TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans are watching their country fall apart while leaders of rival factions charged with forming a unity government debate how to carve up oil wealth and whether they should ask the West for help in fighting the Islamic State.
“The price of a baguette has gone from 50 dirhams [less than a penny] to 250 dirhams [18 cents] in just six months,” said Nihad Maiteeq, a member of the Libyan Women’s Association who has observed the unity government talks. “We will see a hunger revolution that will blow everything to pieces.”
Food costs are only one of Libya’s problems.
On Thursday, the United Nations released a report documenting a host of human rights violations perpetrated by warring groups that have caused chaos in Libya since 2014 — the end of the civil war that erupted when dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed in 2011.
The abuses include unlawful killings such as executions of captives, torture, indiscriminate attacks on dense populations, abductions and other violence that might qualify as war crimes, according to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
“One of the most striking elements of this report lies in the complete impunity which continues to prevail in Libya and the systemic failures of the justice system,” Mr. Hussein said in a statement.
The findings were released a few days after lawmakers from Libya’s internationally recognized parliament based in Tobruk near the Egyptian border said they failed to show up for a vote to approve a U.N.-brokered power-sharing agreement after threats were made against them.
The agreement would have merged the Tobruk parliament with a Tripoli-based legislature that is affiliated with Islamist militias. Both parliaments oppose the Islamic State, which controls the coastal city of Sirte.
Husny Bey, chairman of a Libyan holding company that has exclusive distribution rights for Procter & Gamble, Sony and other international companies, said he isn’t surprised that the unity government talks keep hitting roadblocks.
The politicians are more concerned with divvying up the country’s spoils than with governing, he said.
“None of transparency criteria were met for selecting who got which ministries, and the result was favoritism to friends and others who are not fit for the job,” said Mr. Bey. “The conflict is not ideological, nor is it really about tribal matters. It is a struggle for control of resources in our country, where 97 percent of our income comes from selling oil.”
The legislative bickering has consequences, said U.N. representatives and others.
Having lost more than $68 billion in potential oil revenue over the past three years, Libya will have the world’s fastest-shrinking economy this year, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Medical supplies also are running out. At a meeting of Arab League officials Tuesday, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Ali Al-Za’tari, warned that the country would run out of lifesaving medications next month.
“The perception is Libya is rich and can fend for itself,” said Mr. Al-Za’tari. “Libya is rich, but it can’t fend for itself today.”
Divided over Western help
Meanwhile, the Islamic State grows stronger.
Last month, the Meir Amit Intelligence Center in Tel Aviv released a study that found the Islamic State is training a sizable military force that will allow the extremists to take control of all of Libya and establish branches in neighboring countries. The center noted that the Islamic State is providing arms and guidance to its affiliated “Sinai Province” on the Israeli-Egyptian border and to the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, whose leaders have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.
“We are certainly taking advantage of the chaos that is occurring in Libya now to gather our forces and put our plans together,” said Abu Baraa Al Tunisi, the Islamic State’s spokesman in Sirte. “We do not waste the chance of the security and political vacuum and instability to expand our territories and stretch our empire.”
Britain, France and Italy have floated the idea of sending troops to Libya to defeat the Islamic State, but they have said Libyan leaders must first form a unity government that would focus the country on fighting the extremists.
Libyans were divided on welcoming Western forces.
Ms. Maiteeq of the Libyan Women’s Association — whose brother Ahmed served as prime minister for two months in 2014 and presumably would serve in a unity government — said a U.S. airstrike Feb. 19 on an Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli, angered lawmakers and undercut the unity government negotiations. About 40 people were killed in the attack.
“I think the U.S. strikes on the Islamic State without coordinating with a legitimate Libyan government has provoked some revolutionaries,” said Ms. Maiteeq.
The problem for foreign governments is in determining which Libyan government to deal with.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Maiteeq, the former prime minister, has appeared on Libyan TV stations saying that he opposes Western forces in Libya.
But Fawzi Ammar, an economist who lives in Zilten to the east of Tripoli, says his countrymen want help.
“American strikes on Islamic State logistic centers are considered legitimate by most Libyans,” Mr. Ammar said. “The latest strike on Sabratha was welcomed by so many Libyans. It hit the target precisely.”
The Islamic State spokesman, Al Tunisi, played down the American attack.
“The U.S. airstrikes are certainly an obstacle to our progress,” he said. “But we fight with the doctrine ‘Believe in God.’”
On Tuesday, Islamic State fighters attacked the Sabratha police station. They beheaded 12 officers before beating a retreat south into the desert, said local military council leader Taher al-Gharabili.
Khaled Almariami, a Tripoli management consultant who supports the elected Tobruk government, said Islamist politicians from the country’s west, allegedly backed by Qatar and Turkey, are responsible for the deadlock over the unity government. They are playing a wait-and-see game that could turn Libya into a failed state, he said.
“It is a negative feedback loop,” said Mr. Almariami. “The delay in forming the unity government contributes to the continuation of the state of division, and the delay in military support delays the consolidation of a government.”
Mr. Ammar was eager for the politicians to form the unity government. At least then the Libyan people could hear a legitimate debate about their future, including whether or not it’s a good idea to invite foreign troops onto Libyan soil.
“The effect of the delay in forming a unity government is undoubtedly ISIS spreading and collapsing of the Libyan economy,” he said.