Even before the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, Libya’s health system—like many of the country’s institutions—was in crisis. The country’s public health infrastructure has been neglected since the 2011 uprising and even before it was in need of a fundamental overhaul. On top of that, many of the foreign medics in Libya fled following the conflict in 2011 and have not returned.

Ruined buildings in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, Jan. 20, 2020. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Ruined buildings in the historic center of Benghazi, Libya, Jan. 20, 2020. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

So, while the competing centers of power in Libya’s East and West are taking measures to combat the coronavirus crisis, internal capacity is severely limited by the lack of a basic health care infrastructure and further hampered by the inability of the two sides to cooperate. The fighting continues despite the U.N. secretary-general’s call for global cease-fire and there is no sign it will abate. There is an institutional gap in Libya—one that has not only exacerbated its conflict, but also makes it especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

One of the root causes of Libya’s waves of conflict has been its hollowed-out institutions. Ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi ensured that he personified the state and made all meaningful decisions. After Qaddafi’s 2011 overthrow, Libya’s personality-driven politics continued. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the supreme commander in the East, holds his alliance together through personal allegiances and a patronage system. The primary institution he has built is the military-intelligence apparatus, which does not bode well for democratic prospects in Libya.

Meanwhile, the head of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, Fayez Serraj, has clung to this perceived international legitimacy without directing the GNA to provide essential services to all of Libya, largely neglecting the South. His negotiating positions with the East have—similar to Haftar’s—mostly been recalcitrant.

Libya is now facing several daunting challenges including building a functioning, unified state; combatting terrorism; and now mitigating the pandemic. Strong, transparent, and effective institutions are the key to its ability to meet these challenges.

The Challenge Posed by COVID-19

COVID-19 will transcend any conceivable division in Libya: imprisoned or free, Eastern or Western, Amazigh or Arab, and so on. But the response of the GNA in the West and the interim government in the East has been to compete to prove which is more competent in combatting the virus. There are officially only 26 cases in Libya (as of this writing), with the first one in the East discovered last week. But it is highly likely there are many more.

Considering how the pandemic has ravaged some of the world’s most developed countries, Libya’s dysfunctional public health system provides fertile ground for the spread of COVID-19. There were reports that various ministries, including the Ministry of Health, had not paid employees in several months until the U.N. Support Mission in Libya pressured it to do so. In the last year, there were 62 attacks on health facilities and one-fifth of the country’s hospitals closed. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is forced to speak with the two competing authorities, further complicating prevention efforts.

In pandemics, groups on the periphery of public health systems become more vulnerable, even in places with advanced health care systems. In Libya, there are a host of such vulnerable populations. These include prisoners held in overcrowded areas, minorities like Tebu in the south, hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and migrants, among others. As Tom Garofolo, country director for the International Rescue Committee in Libya notes, “With such vast vulnerability in the population, [Libyan public health officials] risk being overwhelmed, perhaps worse than we’ve seen in other contexts.” The escalating conflict also adds injured fighters and civilians, which saps already-limited capacity. Ironically, the fear of COVID-19 may increase social cohesion as Libyans blame migrants from sub-Saharan Africa for bringing COVID-19 to the country—although there is scant evidence backing that allegation.

Building Institutions to Address COVID-19 and Beyond

Problems in Libya are too often framed as resulting from individuals or ad hoc groups taking action or failing to do so. In reality, solving the country’s systemic problems requires comprehensive approaches—this is where institutions come in. Only a political solution can resolve Libya’s conflict. But what that political solution looks like remains unclear; Libya could once again end up with a strongman. If a more democratic system emerges, then key institutional foundations like a legislative body, a constitution, a civilian-led security sector, and an independent electoral commission will have to be agreed upon. If not, Libyans will at least have to agree to settle differences through politics and not violence.

The international community has a patchy record with institution building in Libya. But there are steps that the U.S. and global actors can take to combat COVID-19 and build the institutions necessary for a peaceful Libya:

  • Ensure inclusivity in peace talks. Various peace conferences have mostly brought together individuals who represent themselves or their cities first and foremost. This has resulted in unclear frameworks that are not adhered to. For example, the GNA itself has never been given the required vote of confidence by the legislative body. An agreement that sets the country on a path to function across Libya’s vast territory and small but diverse population does not align with the narrow interests that have dominated these summits. Any new attempt to restart negotiations—including in the very unlikely event that COVID-19 provides an opening—should bring in new actors, not only the personalities who have been political or military leaders. This should include women from throughout the country, including Fezzan, and youth, who must be personally engaged to secure their buy-in. Without this meaningful inclusivity, and the buy-in associated with it, the institutions that emerge will rest on unstable ground.
  • The U.S. can leverage its neutral position to push for cooperation. Washington understands that Libya’s few remaining national institutions need to be supported both technically and politically. For example, key economic institutions like the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the National Oil Corporation form a necessary basis for economic stability, especially in the short term. Negotiating enduring agreements between the CBL and its branch in the East may be another opportunity. The CBL not “clearing” transactions, including in the East, has led to a slowdown of economic activity, potentially crippling regular citizens’ ability to buy what they need to survive. There should be agreement between the branch heads to ensure smooth financial transactions, particularly during emergencies, and again take personal decisions and rivalries out of the equation. The U.S. is now pushing for cooperation to pay public-sector salaries and support Libya’s National Center for Disease Control. This not only signals support to frontline health care workers, but also reinforces the neutral role that the U.S. has sought to take in the Libyan conflict.
  • Supporting and strengthening institutions that provide essential services and impartial facts is key to a peaceful Libya. The National Center for Disease control gets high marks for disseminating fact-based information. The media environment in Libya is full of rumors, hate speech, incitement, and misinformation. Supporting this type of institution and holding others to the same standard—notably at a national level—will help Libya now and in the post-COVID-19 world.

Any such institutional support should be provided in a way that takes into account the conflict dynamics at a regional, sub-regional, and even community level. If international actors—particularly in the humanitarian response—are indifferent to conflict dynamics, then aid may cause harm by reinforcing groups that are benefiting from the use of violence. Or, for example, if support mostly flows to the East or West, then the southern Fezzan is once again at risk of marginalization—and it is in desperate need of health care capacity. If international actors use conflict analysis from organizations like the U.S. Institute of Peace, Peaceful Change Initiative, Mercy Corps, Danish Refugee Council, and others to inform their decisions, then they can use aid to connect groups in conflict, ensure that it is inclusive, and thereby maximize benefits. This will surely benefit Libya beyond the immediate crisis.

One Libyan institution that unfortunately continues on is human trafficking. The groups undertaking this are often tribal-based; tribes could be considered Libya’s oldest institutions. This illustrates how when state institutions like border administrations are not functioning, others will be empowered to take advantage. By supporting inclusive institutions, the international community will help Libya in the long term, beyond the pandemic. This current crisis will end, but Libya’s anarchy will continue without attention to institution building.


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