Libya’s civil wars have taken a sharp turn for the worse, with intensified battles in the capital Tripoli for control of the airport and in Benghazi between Islamist militias and their opponents. The exceedingly weak government is unable to prevent these conflicts or to make any progress in disarming the many factions. These groups seized weapons abandoned by Gadafy’s army when he was overthrown and died three years ago after Nato’s air power intervention. Diplomats are now being withdrawn, symbolising the comprehensive failure of the intervention’s international supporters to follow it up by helping the country rebuild and reorganise.
As a result Libya is perilously near being classified as a failed state, despite the fact that its extensive oil industry is still operating, although at one-third normal capacity. The three years of fighting over Gadafy’s legacy has deepened geographical, political and social divisions in the huge and ethnically diverse country of six million people. Its eastern and western regions dominated by Tripoli and Benghazi respectively struggle for domination, elections have not resolved conflicts because political parties are undeveloped and ill-prepared - and civil society and central institutions equally so. Radical Islamic groups have filled these vacuums and are now being challenged by an insurgent force led by a renegade army general.
If these conditions are prolonged, more Libyans will join those fleeing to neighbouring states or desperately seeking asylum as boat people across the Mediterranean. There is no stomach or justification for a fresh Nato military intervention to prevent Libya disintegrating; but that is no reason for political disengagement by sympathetic and knowledgeable outsiders to stop that happening. While it is prudent for them to await the outcome of these internal struggles, they should redouble efforts to support and incentivise a programme of political, institutional and physical rebuilding to help end them. The cost of not taking such action will be much larger in the long run.