In the months since the coronavirus began spreading to Libya, the pandemic has rippled across the country’s overlapping afflictions of civil war, political divisions, economic collapse, and humanitarian suffering. In some ways, the pandemic’s effects have further entrenched the country’s rival militia factions, while in other ways the public health crisis has given rise to nascent grassroots activists determined to combat the pandemic’s ill effects.
Battlefield Developments and a Fragile Truce in Libya
The pandemic’s impact on the country’s civil war is ultimately ambiguous, especially compared with the more consequential effects of foreign intervention and battlefield exhaustion. Escalating conflict in and around Tripoli in the spring of 2020 dashed initial hopes that the pandemic might spur a lull in the fighting between the opposing forces of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and those of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). As the foreign backers of the Libyan protagonists continued to pour mercenaries and advanced weaponry into the country, foreign and Libyan combatants seemed undeterred by the risk of coronavirus infections.
By the summer of 2020, GNA forces had pushed Haftar’s fighters well out of the country’s western region to the central Sirte Basin, where constraints imposed by logistics and each sides’ foreign supporters produced a stalemate. An informal ceasefire in August paved the way for the lifting of Haftar’s blockade of oil facilities in mid-September and the signing of a formal truce in October, which included professed commitments by the Libyan factions to a political roadmap and elections.
The international dialogue efforts that shepherded and built upon these agreements have tried to adapt to pandemic-related restrictions, conducting meetings virtually and outside the country following social distancing and other public health measures. Implementation of these protective practices has varied: UN-brokered meetings in Tunis and Geneva followed a strict protocol of testing and distancing, while a separate Libyan dialogue convened by the Moroccan government was more lax. Some Libyan delegates to the international talks have tested positive for the virus, and at least two of them have died. Though virtual meetings are safer, international mediators emphasize their limitations. “You just can’t do real political dialogue over Zoom,” noted one of them in a telephone interview.1
Rising Public Discontent at Libya’s Governance Shortfalls
Alongside these political developments, the late summer was marked by intense protests in both GNA- and Haftar-controlled areas—primarily against abysmal service delivery, electricity blackouts, corruption, the country’s banking crisis, and shortages of basic goods. The pandemic and what citizens perceived to be the authorities’ deficient responses added to the ire of the demonstrators.
By late summer, Libya was experiencing a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths. This troubling development belied previously rosy assessments about the containment of infections and spurred a new round of government-directed curfews in Tripoli that protesters suspected was aimed at quelling dissent. These pandemic-related measures increased the public’s anger toward the rival governments in eastern and western Libya and compounded fatigue from a drawn-out war that neither side’s leadership could sell as a victory. Public pressure driven by the protests in the west and the east, combined with an emerging fragmentation of factional coalitions, helped prompt both sides and their foreign backers to push for a truce. That said, the fallout from the pandemic was probably one causal factor among many—and the prospects for a durable peace remain uncertain.
Militia Exploitation and Grassroots Mobilization
In other realms, the pandemic has had more discernible effects. Armed groups have instrumentalized the crisis to assert their power, as evidenced by the GNA-aligned militia crackdown on the late summer protests in Tripoli. Similarly, in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya, the militarization of the local public health response and the silencing of dissent both have been acute. Some of this dissent has been related to the mismanagement of the pandemic response, and some of it has been related to Haftar’s corruption and nepotism more broadly. These dual sources of public dissent were epitomized, respectively, by the April 2020 arrest of a doctor and the brazen murder of an outspoken female lawyer and Haftar critic in early November 2020.
In western Libya, there have been cases of militias diverting or obstructing deliveries of pandemic-related aid at international borders and ports and reportedly enriching themselves by reselling pandemic-related services and equipment at inflated prices. Some hybridized militias, deputized by weak state authorities to act as police forces, have succumbed to community pressures—failing to enforce pandemic-related bans on public gatherings, according to Libyan activists. More positively, the pandemic has not significantly disrupted counterterrorism actions by either of the Libyan factions against violent extremists like members of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment. Moreover, restrictions imposed by the pandemic—along with the civil war— have reportedly “impeded” the Islamic State’s logistics and recruitment.
Given the parlous capacity of political authorities in both eastern and western Libya, one potentially significant effect of the pandemic has been the mobilization of civil society, municipal councils, and other local actors. Groups like the Red Crescent and the Scouts have distributed testing kits, produced protective gear, and conducted public awareness campaigns. In the eastern city of Tobruk, for example, activists have worked with municipal police and the local council to combat price fixing on masks and hand sanitizer. It’s too soon to tell, however, whether this laudable activism will translate into more formalized political and economic decentralization. Municipal officials and civil society actors remain dismayed at the muted responsiveness of central authorities to their efforts, especially what activists say is the GNA’s spotty-to-nonexistent allotment of pandemic-related relief funds.
Moving forward, the picture for Libya is mixed. On the one hand, the halt in fighting, the resumption of oil exports, and the ongoing, UN-brokered political and economic discussions—however tenuous—have provided a respite from active conflict for governing authorities, medical personnel, and civil society to better tackle the pandemic. The widespread summer protests demonstrated the ability of popular mobilization to demand accountability in governance more broadly. There also have been recent signs that the wave of reported coronavirus cases and deaths may be trending downward. Resumed oil sales have given the country an economic boost, offset somewhat by pandemic-related restrictions, and a recent agreement by the long-divided Central Bank of Libya to unify the foreign exchange rate could undercut the black market and bolster citizens’ purchasing power.
Still, political fissures and social inequalities—exposed and aggravated by the pandemic—are likely to persist, given long-standing patterns of corruption and financial mismanagement. Armed groups remain entrenched and in some instances have been more emboldened by their exploitation of the public health crisis and the aftermath of the latest fighting. An impasse in ceasefire implementation has been accompanied by a buildup of foreign military forces, escalatory moves on the ground, and jockeying and obstinance by Libyan elites. Civic and municipal actors have been energized by the pandemic and in some areas are enjoying newfound legitimacy, but they can only do so much. It is now time for Libya’s political leaders to put aside self-serving agendas and meet the needs of the country’s citizens.
1 Author telephone conversation with a Western diplomat involved with Libyan dialogue, December 14, 2020.