Source of the photo: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/environment/floods-in-libya-s-derna-worst-disaster-in-21st-century/2992617
In a world in a whirlwind of news, information and rumours related to the G20 summit in India, the conflict in Ukraine, the North Korean leader’s visit to Russia, and various manifestations of fierce competition between China and the United States in different corners of the globe, lately a worrying signal has been creeping into the main stream media news that man-made or man-induced natural disasters are increasingly present in our vicinity and their effects are causing more and more nightmares.
These natural calamities include wildfires, floods, terrifying earthquakes that have occurred in various parts of the globe in the first nine months of 2023, and the year is not over yet. Opinions are divided on the causes of these natural calamities; ranging from conspiracy theories to scientific explanations that are difficult for the general public to consume or accept. But the most important thing is that no matter what the opinions are about the causes of these natural disasters, the human casualties as well as the immense material damage speak for themselves, begging, pleading, asking policy makers, authorities to take appropriate measures to prevent or reduce as much as possible the recurrence of such terrible situations as the one that happened in Darnah/Dernah/Derna, Libya a few days ago. And in the case of the unfortunate situation in Derna, Libya, more and more voices have emerged accusing various entities of the causes that led to the collapse of the two dams and thus to the deadly waters that swept over Wadi Derna and killed in their path over 11,300 people who had no chance, left over 36,000 displaced, and destroyed a large part of a town that has around 90,000-100,000 inhabitants. No sooner had these deadly waters reached the sea than accusing fingers appeared in both camps of the two power centers that are administering Libya; one recognized by the United Nations and supported by certain states, situated in Tripoli, respectively in the historic Tripolitania region in the western part of Libya, and the other controlled by Khalifa Haftar, supported directly or indirectly by certain states and situated in Benghazi, in the historic Cyrenaica region, in the eastern of Libya, where the city of Derna is also located. The accusations are manifold and it would be difficult for an outsider who is not aware of the history of Libya, of the interests of certain powers regarding the resources and geopolitical position of this state, not to mention the current political, economic and security situation stalemate to have a close picture of the realities in this country and to classify the information circulated in the MSM in one category or another.
Therefore the purpose of this analysis, which lies on the borderline between formal and informal is to make it easier for the general public to understand why Derna is in dire need of immediate aid from international institutions both to help the survivors of this natural cataclysm and to help them rebuild in the affected areas, the destroyed dams as well as to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the political and security deadlocks that have left Libya in a situation where it is not clear who is in charge of critical infrastructure and who is not, and ultimately not in charge of the safety of its own citizens. To this very end, I will very briefly present some aspects of Libya’s history, then attempt to present some of the reasons why it has been of interest to the great powers since the interwar period, and why it was so hated and loved at the same time during Gaddafi’s time, as well as what is left after the 2011 international “democratic” intervention in this country, in fact the current situation in which Libya finds itself, today.
1. Libya’s history in brief
In a study on Libya edited by Helen Chapin Metz in 2003, the authors argue that until its independence in 1951, Libya’s history was “essentially that of tribes, regions, and citizens and of the empires of which it was a part” (Federal Research Division, 2002, p. 12), and that the name Libya comes from a Berber tribe that was known to the ancient Egyptians, so the name Libya was applied to a large part of North Africa by the Greeks, and the term Libyan to all its Berber inhabitants. Although the name Libya is ancient in origin, it was not used to designate a particular area of modern Libya’s territory or its people, and as the entire region did not exist as a coherent political entity until the modern period, present-day Libya must be perceived as a completely new country that is still developing institutions and a national consciousness (Federal Research Division, 2002, p. 12). The territory of present-day Libya has been inhabited since the Late Bronze Era by Berbers, but the region has been colonized and ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Persians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs (who introduced Islam and the Arabic language), Ottomans and Italians throughout the ages.
As important events in the modern period on the territory of present-day Libya, one can mention the formation of two colonies, namely Italian Tripolitania and Italian Cyrenaica between 1911 and 1934 by the Italians, administrative forms that were unified under the name of Italian Libya between 1934 and 1943 (University of Central Arkansas, 2023). Considering that the subject of this article refers to Libya as a state as well as to Cyrenaica as a historical region – the area in which Derna is located, it is worth mentioning that since the Italian colonialist period, Libya has its most beloved and respected national hero – Omar al-Mukhtar – a member of the Sanusi Movement, who led the anti-colonial struggle in Cyrenaica between 1923 and 1931 (Encyclopedia, 2023).
As Italy was one of the countries that lost the Second World War, Libya came under the administration of the United Nations after the end of the war, and became independent in 1951 under the name of the United Kingdom of Libya from 1951 to 1963, which was changed in 1963 to the Kingdom of Libya, until 1969, when a bloodless coup was staged by a group of Libyan army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi (known as Free Officers Movement), when King Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi was forced to abdicate while undergoing treatment in Turkey – nowadays, Türkiye (University of Central Arkansas, 2023).
The period that followed after the overthrow of the sole King of modern and contemporary Libya was the one that brought glory and decay to this state, namely the period when Libya was first called the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (1977-1986) and the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (1986-2011), a period in which it developed in many ways, reaching to overtake countries like India, China, Russia, according to UN Human Development Index – that ranked Libya 53rd in the world, and first in Africa in 2010 (Mamdani, 2011), also to be one of the most often labelled as harboring and supporting terrorists (Obeidat, 2015). It is a period of 42-years when the Libyan state was ruled by the leader who managed to lead Libya’s three historic provinces under an iron fist for a few decades and stir up increasingly contradictory feelings internationally.
But Muammar Gaddafi’s period of brilliance and agony ended in a different way than it had begun: through a bloody and disastrous “2011 military intervention in Libya” (Terry, 2015), unlike the moment when he ousted King Idris in 1969. And Libya as a state, at least as Gaddafi built it, has become a ghost of the past, a ghost that has been bleeding from 2011 to the very present, split between camps that are not much different from the time when Libya was nothing more than a living prey from which all sorts of animals and predatory birds were biting. Unfortunately, over this living, bleeding prey, a few days ago, Africa’s deadliest storm on record (Yale University , 2023), the Cyclone/Medicane Daniel hit, causing the collapse of two dams that turned into the worst nightmare of the inhabitants of Derna, one of the most important Libyan towns from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in eastern part of the country, an area under the control of Khalifa Haftar, a former member of the Libyan army, at present allegedly a pawn of foreign interests (Taylor, 2019).
2. Oil, politics, socialism, and democracy – a curse for Libya
At the beginning of the 20th century, when Italy tried to conquer Cyrenaica and claim Tripolitania, the Sanusi Order/Movement was the main source of opposition to the colonialists/settlers and although the Italians improved the port infrastructure, built bridges, railways, or initiated projects of irrigation, they did not seek to develop the local human resource, therefore the inhabitants of today’s southern Libya, further resisted the Italians and sided with the British in World War II, hoping for independence (Federal Research Division, 2002, p. 9), which finally came in 1951.
Since independence, the Libyan state has faced serious political and economic problems, especially those related to political difficulties due to the lack of national cohesion and the fact that its territory was made up of a very high percentage of desert and its population was small and unskilled, so the newly crowned king made at least one compromise in order to benefit from resources and military assistance, granting the United States and Great Britain the right to establish military bases on Libyan territory in 1953-4. A few years later, in 1959, oil was discovered in commercial quantities by Esso and Exxon, which contributed to a substantial increase in national income as well as implicitly a growing Western influence (Federal Research Division, 2002, p. 10).
However, if the economic problem seemed partially solved, the political one, namely the difficult task of creating a unitary state by the king, posed hurdles as the three great historical provinces were divided geographically as well as structurally, and most Libyans did not identify themselves with the monarchy nor had nationalist sentiments. The advent of oil in Libyan economic life came along with Western influence and proved to be even more divisive. Therefore, the monarchy installed with the help of foreign governments could not have lasted long, as the three provinces did not find that element that would make them respect the king, and the group of officers who organized the coup d’état used exactly what the colonists and later the king along with his supporters from outside did not: they went on exploiting the mistakes made by the previous administrative establishments, namely the lack of respect, involvement and appreciation of the common people, through the watchwords “Freedom, Socialism and Unity”. The first term refered to direct citizen participation, socialism followed through various domestic programs aimed at developing Libya’s infrastructure and promoting industrialization, while unity implied Libya’s announced intention to follow an Arab and Islamic policy, among others, hence the change of the state’s name (Federal Research Division, 2002, p. 10).
The Gaddafi era and implicitly the era of Libya as a state in international relations was based and concentrated on three main elements: the army, ideology (Arab nationalism, socialism, and Islam) and the Libyan people. Gaddafi knew how to motivate the army by purchasing the most developed and latest generation equipment for it from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he offered generous salaries, but he also took protective measures by hiring protection personnel from Eastern Europe and he often used the rotation of officers in various structures to prevent the control of the security forces in the hands of just a few people. Additionally, he developed and adapted the ideology further in line with international/regional trends, and improved impressively the quality of life for all Libyans, although, everything happened against the background of a military regime.
As regards Libya’s relations with various countries, they differed according to the interests of the respective state actors in relation to Libya. For example, Libya’s external relations under Gaddafi were to some extent strained with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the Persian Gulf states, while it was also often at odds with his North African neighbors, whom Gaddafi antagonized by supporting opposition elements or by direct military action.
In 2011, Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power following an uprising inspired – argue some people – by the Arab Spring uprisings, but, significantly compared to other uprisings in MENA, the one in Libya was supported by NATO (Euronews, 2021). However, the death of the man who managed to build a functioning political and administrative entity on Libyan territory, to bring prosperity to Libyans and consequently international political isolation due to various accusations from major powers with vested interests linked to Libyan oil, failed to bring democracy or stability to this African country (Euronews, 2021). On the contrary, Libya has fractured along regional and ideological lines, with militias, PMCs, and special forces of certain states fighting for control of the oil-rich country without any consideration for the interests of the population, and through the exploitation of some Libyan leaders’ power control desires, or by Tripoli’s powerlessness to push for a realistic negotiation in the interest of the Libyans.
Despite this political, security and economic stalemate between the main parts of Libya, officially we can talk about some figures related to the Libyan economy at least, as can be seen below, as there is a partially functional government in Tripoli, recognized by the UN and in a certain degree a functioning as a partially legitimate government and yet, as could be seen in the case of Derna, it does not seem to be, or cannot be, a government of all Libyans.
3. Libya – geography, politics, economy, and trade
Geographically, Libya is in the region known as “Maghrib” – which is the Arabic word for sunset. However, “bilaad al maghrib” in Arabic also refers to the North African countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, as they are located west of Egypt, while Morocco is also called Al Maghrib because it is the westernmost Arab country in North Africa (Jalal, 2023). Libya is neighboring seven countries with which it shares 4’345 km of border, namely Egypt to the east, Chad to the south, Niger to the south-west, Sudan to the south-east, Algeria to the west and Tunisia to the north-west, while to the north it is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, where its coastline is about 1’770 km long (The World Factbook, 2023).
Libya is one of the largest states in Africa (the 4th by size) and the 16th largest in the world, with an area of 1’759’540 square kilometers consisting mainly of desert, fertile lowlands along the Mediterranean Sea, and considerable stretches of arid plains and “great sandy seas”, and according to the World Fact Book in September 2023 had a population of 7’252’573, of whom 97 % are Berbers and ethnically Arab with 96.6 % Sunni Muslims, 2.7 % Christian, (The World Factbook, 2023). The official language is Arabic, while Italian and English are widely understood in the major cities and various Berber dialects are also spoken (The World Factbook, 2023).
Politically, Libya is officially governed by a provisional government (the Government of National Unity) composed of two chambers, legislative and executive, with its capital in Tripoli (Tarabulus), formed in 2021, with the aim to unify Government of National Accord (GNU) from Tripoli and the second Al-Thani Cabinet from Tobruk. The executive branch (that is appointed by Libyan House of Representative) is headed by the Chairman of the Presidential Council Mohammed al-Menfi, a position he has held since February 2021, while the interim Prime Minister position is held by interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dubaybah as of February 2021. As for the legislative branch, it consists of a single chamber, the House of Representative (Majlis an-Nuwab)/HoR, which is formed of two hundred seats, 32 of which are reserved for women; HoR members are elected by majority vote.
Economically, Libya is an upper-middle income, fossil fuel-based economy. Like most countries, it has suffered an economic contraction of 31% due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 oil blockade, resulting in government spending being cut and the central bank having to devalue the currency. Importantly, public sector wages accounted for over 60% of spending, while real GDP was estimated at $148.037 billion in 2019, $112.612 billion in 2020 and $147.942 billion in 2021, while real GDP per capita fell from $22’500 in 2019 to $16’900 in 2020 and rose again in 2021when it was estimated at $22’000 per capita (The World Factbook, 2023).
In agriculture, Libyans produce potatoes, watermelons, tomatoes, onions, dates, and olives, among others, while Libyan industry produces oil, aluminum, petrochemicals, iron and steel, cement, etc. In 2021, Libya exported goods in amount of $ 30.8 bln. and imported goods in amount of $ 18.3 bln. (OEC.WORLD, 2023). The almost exclusively exported commodity was crude petroleum (87.6 %), follwed by petroleum gas (6.28%) and refined petroleum (1.92 %). The top destinations of Libyan exports were Italy (24.2 %), Germany (10.6 %), Spain (9.9 %) and China (9.22 %). Among most imported goods, following can be mentioned: refined petroleum (20 %), rolled tobacco (3.48 %), broadcasting equipment (3.23 %) cars (3.17 %) jewellery (2.32 %) and wheat (1.93 %). As of 2021, among top partners in Libya’s oil industry following were mentioned: Eni (Italy), TotalEnergies (France), Vitol (Netherlands), Shell (UK), Equinor (Norway), General Electric and ConocoPhilips (USA) (Energy Capital & Power, 2021). Russian companies like Gazprom, Tatneft and Rosneft are mentioned in literature as being or having been involved in Libya’s oil sector. The largest foreign oil investment in the last 25 years was Eni’s $ 8 bln. deal from January 2023 (Mohareb, 2023), as Libya is expecting to move on after an era in which oil fields closures significantly impacted its economy. Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, held assets in amount of $ 68.4 billion as of 2019 (Libyan Investment Authority, 2023), but the country is confronting multiple sanctions.
4. On Derna and about its dams’ collapse in brief
“Have you ever seen a desert become the sea in the blink of an eye?” (Alaa Drissi, 2023)
The city of Derna is an ancient port city in eastern Libya mentioned by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, with an estimated population of between 85,000 and 100,000. Besides a long history, the city has a special location, being situated between Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain), the sea and the desert, and its inhabitants have different backgrounds. Moreover, from a security point of view, the city has witnessed some interesting developments that cannot be overlooked; thus, for those interested in the so-called Islamic State and its use as a tool in various countries, or MENA region, it is worth mentioning that this organization took over part of Derna in October 2014 (Brannen, 2015) and that subsequently this organization was expelled by another similar and yet different one Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, which in its turn was driven out of the city by the so-called Libyan National Army led by none other than Khalifa Haftar (Jamestown Foundation, 2018). It is worth noting in the aftermath of these unfolding events the setting in motion of a perfect triangle for the legitimisation of an entity that is meant to be respected by the population.
4.1. Cyclone Daniel and beginning of the „Doomsday”
“The situation is beyond catastrophic.” (Murphy, 2023)
Just a few days ago the Storm Daniel (World Meteorological Organisation, 2023) hit parts of the central and eastern Mediterranean, resulting in devastating floods and massive loss of life in Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, while across the Mediterranean from Greece, Libya, was the worst affected country. According to Libya’s National Meteorological Centre, the storm peaked in northeastern Libya on 10 September, with strong winds of 70 to 80 km/h, which caused communications and electricity to be cut off, while heavy rains led to record rainfall, causing flash floods in several cities (World Meteorological Organisation, 2023). In this regard, the World Meteorological Organisation gives the example of Al-Bayda, where the highest daily rainfall of 414.1 mm was recorded (World Meteorological Organisation, 2023), while „the average yearly rainfall in the city is around 300 mm” (Davies, 2023). However, in the case of the city of Derna, what could have been just a nightmare caused by the effects of a heavy storm turned into what some residents called a”doomsday” (Murphy, 2023), if we only consider the fact that some residents claim that the water coming from the dams reached up to the fourth floor of the apartment buildings and that they were not instructed on such a situation, and yet..
The city of Derna, located on the Libyan coast to the Mediterranean Sea, has been known as susceptible to flooding, reason for which studies dating back to 1960s, along with previous flooding (1959 was one of the worst), indicated the construction of upstream dams on the Valley of Derna (Wadi Derna). Between 1973 and 1977, the nowadays Serbian company (back then Yugoslav) Hidrotehnika-Hidroenergetika a.d., constructed two dams with clay, stones, and rocks:, one of them with a storage capacity of 22.5 million and the other with 1.5 million m3, situated at 13 kilometres, and respectively 1 kilometre away from Derna (Hidroteknica, 2023). Although the dams require periodic maintenance, the Deputy Mayor of Derna, Ahmed Madroud, stated in an interview that the dam has not been maintained since 2002 (Al Jazeera, 2023).
Important to note is that the two dams were not built to collect water, “but to protect Derna from flooding” (Al-Ahram, 2023), according to the Libyan Attorney General in a recent statement, as he claims that before the dams were built, Derna was affected by a series of significant floods in the mid-20th century. The same prosecutor also confirms, that cracks were reported in both dams as early as 1998, and that in 2000 the Libyan authorities hired an Italian engineering firm to assess the damage, which recommended building a third dam to protect the town. Eventually, Gaddafi’s government entrusted the work to a Turkish company, which did not start work until October 2010 due to payment problems and stopped work less than five months later, after the revolution that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Subsequently, though, a budget has been allocated each year for repairs, none of the successive governments since 2011 has undertaken the work, according to officials, furthermore in a 2021 report by the Libyan audit office, officials criticised the “procrastination” of resuming repair work on the two dams (Al-Ahram, 2023).
In addition, a 2022 study published by the Sebha University from Libya demonstrated that Wadi Derna “has a high potential for flood risk” (A.R. Ashoor, 2022). The infrastructure of the city has been underdeveloped for decades and not only with respect to dams, but other public utilities, like hospitals, as well (Al Jazeera, 2023). Amid ongoing conflicts in Libya, the Derna town has been taken over by Khalifa Haftar’s forces in 2019, and since then investment and building in the city have been reduced further, as its population has been seen with suspicion in Benghazi (Jeffery, 2023).
Recent flooding from Derna, have had tragic consequences also to a weak early warning system according to various sources. According to United Nations World Meteorological Organization, the National Meteorological Center (from Libya) issued early warnings related to extreme weather, but did not elaborate on potential risks for dams, as these structures are becoming old. The Libyan National Meteorological Center issued the warnings 72 hours in advance, notified the authorities with written messages, and asked for caution and preventive measures. (UN World Meteorological Organization, 2023). This is confirmed by the state of emergency instituted in Benghazi on the 9th of September, 2023 (Al Wasat Libya, 2023). During the storm, strong winds caused interruptions in communications and electricity supply (UN World Meteorological Organization, 2023).
On September 10th, the two dams supposed to protect the city of Derna from flooding collapsed due to a record rainfall. This allowed millions cubic meters of water and mud to flood the Wadi Derna, that crosses the center of the city. One of the most recent reports (Patel-Carstairs, 2023) mentions that as of September 15th, the number of fatalities increased to 11300 and another 10100 people are still reported missing. The area experiences also an increasing risk of spreading cholera. While the United Nations has underlined the necessity to send rescue equipment on an urgent basis, and the number of countries sending aid increases by the day, the United Nations pledged only $ 10 million to support survivors and World Health Organization released $ 2 million from its emergency funds so far (France24, 2023). Although the sums are relatively modest, they might represent a strong signal for countries to step up their contributions.
UN officials and other government officials across the world have underlined that the split between Tripoli and Benghazi is a contributing factor to the poor state in which cities across Libya find themselves and that the atmosphere in the country is tense. The two so-called governments are said to have joined efforts in helping the survivors of Derna floods and speed up rescue operations. While this might alleviate suffering, the tragedy that occurred is immense already and might continue to increase in proportions. The multiple levels at which Libyan authorities failed on long and short term are easily recognizable, but at the same time, nowadays Libya was also not a good result of international cooperation prior to the tragedy. Furthermore, as the situation will begin to resettle, there is no guarantee that the two camps will continue the collaboration.
In the current article we briefly analyzed – in a by absolutely no means an exhaustive, and formal approach – the political, economic, and international relations of Libya, a country that recently experienced one of the most profound humanitarian catastrophes as the Derna dams collapsed and the number of victims may exceed 20’000. While many international actors hurry to blame the failures of internal politics and the division between Tripoli and Benghazi, one must acknowledge that the internal struggle and a potentially inappropriate state model, that might have been based on exogenous advice and support, have been doubled by exogenous interests and a post-colonial period in which foreign entities might have tried to access resources at lower prices, through various means.
While the country struggles for at least a decade, foreign powers support a camp of their choosing, without a larger assessment of the long-term impact on Libyan population. The post-WW II arrangements were not perfect, and some independent states that resulted faced issues and partitions. In Africa, it is the case of Sudan, which went through a partition with the second one potentially coming soon, or Somalia, that did not undergo a partitioning process yet, but Somaliland is a region in which the central government hardly imposes its authority, etc. In the case of Libya, international relations specialists either claim a reunification of governments, or capitalize on the Benghazi separation to hint at a partition. While Pax Americana has led to peaceful decades in Europe for example, it has been short-lived in other regions. But other initiatives, like the Chinese one to start pacifying the Middle East by convincing Iran and Saudi Arabia to start deescalating, might not reach Libya very soon.
However, the international community has enough elements to start admitting that Libya and Derna are also a product of 2011’s bombing of Libya, and of opposing camps that supported the conflict. Among these, long-term allies the US, UK and France historically utilized all the tools possible to fight Ghaddafi – as he opposed them as well – and tried to polarize Libyan groups in the attempt to oust him, after 2011 Türkiye, Qatar, and the UN (probably strongly supported by the US) recognized the government from Tripoli, while Egypt, the UAE (US and others in a certain degree), and potentially Russia supported Benghazi. Furthermore, the recent internal uprising due to the meeting between a Libyan official and an Israeli one is yet another confirmation that Libya can be easily impacted by unrest. However, exogenous interests and the lack of a broader international consensus brought Libya where it is today, and future tragedies might be hardly prevented.
Without implying that climate change is or is not a conformed phenomenon, one must acknowledge that Libya will remain an oil source at least on short and middle term, and that some countries will hardly give up their (more or less) transparent interests. But from a disaster management perspective, the entire international community could probably start to make more in-depth assessments and deploy resources as to ensure security of specialized agencies and allow proper prevention mechanisms to be set in place. The incompatibility of civic spirit with the so-called interests in limit situations like Derna can only result in a historic period of this planet that few will want to remember in the future.
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 Author`s note: Please observe that this analysis excludes references to the National Stability Government, which in its turn is a so-called an interim government of Libya based in Sirte, formed on 3 March 2022, led by Osama Hamada and supported by the House of Representatives and the so-called Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar.
About the author:
Mr. Flavius CABA-MARIA, President, Middle East Political and Economic Institute Prof. Ecaterina MATOI, Program Director, Middle East Political and Economic Institute