The Palace Coup at the Heart of the Regional Crisis
July 25, 2017
Turkish Opposition’s Antaeus Moment?
August 16, 2017

Paris Agreement: A Shift towards Peaceful Settlement in Libya?

By Jimmy Mattar & Elie Ziadeh

The conflict in Libya has been raging on since the revolution against Qaddafi took place, and until now, there is no clear end in sight. With the rise of General Haftar to a key player in any negotiations and the failure of the UN-backed government to unite the country, this paper aims to highlight the defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte and its repercussions, the current balance of power, the situation in the South among the Tuareg and Tabu tribes, the international involvement in the war, and the possible settlement that could be reached especially after the Paris agreement.

Historical Background

Since the death of Moammar Qaddafi, former “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya” – in other words the former dictator of Libya – the country is being torn apart by the different katibas[1].

The country’s independence in 1952 united three very different regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan under the Kingdom of Libya. Tripoli is the center of the first region, being a corsairs’ city under the Ottoman Sultan allowed Tripoli to become a merchant city at the end of the slave trade in the 18th century and the primary objective of the Italian conquest of the region in the early 1910’s. Being colonized by a European country transformed Tripoli accentuating its economic position and creating a bourgeoisie. It fell under the control of the British administration after the defeat of the Axis.  In the second region, Cyrenaica, a brotherhood ruled by the Senussi dynasty settled down in the mid-19th century and took control of the region by imposing a Salafist rule of law[2]. During the Italian fascist occupation, the Senussi were the main opposition, this allowed the head of the dynasty to be recognized as the leader of the opposition by the Tripolitania and Cyrenaica tribes before the WWII. The Senussi helped the British during the Western Desert Campaign (1940-1943). Between 1945 and 1952, while under British rule, it became evident that Tripolitania was better off under the Italian occupation whereas Cyrenaica was a proponent of the British Administration. When the UN decided that Libya will not be ruled by a foreign nation[3], Idriss the First, leader of the Senussi brotherhood was named king of the United Kingdom of Libya by the Libyan tribes, but frustrating of Tripolitania’s tribes in the process[4] . Historically the economy of Fezzan, Libya’s third region, was entirely dependent on nomadic trade. The region’s main point of interest was geopolitical: it would have allowed Italy to colonially expand towards Cameroon and Central Africa. After WWII, during its rule, France tried to annex this region and merge it to Algeria’ Sahara. Therefore, the United Kingdom of Libya began as a federal monarchy with those three regions as states.

After oil was discovered in Cyrenaica and Fezzan, the Libyan monarchy tried to centralize the power to better exploit the oil revenues. However, the Libyan people’s sense of belonging to their region or tribe was more pronounced than their national identity which led to a lack of national cohesion between the different regions.

In 1969, the Nasserism[5], the Kingdom alliances with the West, and the lack of policies concerning social welfare led to the Coup fomented by the Free Unionist Officers, twelve military officers.  Furthermore, the lack of Libyan support to the Arabs coupled with growing suspicions that the western military bases[6] were used to help Israel in 1967 precipitated the fall of the monarchy. Cyrenaica was hurt the most by the rise of Moammar al-Qaddafi a member of Qadhadfha, a Tripolitanian tribe.

In 1973, facing external[7] and internal failures, Qaddafi surprises everybody and invites the Libyan people to take control of the country, it was the launch of the Cultural Revolution. In 1975 Qaddafi published the first part of his « Green Book » where he lays out the fundamental principles of his direct democracy: « Authority must be in the hands of all the people. The most tyrannical dictatorships the world has known have existed under the shadow of parliaments. [8]  […] Just as tribal and sectarian rule is politically unacceptable and inappropriate, likewise the rule under a party system. Both follow the same path and lead to the same end..[9] […]    Popular Conferences and People’s Committees are the fruition of the people’s struggle for democracy..[…]”[10].

The Jamahiriyya is proclaimed four years after the Cultural Revolution in march 1977, traditional state institutions are replaced by a popular congress as dictated in the Qaddafi manifesto. The Basic People’s Congress (BPC) groups all adult men and women in a given municipality or equivalent sub-region, each local congress was tasked with choosing a Basic People’s Committee which was itself charged with running local executive matters. Moreover, each congress would choose its representatives to the General People’s Congress which would elect a General People’s Committee. The General People’s Committee was the Libyan equivalent of a government, at its head was an administrative council lead by the Secretary General[11].

However, Foreign Policy, Armed Forces, and the Oil Industry weren’t controlled by the popular committees but by a separated structure that in theory replaced the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC)[12]. On top of that, in 1979 there was a separation of government and a third new entity the Revolutionary Committees created to guide and protect the population through the revolutionary process, with the “Leader of the Revolution” Mouamar Qaddafi. These new entities were his main instrument to coerce the population and to assume control of the BP Congress elections of the representatives in the GP Congress. Officially, Qaddafi resigned from the General Secretary of the GP Congress (a Prime Minister of sorts) and held no official position. However, he ruled the country and the people through the ex-RCC and the Revolutionnary Committees.[13]

Fearing a Coup from the army especially after the 1984 student’s protest, Qaddafi decided to weaken the military and to create a revolutionary militia. In 1984, the GPC approved the creation of a « People’s Militia »: all Libyans should follow regular military trainings as they will be responsible for their regions ‘defense in case of an attack. The creation of this militia contributed to the further militarization of the population, the militia was estimated to have 40 000 men[14].

Therefore, under the Qaddafi regime, the country was overly compartmentalized politically, socially and economically. All of this led to the fall of the regime and with it any semblant of centralized power, Libya is now struggling to create a state capable of uniting the three regions.

Local Divisions

The Islamic State, which had a strong presence in several cities, has been driven out from Sirte, Derna, Benghazi, Tripoli, and Sabratha on the Tunisian border. This has effectively ended any concrete territorial presence that the group had in Libya; however, cells are still present, albeit in a weakened manner, in the desert valleys south of Sirte, around the town of Sabratha, and around the capital. The victory achieved against the Islamic State may not be the end of jihadist activities in Libya since the same conditions that led to the rise of the group are still present, mainly the economic conditions, governance vacuum, deep polarization, and the long legacy of jihad. In addition, the current infrastructure and networks of existing jihadist groups could be used for the emergence of new extremist factions.[15]

Because of internal fighting between Dawn, a loose alliance of Islamist leaning militias mainly situated in the western part of the country, and Dignity, a campaign launched by General Haftar against Islamist factions mainly situated in the eastern part of the country[16], during mid-2014, the Islamic State capitalized and expanded its control over Sirte. Instead of rival factions uniting to uproot the Islamic State, the cooperation between them was very minimal, and there was tough internal opposition within the ranks of each group regarding such endeavor. It is true that the Islamic State was driven out from key areas, but the aftermath of this “liberation” is challenging to say the least. For instance, the key forces involved in fighting the Islamic State in Sirte were the Misratan militias whose previous domination was one of the main reasons that gave the Islamic State an opening in the first place. Another similar scenario played out in Benghazi where Haftar’s forces defeated the Islamic State but shattered the social fabric of the city thus leading to the resurfacing of forces such as tribalism and ultraconservative Salafism.[17] The purely militaristic approach applied in Benghazi which includes eastern and western tribes, class tensions, and divisions between urban elites and rural poor will undoubtedly lead to long-term imbalance and tensions.[18]

In spite of the defeat of ISIS, the deep divisions and power vacuum in the country remain at the forefront of the conflict. In 2014, General Haftar launched a campaign, supposed to last weeks, to expel Islamists from Benghazi. Three years later, and longer than the time it took to unseat Qaddafi, his forces were able to seize military control over the city. This was coupled with control of key oil ports and southern air bases since 2016.[19] In defiance of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, Haftar’s political and military influence has been on the rise, and given the polarization surrounding his figure, aftershocks are rippling far across the country. A key characteristic of Haftar is his classification of all Islamists into one pool, regardless of any ideological differences that might be present between, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.[20]  

The expansion that Haftar’s forces have been able to make is not necessarily an accurate reflection of their unity. A significant portion of his “Libyan National Army” (LNA) is tribal members who were given arms in exchange for their support. For instance, these factions within the LNA have engaged in what has been labelled as “tribal racism” constituting of destruction of property, summary executions, and accusations to different tribal members as “foreigners” in spite of their presence in the city for centuries.[21]

Another factor of division within Haftar’s camp is the coopting of conservative Salafist groups in spite of being portrayed as a secular leader. These groups tend to support the sitting ruler and are hostile against more jihadist forms of Islamism. This cooptation has led to an increase in their influence on security affairs and social life of major areas in the east. Many of Haftar’s liberal supporters have criticized this cooptation since they thought he would restore security and oust the Islamists, rather than unleash Islamists of his own. This shows that “war against Islamists and terrorism” that Haftar is allegedly fighting is more of a political cover to gain local and international support in his bid to power. Some residents in Benghazi have also felt some remorse for supporting his campaign since his rise to the national scene and the tactics he’s adopting echo with the not-too-distant past of Qaddafi rule.[22]

On the other half of the country, a Government of National Accord (GNA) was established in Tripoli with the backing of the UN in March 2016, and in spite of wide international support that mainly aimed to curb migration into Europe and combat the Islamic State, the unity government has failed in several key aspects, and as a result, public support is low. It is true that the Islamic State was driven out of Sirte, but this was done by forces loyal to Misratan militias rather than an organized army under the command of the GNA. In addition, the oil terminals were liberated, but they fell under the control of Haftar’s forces that have not even recognized the GNA. It was supposed to unify the country’s two rival governments, but it has not even been able to unify the capital. Furthermore, militias, whose support is dependent on interests and circumstances, are in actual control of the streets, and the leaders of the GNA are confined to the city’s naval base. These circumstances are not necessarily the fault of the unity government, but they reflect the lack of willingness of militias to support the creation of a strong army since that will greatly diminish their influence and ambitions.[23]

Main parties in the conflict are not yet willing to negotiate a comprehensive deal which was clearly evident with Haftar’s statement following the capture of Benghazi in which he clearly set his sights on the capital “Tripoli”. Competition over the capital rages on between the Libyan National Army, hardline militias in the city, and the UN-backed Government of National Accord.[24]

Southern Libya, long sidelined from internal politics and international concerns, is suffering from instability and insecurity resulting from clashes between Arab, Tabu, and Tuareg tribes. These tensions take root in the marginalization of non-Arab tribes, Tabu and Tuareg, whose members were promised citizenship rights by Qaddafi in exchange for their service in military and security forces, but these promises were never implemented.[25]

Following the 2011 revolution, Tabu and Arab Zway fought together against Qaddafi loyalists, and the Tabu were able to control large areas of land, border crossings, and resources; however, tensions also rose again after failed negotiations between the Tabu and the National Transitional Council over the issue of citizenship. This increase in Tabu influence came at the expense of Zway’s share in the smuggling operations and other sources of income which culminated in recurrent clashes in Kufra and subsequently spread to different neighborhoods.[26] 

In spite of cooperation for their minority rights by the Tabu and Turareg under the Qaddafi regime, and the signing of a “friendship pact” which preserved peace for over a hundred years, the rise of Tabu power was seen as a threat by the Tuareg and led to the unraveling of the pact.[27]

This conflict of identity is the outer layer of competition over smuggling routes and access to oil fields, and its main hubs are Sabha and Ubari that are ethnically and tribally mixed, suffer from institutional weakness, and are situated near smuggling routes and oil fields. In addition, this has been exacerbated by the interference of Northern political actors aiming to widen their scope of influence in the South of the country.[28]

Attempts to enforce peace by different Northern groups have had fluctuating periods of stability since solutions imposed didn’t tackle the root causes of the conflict such as the communal nature of the security sector, absence of a local economy resulting in a reliance on smuggling, and the extension of the Dignity-Dawn conflict with Dignity forces supporting Tabu and Dawn forces supporting Tuareg and Zway.[29]

Extremist factions such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State have exploited the power vacuum in the region to develop training camps and logistics, but this presence is limited and is not a result of widespread social support.[30]

Foreign Role

Russia became more involved in Libya during the summer of 2016, and after Haftar’s visit to Russia in mid-2016 to meet with high ranking Russian officials; he appears to be the reliable and reliant ally that Moscow was looking for. Russian personnel are training Haftar’s forces and providing them with new weaponry, as well as Russian military advisors assisting him from either Cyrenaica or Cairo. The trend of Russian support for strong military figures involved in a conflict with Islamists and “terrorism”, as seen in Syria and Egypt, seems to be continuing in Libya as well. A strengthened alliance with an influential player in Libya could grant the Russian navy access to Benghazi’s port and possibly an airbase which will consolidate Russia’s presence in the central Mediterranean thus giving its military closer access to Europe and the US bases in Sicily. It is highly doubtful that Russia will become as involved in Libya as it is in Syria; however, it is increasingly stepping up its political and military backing of Haftar while maintaining support for the UN-backed peace process.[31]

The ongoing conflict within the Gulf monarchies might have an effect on the balance of power between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) which is backed by the UAE and Egypt on one hand and the Islamist forces backed by Turkey and Qatar on the other hand. Even though KSA is not as involved as it counterparts in the Libyan conflict, but its role in legitimizing Haftar’s campaign from an Islamic standpoint indicates the effort to weaken the Qatari-backed Dawn alliance.[32]

An added dimension to the conflict is the flow of foreign fighters from Libya into Europe, as seen with the perpetrators of the Manchester arena bombing in May 2017 to which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The flow of foreign fighters into Libya was initially facilitated by Al Qaeda linked organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Al Sharia with its Libyan and Tunisian wings (ASL and AST respectively); however, a shift occurred in late 2013 and early 2014 following Haftar’s attack against ASL and the designation of AST as a terrorist group by the Tunisian government. This coincided with the spread of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its expansion into different regions that fall within its “caliphate territory”, including Libya. Following the defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte, there are concerns about the return of the hundreds of remaining fighters back to their home countries. Besides from the threat posed to neighboring countries such as Tunisia, Sudan, and Nigeria, European officials have warned of the possible exploitation of the migrant crisis by the Islamic State to send fighters into Europe in a similar manner as they did with the refugee flows from Syria.[33]

Is Partition is Solution?

The partition of Libya into the three historical divisions of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica will not end the conflict seen today; it would rather amplify it due to several reasons. One of them in the presence of oil which constitutes a crucial revenue into the Libyan economy; however, oil reserves are mostly found in the east, constituting Cyrenaica, and some are found in Fezzan as well while Tripolitania, where the capital lies, has considerably less oil. These geographical divisions will lead to renewed conflict over the oil reserves, especially by Tripolitania since the reserves are located just across the newly found border with Cyrenaica. Moreover, it is true that Fezzan will have some oil, but it would be a landlocked country and would not have access to ports thus forcing them to pay transit tariffs to Tripolitania to reach the market. Another reason is the strong presence of tribes who are spread across the three different regions, and any partition would divide those belonging to the same tribe into different entities. A third reason is the complexity of the conflict beyond geographic belonging with several dimensions in play such as former Qaddafi loyalists trying to regain power, Islamists trying to preserve the political gains they made, former political dissidents who were either imprisoned or exiled trying to gain political power for the first time, ethnic groups such as Tabu and Tuareg vying for autonomy, and jihadist organizations aiming to exploit the conflict to regain a foothold in the country. All of these groups do not fit into the three geographic divisions, so in which of the “newly found entities” would they belong? A fourth and key reason is that most Libyans still identify themselves as Libyan, rather than Tripolitanian or Cyrenaica or Fezzani.[34]

Paris Agreement

A positive sign was Haftar agreeing to meet with Fayez Al Sarraj, the prime minister of the unity government, after previously rejecting to do so. The meeting told place on May 2 in Abu Dhabi, but Haftar remained insistent on his demands of no subordination from the military to civilian authorities and the holding of presidential elections in early 2018. He also hopes that the different armed factions in Western Libya, and specifically in Tripoli, would fight against each other, especially since differences have started to come to light, thus cementing his position as the only person capable of enforcing order in the country.[35] There are fears that even if elections are held, a fourth government is created and ends up causing even more divisions if one or more of the armed factions refuse to relinquish power.[36]

Another key development towards a possible settlement was a second meeting held between the two men under the auspices of French President Macron. The “Paris Agreement” aims to “refrain from any use of force for any purpose that does not strictly constitute counter-terrorism” as well as holding elections under UN supervision as soon as possible.[37] The agreement was a kind of consolidation of the previous meeting done in Abu Dhabi; however, hours later, doubts were cast about the effectiveness of the agreement as Haftar stated that the ceasefire is limited to moderate factions who they have contact with and indicated that he has cares about the future of Libya more than he does about elections. In spite of Haftar’s comments, the fact that he agreed on the principles stated is a step forward. On the other hand, the agreement was not inclusive of other key actors and did not tackle major conflicting issues such as the makeup of the Presidential Council and civilian control over the Libyan military in the future.[38]


Even though the military presence of the Islamic State in Libya has been largely defeated, the campaign to oust them was far from a united one. The inability of the Dawn and Dignity camps to set aside their differences and fight against a common enemy reflects the deep divisions that are present in the Libyan conflict. The conclusion of the battle of Benghazi in favor of Haftar’s LNA, control of the oil ports, consolidation of power over the east of the country in spite of the internal fractions among his forces, rejection of the UN-backed unity government formed, acceptance of European countries of his strong-man attitude especially amid the terrorist threat facing the continent, and newfound support from Russia indicate that he is not yet willing to enter into a political settlement to the conflict. His intention of achieving complete military control over Libya and wrestling control over the capital from the Dawn alliance would be a very costly and difficult task to achieve even if a lot of factors are playing to his advantage at the moment. Aside from that, Haftar’s alliance with Salafists in the east and authoritarian tendencies has disappointed many of those who used to support him since that reminded them of Qaddafi, and they feel that they have gone full circle to before the revolution occurred.

Whether a full scale military campaign is launched against Tripoli or not, any future political settlement has to take into consideration a number of key aspects so that long-term stability can be achieved. The geographical disparities between Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, the different Arab tribes, and the ethnic groups such as the Tuareg and Tabu have to be taken into consideration in any new political system. The marginalization that occurred under Qaddafi and the pitting of the different groups against each other within the tactics of “divide and rule” will only lead to further tensions and reignite the conflict. All different communities should feel included in the political life of the country in a manner which fairly represents everyone and rebuilds the sense of national cohesion that has been lost. What is crucial is that the representation of the different groups does not transform into competition between them over the state and its resources at the expense of each other. Moving away from tribalism towards proper citizenship is a must if the country is to move forward and away from polarization. Such fairness has to be implemented on all economic aspects as well especially in regards to the distribution of oil revenues that have constituted a key field of conflict among the warring parties.

The Paris Agreement can be considered as a first step towards a UN-sponsored wider and more inclusive negotiations of all major political and military actors, but it must not set a trend of individual meetings hosted by state leaders whose neutrality and credibility is questioned by key Libyan factions because doing so would dimish the chances of success of any deal reached.

Unless everyone’s fears and concerns are properly addressed, then the possibility of a perpetuated conflict and extremist factions, Islamist or otherwise, gaining a foothold again in Libya is likely and will continue to be as long as the reasons that led to their emergence have not been remedied yet.

[1] Group of fighters
[2] For more information about the Senussi Brotherhood, see D.C.C, “The Nationalist Movement in Libya”, The World Today, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 7, Jul 1946, pp.330-339
[3] The French and the British tried to split the region between them and the Italians.
[4] In April 1951, a bomb exploded near the future King at his first formal visit to Tripoli. (H.G., “The United Kingdom of Libya”, The World Today, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Vol.8, No.5, May 1952, p. 197)
[5] Moammar al-Qaddafi admired Gamal Abdel Nasser, his pan-Arabism and his anti-imperialism.
[6] Under the rule of Idriss, the Americains held a base in Tripolitania less than 10 km from Tripoli (Wheelus) and the English held another in Cyrenaica (RAF Station El Adem) 120 km from the Egyptian border.
[7]In the 70’s, Qaddafi tried to form alliances with different Arab countries. In the 80’s, the unions with African countries came to an end following the fall of the USSR. In the 90’s, the unions with the Mediterranean countries came to an end, especially after Lockerbie and the civil war in Algeria. These attempts at forming unions were born as a means to deflect attention from a lack of national cohesion, as well as to deflect attention from the lack of necessary man power to expand the country’s borders and strengthen its oil industry. In both cases, these attempts betrayed a certain weakness of the country’s regime.
[8]Al- QADDAFI Moammar, The Green Book, 1975, p.11 (
[9] Idem, p. 16
[10] Idem, p. 23
[11] GAUB Florence, traduit de l’anglais par COVOS Pierre « Libye : le rêve de Kadhafi devient-il réalité ? », Politique étrangère, IFRI, vol 77, n.3, automne 2012, p. 647
[12] After the coup in 1969, the Free Unionist Officiers converted into the RCC.
[13] Idem, p.648
[14]Idem, p.650
[15] Lacher, W. & Wehrey, F. (2017) Libya After ISIS, Foreign Affairs, Retrieved from
[16] BBC (2016) Guide to Libyan Militias, BBC News, Retrieved from
[17] Ibid.
[18] Wehrey, F. (2017) Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya, The Atlantic, Retrieved from
[19] Warfalli, A. (2017) Libya’s Eastern Commander Declares Victory in Battle for Benghazi, Reuters, Retrieved from
[20] Wehrey, F. (2017) Whoever Controls Benghazi Controls Libya, The Atlantic, Retrieved from
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Stephen, C. (2017) Libyan Oil Wars and the Battle for Tripoli, Integrated Regional Information Networks, Retrieved from; Fetouri, M. (2016) One Year On Libya’s Unity Accord Needs More Work, Al Monitor, Retrieved from
[24] Stephen, C. (2017) Libya National; Army Recaptures Oil Ports at Sidra and Ras Lanuf, The Guardian, Retrieved from
[25] Wehrey, F. (2017) Insecurity and Governance Challenges in Southern Libya, Carnegie Endowment, Retrieved from
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Megerisi, T. (2016) Russia in Libya A Driver for Escalation, Carnegie Endowment, Retrieved from
[32] Cafiero, G. & Karasik. T. (2017) Libya’s Islamists and their Qatari Backers Under the Gun, LobeLog Foreign Policy, Retrieved from
[33] Zelin, A. (2017) Manchester Attack Highlights Foreign Fighters in Libya, Washington Institute, Retrieved from
[34] Porter, G. (2017) So You Want to Partition Libya, Politico, Retrieved from
[35] Toaldo, M. (2017) The Haftar Factor in Libya’s Puzzle, Aspen Institute, Retrieved from
[36] Carlson, SM. (2017) The Libyan Mess will get Worse if Outside Powers Don’t Cooperate, War on the Rocks, Retrieved from
[37] Reuters (2017) Libya’s Serraj Haftar Commit to Ceasefire in France Talks, Times of Oman, Retrieved from
[38] Elumami, A. & Markey, P. (2017) Paris Handshakes on Libya Peace Deal Mask Deep Fractures, Reuters, Retrieved from

Jimmy Matar
Jimmy Matar
Jimmy Matar is a researcher about Middle Eastern politics, with a special interest in identities. He holds a BA in International Affairs and Diplomacy from Notre Dame University in Lebanon and an MA in International Relations from Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is currently the Research and Administrative Officer at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies. Alongside his work in research, he was and continues to be involved in various civil society organizations focusing on human rights.