Country Profile: Libya
It is sometimes joked that, of the multiple governments now staking a claim to rule in Libya, some exist purely on Facebook. Indeed, between a UN-backed Presidential Council, a rival House of Representatives, a self-declared prime minister and an army commander with aspirations to power, it can be difficult to discern any coherent source of national authority in Libya. Today’s political disintegration could not come as more of a contrast to recent history, when the country was ruled by the Arab world’s longest-standing, most totalitarian leader.
Libya’s current atomization has its roots in 2011 with the overthrow of its flamboyant dictator Colonel Muammar Qadafi. Almost 60 years after Libya’s 1951 constitution was enacted – the only document enshrining citizens’ rights since the country was created in 1911 – the man most responsible for its violation was pulled from a drainpipe in the city of Sirte and shot. His body was then displayed to the public from an industrial freezer for three days, ‘to make sure everybody knows he’s dead’.
The manner of Qadafi’s demise testified to the popular fear and animosity he instilled throughout his four decades of rule. Almost any Libyan can tell you the story of a relative or friend imprisoned, tortured, exiled or simply disappeared on his brutal watch. When the regime was finally challenged by a mass uprising during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Qadafi declared a ‘rat hunt’ to purge his opponents ‘alley by alley’.
European powers were quick to mobilize a NATO intervention, led by France and Britain, claiming a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ given the risk of mass slaughter. The ensuing UN-backed military operation was framed by some as a revised model for intervention in the post-Iraq era. But, having prematurely claimed victory, the West has since largely abandoned Libya to bloody chaos.
The immediate post-revolution years were marred by violence and instability, as new powers grappled to establish political consensus under the governing General National Congress (GNC). Then, in 2014, a former Qadafi general, Khalifa Hafter, returned to the country to declare a coup, claiming the GNC had been infiltrated by Islamists and terrorists. In the armed confrontation that followed, Hafter’s so-called ‘Libyan National Army’ laid claim to a number of cities, including Benghazi.
Since then, two rival governments have emerged and eclipsed the GNC. In Tripoli, the Presidential Council, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, was established in 2015 under a UN-brokered political agreement that sought unsuccessfully to unite Libya’s rival institutions in a ‘Government of National Accord’. The Tubruq-based House of Representatives, backed by Hafter, has meanwhile refused to endorse the Presidential Council, scuppering any efforts to convene elections.
Meanwhile, an array of military actors scramble for influence across the country, including armed militias, tribal authorities, ‘city-states’ and Islamist extremists. Among these, ISIS held sway over large tracts until its stronghold in Sirte fell in 2011, but Libya has still seen the fourth-largest influx of foreign fighters in global jihadist history.
The chaos has also provided fertile ground for the exploitation of migrants who continue to arrive, seeing it as a gateway from Africa to Europe. Latest estimates suggest almost 350,000 migrants are now in Libya, alongside an internally displaced population of some 200,000. They risk all kinds of abuses, including imprisonment, kidnap, torture and even a nascent slave trade. Wary of safeguarding their own shores, EU leaders have again turned to Libya for ‘co-operation’ – in the form of a $250-million assistance package on migration matters – despite the government’s negligence, or even active complicity, in these abuses.
|Leader||Leader: Fayez al-Sarraj is chair of the UN-backed Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord. However, competing leadership claims are made by members of the hostile House of Representatives.|
|Economy||Economy: Reliable data are scarce but the World Bank estimated the 2015 GNI per capita at $7,820 (Egypt $3,050, Italy $34,270).|
|Monetary unit||Monetary unit: Dinar.|
|Main exports||Main exports: Oil is Libya’s main export and revenue source (92% of total exports) but production has dropped over recent years to around a quarter of pre-revolution levels. Other exports include natural gas, iron, steel, gems and refined chemicals.|
|People||People: 6.4 million (0.9% annual growth rate). Population density is among the world’s lowest, with 3.6 people per square kilometre. 78.1 per cent of the population live in urban areas.|
|Health||Health: Infant mortality 11 deaths per 1,000 live births (Egypt 20, Italy 3). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 4,200 (Italy 1 in 19,700). Estimates of HIV prevalence vary between 0.13% and 1.1% of the total population.|
|Environment||Environment: The fourth-largest country on the African continent, Libya is around 90% desert, with an overwhelmingly coastal, urban population. It is dotted with oases and small mountain ranges, but many fertile areas are now at risk of desertification.|
|Culture||Culture: The Libyan population is mostly Arab, though its culture is a blend of Berber, African, Turkish and Muslim traditions, as well as influences from Italy who ruled Libya as a colony for three decades.|
|Religion||Religion: Sunni Muslim (around 96%).|
|Language||Language: Arabic is Libya’s official language, with a number of other widely spoken Berber languages (around 1 million speakers) such as Tamazegh and Nafusi, as well as Indo-Iranian minority languages.|
|Human Development Index||Human Development Index: Estimated in 2015 at 0.716, 102nd of 188 countries (Egypt 0.691, Italy 0.887) – though this seems not to reflect recent dire conditions.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||★★ Although inequality in Libya has narrowed, poverty has risen. The UN estimates 1.3 million are food insecure and a third of the population need humanitarian assistance.|
|Literacy||★★★★ Around 89% of Libya’s population is literate and primary and secondary education are both free and compulsory.|
|Life expectancy||★★★ 72 years (Egypt 71, Italy 83).|
|Freedom||★ The aftermath of the revolution allowed a brief flowering of free press and expression, but this has since been eclipsed by conflict and religious extremism. Security forces and armed militias routinely intimidate, threaten and attack activists, journalists and bloggers on religious and political grounds.|
|Position of women||★★ Women played an active role in the 2011 revolution, but there has been no significant improvement in their position since. Only 2 of 600 women candidates were elected in 2014. Regressive laws around rape and travel restrictions on women without a male guardian raise alarm.|
|Sexual minorities||★★ All extra-marital sex was prohibited by Qadafi, with homosexual acts punishable by five years’ imprisonment, and these laws are still in place. While the revolution brought marginally more tolerance, the rise of extremist militia carries new threats of violence.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Politics ★
Where political legitimacy in Qadafi’s Libya stemmed from the charisma of the despot and not any institutional form of government, its current leaders derive their authority from grassroots movements while formal governance remains in disarray. Clashes between militias have laid waste to the country’s economy, judiciary, law enforcement and public services. International efforts to convene new elections continue, yet in the absence of any institutional framework, such a process could simply trigger more violence and instability.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.