could be considered an inevitable culmination of trends which began long before and which must be reckoned with if stable, systemic governance is ever to return.

By the time Libya underwent its own Arab Spring revolution on February 17th 2011, the Jamahiriya (state of the masses) crafted by Moammar Gaddafi was a system that had long outlived its practicality or feasibility. It was a system that had been designed to maximise Gaddafi’s control over Libya, and the Libyan people’s dependency on Gaddafi. The private economy had been severely curtailed since the 1970’s, leaving Libya reliant on hydrocarbon revenues distributed through a heavily centralised state structure which dominated service provision and offered the only real source of employment. Access to state jobs and subsidised goods were distributed nationally through a patronage network designed to maximise loyalty. But whilst it may have worked at first, rapid population growth, fluctuating oil revenues, and developing popular demands had left the system creaking.

The seismic event of the February 17 revolution (2011) caused Libya to atomise socially, economically and militarily. However, instead of following through on the revolutionary principle to build a new system of governance from these atomised constituencies, attempts were made to patch the previous state back together without any real reform. Local elections attempted to formalise the informally developed communal administrations of the war, the creation of new security bodies attempted to institutionalise militias with strong local identities, and national elections attempted to place a democratic head on the Jamahiriya which lived on.

Alas this hybrid Jamahiriya only aggravated the worst tendencies of the previous system whilst failing to mend the damage done by the revolution. Political factions fought to dominate the ministerial portfolio, and with it the keys to the treasury, in short-sighted attempts to enrich and empower themselves and their constituency believing they could seize control over Gaddafi’s system of trickle-down patronage. Militias realised that they could short-circuit the system by directly extracting rents from local infrastructure and use violent coercion to profit off the state and banking system. Amidst this zero-sum fight for riches and influence, local government found itself isolated with unclear and incomplete legislation preventing them from fundraising or governing. The result of this was an exponentially decreasing inability of the state to provide services or security forcing the population to squander their savings or engage in a strengthening shadow economy to salvage what quality of life they could.

This created a cycle of deterioration, empowering non-state actors to provide what the state could or would not which in-turn only further weakened the state’s competency. The prevalence of such an environment in as vast a land as Libya created a seductive environment for criminality perhaps best represented by the growth of people-smuggling cartels and Daesh. The ungoverned nature in-turn made it harder to marshal any local or sustained responses to such crises. Europe, feeling threatened by both and the potential for Libya’s instability to churn out further crises, supported the UN’s attempts to create a political agreement that might bridge 2014’s divides and thus create a government they could partner with and work through to engage these threats.

Eventually, the failure of this policy to bear fruit despite the creation of a Government of National Accord (GNA) led European states to unilaterally engage with local NSA’s that were most capable of solving the crises which most concerned them.

Although these strategic partnerships with NSA’s achieved their goals, they also carried a neglected opportunity-cost which makes more substantive and resilient solutions harder to realise. The GNA is in many ways an internationally created and sustained Libyan government. It was created to be the vehicle for international involvement in solving these crises, a process that would build its capability and legitimacy. As such, through abandoning this process in favour of a more rapid intervention via NSA’s, the GNA and Libya by extension lost the opportunity and sustained close-engagement needed to develop an institutional capacity for dealing with such issues. The fact that various NSA’s who are either exclusivist or criminal in their aspirations were strengthened instead, and that the GNA lost their greatest tool of leverage – determining who gets to engage with and benefit from international engagement – only further undermined the GNA or indeed any future Libyan state.

The GNA was perhaps never the best solution for the problem of the time, given it was a long-term endeavour instigated to solve crises which demanded urgent attention. Nevertheless, the vacuum of governance created by them has led to further atomisation across Libya and empowered NSA’s into semi-formality allowing them to directly profit off the state whilst being independent of any state-system that may command or control them.

This form of managed instability, whereby an atrophying chassis of a state remains paying salaries without the ability to induce policy, seems likely to persist for at least the medium-term in Libya despite the steadily compounding level of public discontent. The ‘mafiaization’ of NSA’s into semi-formal, independently wealthy groupings, has entrenched them to the degree that any government or minister has no leverage over them and would in-fact be beholden to them to ensure any basic form of stability.

Some UN agencies and engaged foreign-states have recognised the inherent difficulties of trying to re-shape national-level politics in Libya under the current status-quo and so are attempting to undermine that status-quo through ‘bottom-up’ state-building. By supporting municipal governments to locally deliver services and instigate new development projects, or reform individual ministries it is hoped that momentum for change towards institutional governance can gradually be generated until it forces national-level change. However, the high-level strategy needed to organise such a holistic endeavour and the level of sustained engagement required to see it through renders it unlikely that this will develop beyond isolated and piece-meal projects that succeed in preventing the quality-of-life from dropping too low without being able to interconnect and stimulate self-propagating progress.

Other states are taking the opposite approach, attempting to push Khalifa Haftar – who has developed the most cogent and widest-spread of the semi-formalised NSA’s – into Tripoli and a position of national-level power. This would essentially be a reconstitution of authoritarian rule and the Jamahiriya whereby a hierarchical patronage network would be constructed to incorporate other groups to a sufficient degree that a modicum of control and stability on a national-scale could be ensured. Subsidised goods and government jobs would be deployed to maintain a standard of public subsistence.

As seductive as this model is to those who subscribe to the strong-man view of Middle-Eastern politics it is just as likely to revert to ‘managed instability’ as the bottom-up approach. Haftar would assume control of a very different Libya than his predecessor. In addition to the structural flaws of this governance model which undermined Gaddafi, he will have to put increased strain on an already stretched budget to rebuild and placate Libya’s many armed and ambitious groups. Whilst those within his patronage network will inevitably start to compete for increased access to the treasury, those outside his network are likely to attempt to violently contest his rule. This will be aggravated by the extreme polarising effect Haftar and his operation has had on Libyan society, with many already in sworn opposition to him for a number of valid grievances. Even if he does manage to maintain a new Libyan order his age suggests that it will not last for long, and Libya will soon be back to where it started, just in a more advanced stage of dilapidation and disorder.

Ultimately the lack of vision, short-sightedness and exclusivist political instincts of the self-appointed leaders of the February 17th revolution meant Libyans were never able to move beyond the destruction phase of their revolution to create a new state. The panicked responses by many international actors to the threats that Libya’s ungoverned, unstable and unsecured new reality posed to them facilitated the entrenchment of a new status-quo whereby NSA’s animated the atrophying skeleton of the state to simultaneously prevent total collapse and any real state-reform. In many ways this status-quo is sustained from outside Libya, as Europe remain comfortable with a reality that allows them to directly intervene to prevent any threat from reaching their shores, and regional actors continue to try and push clients into positions of total power.

The neglected party and long-time sufferer of Libya’s new ungoverned reality is the Libyan population, and inevitably it will be them who break the status-quo. When Libya’s next period of change arrives, it will require a new social-contract and a renewed focus on building a state which serves that social contract if it is to return Libya to any form of predictable, systemic, statehood.

Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is a political analyst and researcher who specialises in Libyan affairs and more generally politics, governance and development in the Arab world.


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