Moin Kikhia is the founder and president of the Libyan Democratic Institute.
Since February, the eyes of the world have been firmly fixed on the horrors unfolding in Ukraine. But while Europe’s attention has been absorbed by the crisis on its eastern flank, the unrest developing on its southern flank in Libya has been largely ignored.
As escalating political tensions and recent outbreaks of violence now threaten to plunge the country back into civil war, the consequences will impact Europe and the wider international community. Managing the crisis in Libya can no longer be prolonged – and for that, the way forward is clear.
Today, Africa’s most oil-rich nation sits in a state of total dysfunction and could be accurately described as a failed state. Since the civil war, which ended in 2020, it has been effectively split between an internationally recognized government based in Tripoli and the Russian-aligned Libyan National Army controlling the east of the country, and the violence continues.
After a gun battle erupted in the heart of Tripoli in May between armed forces loyal to the national unity government and those of the Libyan House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, videos emerged in June, showing a convoy escorted by tanks and artillery heading for the capital from a base in Zintan. Two days later, the government’s term expired with no plans for new elections to replace it.
Libya’s problems are not just its own. Europe and Libya share the Mediterranean Sea: Alexander the Great, the Greeks, the Romans and even the Normans all traded goods, culture and ideas with Libya. But this proximity also means that the country’s problems often end up on European shores.
For example, since the start of the 2015 refugee crisis, desperate sub-Saharan Africans have used Libya as a starting point in their bid to join the European Union. And while Europe needs alternative energy sources — as it tries to cut itself off from Russian fossil fuels — Libya is the bloc’s closest alternative source of supply.
Europe is already struggling to maintain unity over Russian sanctions, and unless it finds plentiful new supplies of fuel, it could be forced to lift its oil embargo on Moscow. However, Libya’s continuing instability makes its supply largely inaccessible, as the vast majority of its reserves are under the control of the Libyan National Army.
This is just one of many reasons why the international community must stop ignoring the chaos in Libya and help it return to a functioning state.
Here’s how it can be done: First, we need to establish a short-term transitional government, tasked with stabilizing the country enough to hold elections. It would be an apolitical and technocratic leadership, ready to work to build a consensus between the competing powers of Libya.
This government must also be young, with no members over the age of 45. Why ? Because that would mean that none of them would be tainted with associations with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, creating a clean break with the past. The government must also be small but representative of the country’s 13 geographic regions, which should be represented by one minister each, ensuring that all Libyans can feel they have an equal interest.
In this framework, the only other decision-makers would be the interim Prime Minister and their deputies. That’s it. No more.
Keeping the government small in this way would present fewer opportunities for bribery and corruption, as every member would be in the spotlight. It would also help ministers stay focused because ultimately they would only have one goal: to stabilize Libya and hold free and fair parliamentary elections. Nothing else. And once this objective is achieved, this transitional government would be dissolved.
However, Libya needs support from the international community – and I’m not talking about financial support. Unlike other failed states, Libya doesn’t have a money problem — it has a governance problem.
Right now, Libya has enough cash in its central bank to last for several years, tens of billions of dollars of foreign investment, plus there’s all the oil — despite all the chaos, Libya is still able to produce more one million barrels of oil per day for export. But what the country lacks is the experience of building a functioning state – this is where the international community comes in.
We need advisers who will sit side by side with their Libyan counterparts and offer expertise in state building – ideally, former government ministers with specialized technocratic knowledge. It is also essential that these experts come from countries with no previous interest in Libya, such as Norway, Japan or Canada, because we must start with a clean slate.
These international actors must prevent other countries from interfering in our affairs as well. The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, France, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Egypt and Algeria are all currently active in Libya, working with different local partners in pursuit of competing interests. This only serves to stir up tension in a country where everyone seems to have their finger on the trigger, waiting for someone to fire the first shot.
This too must change – Libya must be disarmed.
Today, Libya is full of weapons, many of which are relics from the Gaddafi era, because our former dictator loved buying guns. Curiously, however, he never built a single munitions factory, so most shipments were smuggled by foreign players by air and sea. If any major world power or international body could eliminate these supply lines, Libya’s warring factions would soon run out of ammunition and have no choice but to work towards a peaceful solution for the country.
Of course, none of this will be easy, but the status quo simply won’t hold.
Europe and Libya are linked by geography, culture and several centuries of common history, which is why the Continent has about as much chance of cutting itself off from our problems as of sailing to the South Pacific. And the past has shown that when one of us thrives, so does the other.