Libya's power struggle hinges on competing support from local tribes, but the ensuing instability is of international concern.
UNITED NATIONS – Libya is back in the news as eastern forces loyal to Colonel Khalifa Haftar launched a weekend assault on the capital Tripoli, sending American troops in the city scurrying and a U.N.-backed Government of National Accord racing to launch a desperate counteroffensive.
“What we’ve seen is really a complete implosion of Libya.
Dirk Vandewalle is a professor of politics at Dartmouth College and the author of three books on Libya.
“What has happened the last few months has really been a continuation of the chaos that resulted once the hostilities more or less ceased toward the end of 2011.”
That was when Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power in a U.S.-led military intervention, and since then no one has managed to unite the country’s warring factions.
Haftar has been perhaps the strongest figure to emerge in the ensuing power vacuum, having built a legitimate fighting force in the east that helped him capture lucrative oil fields.
The Tripoli government, meanwhile, enjoys British financial backing and political support from Washington, though as the U.S. troop withdrawal attests, that has been of less use than you might imagine in a country where support from influential tribes traditionally matters most, and oil revenue a close second. Case in point, even the presence of the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Tripoli last week did little to slow Haftar’s attack.
“What we have is two or three competing governments at this point in time, but none of these governments really has any power to implement a national politics or its own politics.”
Vandewalle thinks that means Libya is in store for instability that could take a generation to resolve, and with key national priorities like education likely to be kicked down the road, the costs of that crisis will likely be felt far beyond the country’s borders.
“The larger problem with Libya – and in a sense where the United States also have an interest to some extent – is that this is a country that is profoundly destabilizing the countries and the region around it.”