For years, whenever I would come to Tripoli, fighting was either raging or the next round was looming on the horizon. An internationally recognised but powerless government in Tripoli would look on as armed groups clashed over influence in the capital, and as the warlord Khalifa Haftar extended his power over eastern, central and southern Libya, often by extraordinarily violent means. Yet, on a visit last November, the atmosphere had changed. The country remained split between rival administrations, with competing foreign powers carving out their spheres of influence. But at a deeper level, the struggles of the past decade seemed to have reached maturity. Oil supplies and revenues were now flowing across political dividing lines. And out of a multitude of factions, a cast of victorious militia leaders, war profiteers and corrupt politicians had begun to emerge: the makings of a future ruling class.
The creation of this new elite has been both the cumulative result of countless acts of violence and an unintended consequence of failed peace-making efforts under the UN’s aegis. Yet the most immediate catalyst for the calm in Tripoli this winter was the clashes back in summer 2022. Tensions between two opposing coalitions of militias had been building up for months, driven by a power struggle between two competing central governments. The acting administration in Tripoli, led by the Qadhafi regime crony Abdelhamid Dabeiba, had taken office as the UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) in March 2021. But soon enough the façade of unity crumbled. Elections planned for the following December were cancelled as the leading presidential candidates – including Khalifa Haftar – contested each other’s right to run. Haftar eventually threw his weight behind his former opponent Fathi Bashagha, who was mandated by parts of the east-based parliament to form a new government in February 2022. But Dabeiba, contesting the legality of Bashagha’s government, refused to cede power. Throughout the spring of last year, the two prime ministers vied for the backing of armed groups in the greater Tripoli area, with promises of positions and payments.
The showdown finally came in August, when two Tripoli militias pre-emptively moved against rival groups whom they suspected of plotting to install Bashagha. One of the militias, known as the Stability Support Apparatus, led by Abdelghani al-Kikli, had initially supported Bashagha, but became his fiercest opponent after he ignored Kikli’s wishes in his pick of interior minister. The other, a powerful Salafist outfit that calls itself the Deterrence Apparatus, had so far kept its position in the power struggle opaque. But its links to the Nawasi Brigade, a militia that had become Bashagha’s strongest champion in Tripoli, led many to believe that it would ultimately line up behind Bashagha. A businessman with close ties to Nawasi’s leaders told me that ‘Nawasi were sure the Deterrence Apparatus had their back – until the last minute.’
On 27 August, the Deterrence Apparatus suddenly took over Nawasi’s bases, while Kikli launched attacks on other forces allegedly colluding with Bashagha. A handful of drone strikes – widely believed to have been carried out by Turkey, which has maintained a military presence in western Libya since the 2019-20 civil war – then stopped pro-Bashagha groups on Tripoli’s outskirts from bailing out their embattled allies. The day ended with Nawasi and several smaller armed groups being driven out of Tripoli, as much of the city fell under the control of only two militias: the Deterrence Apparatus and Kikli’s Stability Support Apparatus. The former now holds the capital’s only functioning airport and port, as well as the districts hosting the key government institutions. Kikli controls part of central Tripoli and vast swathes of the city’s south, including its most populous neighbourhood.
Some might dismiss this episode as yet another skirmish in an interminable conflict between the shifting armed alliances in Tripoli. And so it may be. But there is also a broader trend at work here. Over the years, these repeated confrontations have entrenched the power of several fearsome militias, which have become increasingly professionalized while gradually expanding their territory. Post-Qadhafi Libya offered exceptionally favourable conditions for such groups, most of which operate as official security forces and enjoy generous state funding. At first, these organizations were unruly, fractious and unambitious – prone to splits and petty internal rivalries. Yet over time they have developed centralized leadership structures and absorbed growing numbers of the former regime’s military and intelligence officers. The result has been the consolidation of a militia landscape that, in Tripoli alone, initially involved dozens of different armed groups.
Consolidation in Tripoli was preceded by the expansion of Haftar’s military campaign. Haftar started out in 2014 with a motley alliance of armed groups, but with robust foreign support – from Egypt, France, the UAE and Russia – he gradually built up forces of his own. His Libyan Arab Armed Forces are essentially a family business, with the strongest units run by his sons and in-laws, and financed by various illicit activities which the Haftar clan has successfully monopolized.
Perhaps the clearest sign that western Libyan militias are now also coming of age is the openly political part they have begun to play. Until the formation of the Dabeiba government, armed groups mostly contented themselves with exerting political influence behind the scenes. They left it to politicians to sit at the negotiating table, then strong-armed the newly designated top officials into appointing ministers of their choosing. Allies and clients of armed groups came to operate at all levels of the administration, forming entrenched patronage networks.
As they were courted by Dabeiba and Bashagha, however, western Libyan militia leaders assumed an entirely different role. They began meeting with Haftar’s sons, Saddam and Belgasem, to negotiate the terms of a Bashagha takeover or a Dabeiba incumbency. Participants in these meetings told me of their detailed discussions with Belgasem Haftar in May 2022, on a constitutional framework for elections to resolve the impasse between the two governments. Several similar meetings have taken place since – and though they have not produced any deal, they reflect the country’s overall political trajectory. Previously, few militia leaders had sufficiently centralized control over their groups to enter into controversial negotiations without facing internal challenges. Now, they are powerful enough to talk with long-reviled adversaries.
Twelve years after the 2011 uprising against Qadhafi, Libya’s revolution has long eaten its own. The initial revolutionary fervour having faded into a distant memory, holdovers from the ancien régime have made a comeback by allying with the newer gun-toting parvenus – a process epitomized by Dabeiba’s appointment as prime minister. (Towards the end of the Qadhafi era, Dabeiba had acquired spectacular wealth at the head of a public-sector construction company).
Over the last decade, this ruling-class-in-waiting – comprised of state officials, businessmen and militia leaders – have become experts at illicit enrichment. Drug smuggling and trafficking or detaining Europe-bound migrants are lucrative practices. Yet these pale in comparison to the benefits of defrauding the state itself. Militias in control of the energy infrastructure – most importantly Haftar, whose forces hold most oil fields and ports – have repeatedly shut down exports to extort large sums from the Tripoli government. More often, however, oil revenues have poured into the Central Bank in Tripoli, propping up an economy that is almost wholly dependent on them (Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa). The Libyan state currently employs more than two-thirds of the country’s working-age population. State purchases constitute a major market – medicine, vehicles, catering and construction contracts – which creates endless embezzlement opportunities for those who can move the administrative levers. The result has been pillage on a vast scale and the decay of public services.
Much of the proceeds from these transactions presumably make their way to bank accounts abroad. But Libya’s war profiteers are increasingly turning their new wealth into tangible assets in the country, preparing to reinvest their capital beyond the conflict’s current phase. Some do so overtly, but many use proxies – both to reduce their exposure and to build patronage networks. Real estate is the most popular target. In Tripoli, relatives of prime minister Dabeiba are using surrogates to buy up properties in the upscale Hay al-Andalus district, according to local residents. In the coastal cities of Zawiya and Sabratha, militia leaders own beach resorts, cafés and private clinics, among other assets. And in Benghazi, commanders in Haftar’s forces have accumulated properties, partly by seizing the homes of alleged ‘terrorists’ whom they forcibly displaced.
A new shopping centre in the city is officially owned by a businessman who is widely reputed to have made his money through drug smuggling and has close ties to Haftar’s son Saddam. (Last autumn, he published videos showing him buying a hunting falcon at the record price of $1m, shooting in the air to celebrate his acquisition, then giving the bird to Saddam as a gift.) Saddam himself informally controls a private bank headquartered in Benghazi, which he has used to finance a new private airline, Berniq Airways. Its equivalent in western Libya is Medsky, launched in 2022 by Mohamed Taher Issa, a businessman from Misrata who rose to prominence by benefiting from privileged access to foreign currency at the official exchange rate during the worst years of the 2010s economic crisis.
Acquiring and protecting such assets requires influence over state bodies and, to varying degrees, the ability to wield coercion. Firepower also serves as a deterrent against potential prosecution. As such, these investments not only reflect the confidence of Libya’s new rulers; they are also helping to cement a security landscape that is fragmented into militia fiefdoms.
Libya’s vicious new order is emerging amidst a stalemate rather than a settlement. During the 2019-20 war over Tripoli, the opposing powers invited foreign actors into the country, whose presence has generally prevented major outbreaks of fighting since Haftar’s defeat. Turkey, which supported the Tripoli government against Haftar, has established military bases in western Libya, and is therefore able to deter Haftar while using its drones to effectively determine which western Libyan faction rules in Tripoli. Meanwhile, Russia’s Wagner Group, which fought for Haftar, mans a string of bases that run through Libya from Sirte on the coast to the far south.
The current geopolitical conjuncture is unfavourable to a resumption of civil war. During Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, Haftar’s Emirati and Egyptian backers had waged a proxy war against their regional rivals Turkey and Qatar. But since the conflict ended, both Turkey and Qatar have mended ties with their regional adversaries. At present, Haftar can count on neither Emirati drones nor petrodollars to start a new war, while Egypt remains heavily indebted. Wagner withdrew parts of its modest contingent from Libya following the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and Russia remains too bogged down to support a new offensive. Turkey is similarly unwilling to enter into a direct confrontation, since this would jeopardize cooperation with Russia on other vital issues. This constellation of priorities and allegiances is undoubtedly subject to change – but, for the time being, ambitious Libyan warlords have their hands tied.
Political pathways out of the stalemate are equally blocked. Successive international plans to negotiate transitional unity governments and pave the way for elections produced administrations that were hijacked by small cliques and determined to stay in power indefinitely. Since the latest attempt to hold a vote failed in 2021, Western governments and the UN have reiterated that elections are the only way out of the crisis. Privately, though, many Western diplomats admit that they do not believe a vote will take place anytime soon.
The obstacles to elections are formidable. Key Libyan and foreign players – Haftar, Egypt, France – insist on introducing a presidential system. But like other leading candidates, Haftar only wants presidential elections if he can skew their legal framework in his favour, excluding the most popular competitors. Ultimately, no Libyan faction wants to risk a hostile president monopolizing executive authority. And even parliamentary elections require the adoption of new laws by the two competing legislative bodies, whose majorities have so far colluded to shoot down any proposals so that they can hold on to their seats.
While international diplomats spend their time debating their preferred solutions in an endless series of meetings, Libya’s nascent elite is creating a new reality on the ground. Ironically, foreign diplomacy has contributed to what could be the centrepiece of a future settlement among warlords, as opposed to a roadmap for fair elections. UN and US diplomats repeatedly pressed Dabeiba to transfer funds for salaries to Haftar’s forces, even as the latter refused to provide information on the recipients. Dabeiba’s government now makes these payments on a monthly basis as a matter of course. Another arrangement has linked Dabeiba and Haftar since the summer of 2022, when Dabeiba appointed a Haftar nominee as head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) in exchange for Haftar lifting his partial blockade of oil exports. That post has proved all the more important since the Tripoli authorities last year allocated an ‘exceptional budget’ of $7bn to NOC.
Such agreements do not yet add up to a settlement. Haftar, who has long wanted it all, still wants more – far more than Dabeiba can give him without antagonizing western Libyan armed groups. Haftar continues to use the Bashagha government’s existence to exert pressure on Dabeiba, and open up parallel financing mechanisms by forcing banks based in eastern Libya to accumulate debts. A corollary of this tactic is the entrenchment of institutional division between east and west.
Thus, it remains to be seen whether Libyans are witnessing the contours of a future arrangement between a new oligarchy, or the prelude to a separatist conflict once Haftar, who turns eighty this year, is no longer on the scene. Haftar has built his coalition on the promise of seizing absolute power, and he is currently seeking to prevent the rise of secessionist sentiments in the east. It is unclear whether his sons could retain control after his death – or even if they would stick together. In western Libya, too, further turbulence is likely – indeed, it looks like an inherent feature of the emerging order. Outside Tripoli, militia consolidation has yet to run its course, and Dabeiba may stumble while juggling competing demands from armed groups. Yet one thing is clear: the vested interests forged by years of conflict are there to stay.
Read on: Tariq Ali, ‘Between Past and Future’, NLR 80.