Despite Rise of ISIS, Libya Has Dropped Under the West's Radar

Meanwhile, North African country has two dysfunctional governments, two armies, high unemployment and dwindling oil exports.

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Libyans fleeing their country, last week. Hundreds of refugees from the country have died since the beginning of the year.
Libyans fleeing their country, last week. Hundreds of refugees from the country have died since the beginning of the year.Credit: AP

Horrific photographs showing body parts of Libyan refugees gnawed by fish and washed ashore were published of last week by a Libyan human rights organization, which collected the remains and brought them for burial. A few hundred kilometers away, in a smugglers’ boat making its way to Italy, the bodies of 40 refugees were found; they had apparently died after inhaling fuel fumes.

These deaths can be added to those of hundreds of other refugees who tried to flee Libya since the beginning of the year.

These new images can compete with the horrific ones disseminated by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, of decapitations of rivals in Sirte in eastern Libya – a city that is fast becoming the capital of the militant Islamic organization in northern Africa, much like Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

In Sirte, ISIS has issued instructions to the population on how to behave, Posters describe for local women the rules involved in wearing the hijab, and state: “It must not resemble men’s clothing or the clothing of infidel women, it must be made from thick cloth and it should not attract attention.”

ISIS also disseminates pictures of “normal life,” including men pruning trees and cleaning the streets and shops full of snack foods and chocolate.

Libya is fertile ground for the radical group: As with Syria and Iraq, the country lacks a proper, functioning central government or organized army to fight it.

There are two armies in Libya – one under the command of the unrecognized government in Tripoli, and the other, commanded by General Khalifa Haftar under the auspices of the official government, based in the city of Bayda, where it operates out of hotels and private homes. But both of these forces mainly face off against each other and less against ISIS.

Both armies, by the way, are funded by the state, as are various local militias which answer to neither government. That is because after the revolution, Libyan leaders decided to define anyone who fought Muammar Gadhafi as having the right to fight.

The split in government is the result of a dispute over the results of Libya’s June elections. Two parliaments were also established, one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruq.

This is not the only absurdity in Libya. Oil, which accounts for 95 percent of its income, is officially managed by the Libyan national oil company, which answers to the recognized government. Last week, that government appointed a new chairman for the oil company, but the company’s central office is in Tripoli, where the other government is in charge; this complicates the running of the company.

But the real problem is Libya’s dwindling oil exports. Last month, the country produced about 350,000 barrels of oil per day, about a quarter of pre-revolution output. Some of its ports are controlled by militias, and meanwhile development of new oil fields is out of the question right now, since foreign investors and development companies are afraid to go to Libya.

The result is a nosedive in oil exports. With prices low, Libya is accumulating a large deficit, which according to its central bank will reach 68 percent of the gross domestic product by the end of the year.

Inflation stands at 15 percent and about 49 percent of young working-age people are unemployed. One-quarter of the work force depends on the government, and therefore a good deal of its budget goes to paying salaries, along with subsidies for fuel and basic products.

At the same time, the black market economy is believed to account for about 75 percent of Libya’s economic activity, without contributing a single dinar to the state budget.

As in Iraq and Syria, the solution lies in political reconciliation, which is being attempted with the assistance of United Nations emissaries who met last week in Geneva for that purpose. But based on reports from that meeting, it seems that it will be easier to persuade ISIS to change its religion than to attain compromise between the political rivals in Libya.

Unfortunately for Libya, it has slipped below the radar in terms of Western interest, and now that Iran is about to join the oil market, interest in Libyan oil has also declined.

Only the plight of Libyan refugees will continue to remind the world of their country's existence – and even that in a limited way.

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