Libya has now experienced forms of civil conflict for more than five years. In early 2011 Muammar Gadhafi threatened to annihilate those protesting against his rule, as part of the Arab Spring flaring across the North Africa and Middle East region. NATO forces intervened, initially to protect civilians in Benghazi. Rebel movements emerged throughout the country, setting a later precedent for urban or regional militias controlling small territories. Tripoli fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) forces in August 2011 and Gadhafi was killed in October.
Post-Gadhafi Libya has been highly politically unstable, while the security situation is correspondingly fragmented. An elected General National Congress (GNC) assumed political control from the NTC in August 2012. GNC fissures soon became apparent, and it was unable to create a new constitution. But when a new legislative body, the Council of Deputies (CoD), was proposed to take over from the GNC in elections in June 2014, the GNC declared a continuing mandate for itself, refusing to recognise the CoD. Armed supporters of the GNC occupied Tripoli and the new parliament fled to Tobruk.
Since mid-2014 Libya has been torn apart by conflicts between different armed groups. The initial conflict created fissures in Libyan society, which were exacerbated after the 2011 war between pro-Gadhafi supporters and rebels, or ‘revolutionaries’. The GNC continued to occupy Tripoli from mid-2014 to the present day, while the House of Representatives (HoR) became the ‘internationally recognised’ Libyan parliament, based in Tobruk.
Libya’s major armed groups can be broadly categorised into three groups. Firstly, jihadist factions, which are engaged in frequent violent incidents and include the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, now operating out of Sirte, in the central coastal region, and Ansar al-Sharia, based in and around Benghazi. Secondly, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), affiliated with the HoR and led by former Gadhafi ally, Khalifa Haftar, which is fighting ‘Islamists’ mainly in and around Benghazi and Derna, under Operation Dignity. Thirdly, non-jihadist, ‘revolutionary’ Islamist militias affiliated with the GNC, also known as Libya Dawn and Libya Shield, which are active in western Libya.
In March 2016, after more than a year of UN-mediated efforts at reaching a unity government, the Presidency Council (PC) of the Government of National Accord (GNA) entered Tripoli by boat as militias had closed Libyan airspace. It remains to be seen whether the UN-backed GNA will establish legitimate governance functions in Tripoli and the rest of Libya. The HoR and Haftar’s LNA remain opposed to the GNA. Jihadist groups will no doubt threaten any government supported by the international community. Meanwhile, the conflict has displaced around 400,000 people inside the country, Libyan oil production remains at around a quarter of pre-2011 levels, and Libya has become a major gateway for migrant and refugee-trafficking into Europe