Just over a week ago Turkish Airlines announced that it was no longer flying to the Libyan town of Misrata, a provincial centre about two hundred kilometres east of Tripoli. Whilst it is unlikely that your local Flight Centre was besieged by disappointed customers, the pull-out by Turkish Airlines severed the last international aviation link with Africa’s newest failed state.
It was nearly four years ago I wrote my first article for The Conversation. It concerned Libya, then in the throes of revolution, and expressed concern that the disunity fostered by Colonel Qaddafi would play out through a lack of unified leadership and the potential for militant Islam to seep into the cracks. In the euphoria of the Arab Spring, it was easy for people to forget that there was more to re-inventing a state than just removing the old figurehead. With no legacy of rule aside from the iron fist, there was the potential for Libya to come unglued.
Sadly for Libya, this has proven to be the case. Now in 2015 Libya has, by any indication, sunk into the category of a failed state. Whilst the eyes of the Western world have been fixed on the campaigns of ISIS, the North African state has inexorably, and perhaps irredeemably, plunged into anarchy. The suspension of airline services is just the latest in a series of withdrawals by foreign enterprise.
Not being able to fly to Istanbul is one thing, but the collapse of the hydrocarbon economy is a more significant blow to Libya; a failure that begets further failure.
The cycle of decline
Last year one of my Honours students, Madelaine Sexton, used her thesis to explore this cycle of state failure in Libya. She found that despite an upsurge in indicators such as hydrocarbon production and export immediately after the old regime was toppled, such statistics moved steadily downwards in the three years afterwards. As the Libyan state failed, foreign investment and aid dried up. Companies, NGOs and even foreign governments pulled out their human and financial resources because they were unable to guarantee the safety of their personnel and assets.
By the end of 2012, many of the big oil companies deemed Libya not worth the risk. Even if they surrounded their wells with armed guards, there was no guarantee they could get the raw product to a refinery or export facility. With Libya divided into hundreds of zones of control, infrastructure such as pipelines and ports were at the extortionate mercy of local warlords or else under threat of destruction from rivals wanting to strike a blow against the enemy du jour. The events in Algeria of January 2013, where a remote gas plant was attacked by Islamist rebels helped confirm the feeling that a tumultuous environment like Libya was not a profitable place to do business.
The sad effect of this is that the very thing that could make Libya an economically viable state has been removed from the board. With no hydrocarbon wealth the government has no fiscal means of building strong state infrastructure. Government services have became largely non-existent or at least erratic in their function and location. No state income also means no way to fund any sort of security apparatus. Police, army and other pillars of a stable nation are not there to exert the authority of the state, meaning that for any group in Libya power is contingent on (and limited by) the ground you actually hold.
The poor security situation is exacerbated by the lack of an effective government. Following two years of interim rule by the General National Congress, the Council of Deputies was elected in June 2014 through a voter turnout of less than 18%. Nevertheless it is recognised by most of the world. The problem is that few Libyans agree on its authority. Forced to evacuate to Tripoli in the face of rising violence, the Council readily exemplifies the difference between de jure and de facto authority in Libya. In November it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Tripoli, probably under duress. The Council’s delegates are reduced to sitting around and occasionally passing motions that they have no power to enforce. At the same time rival factions simply set up their own preferred institutions to provide themselves a fig leaf of legitimacy.
Falling through the cracks
And so, argued Madelaine’s thesis, in Libya the cycle continues. A weak state with no Weberian monopoly on violence provides an unattractive investment opportunity. This further reduces the ability of the government to provide services and stability, as well as stimulating more unrest and dissatisfaction from citizens heavily armed with revolutionary booty.
Libyans were united by their desire to get rid of Qaddafi but when he fell there was little consensus as to what would come after. The regional and ethnic identities that Qaddafi had played upon to present himself as the only unifying factor in Libya meant that the country fell apart along these lines even whilst the revolution was in progress.
And this splintering has reached an almost fractal stage.
By some accounts there are around 1,700 different militia groups in Libya. Some are clustered into loose ideological or regional alliances, but these are shifting and fickle. Negotiations on anything like a peace deal or the chance of exporting some oil can always be held to ransom by any one of these groups seeking some special (and often impossible) concession. Add to this the agendas of certain Gulf States and the ideological link-up with radicalised Islam in the region and you have a very large hornets’ nest sitting very close to Europe.
The demise of Libya has gone largely unreported in comparison to the conflict in Iraq and Syria. But it is no less tragic. A state that could provide a Persian Gulf standard of living to its citizens has instead slipped so far into disorder that you couldn’t even fly there if you wanted to.