Political Impasse in Libya: A Game Theory explanation

Amir Magdy Kamel, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor), Defence Studies Department and Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London

On the first Friday in July 2022, a group of Libyan protestors marched on the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) in a demand for fresh elections. These protests were precipitated by a deterioration of economic and political conditions that include a lack of employment opportunities, rising inflation, rolling power cuts, oil blockades, the overreach and influence of outside actors in domestic affairs (including mercenaries and their foreign supporters), indefinite delays to elections, and political infighting within the both the HoR and the UN backed and Tripoli-located High Council of State.

This political impasse has persisted in some form or another in contemporary Libya – particularly since the 2011 fall of the Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forty-two-year rule. Since then, political actors in Tripoli and Tobruk have been involved in a tussle for power that has seen instances of conflict and cooperation. In my article titled Libya and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in Contemporary Arab Affairs, I delve into this political standoff to uncover some of the forces and actors that have contributed to this lack of agreement post-2011. To do so, I detail how Game Theory can help explain the decisions made by the sparring actors in Libya – along with their external backers and critics. This results in a tailored Prisoner’s Dilemma that locates the decisions made by the Tripoli-led and Tobruk-led players in a Game Theory framework. In turn, this reveals how useful the framework is for explaining the Libyan case and reflects on what this means for other similar scenarios where a political impasse may persist.

My findings reveal the benefits and drawbacks of using the Prisoner’s Dilemma to help understand political phenomena. This includes the Game Theory framework’s utility in identifying what the outcome and non-outcome maximising strategies were in the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s ouster. As well as the framework’s inability to explain the drivers of these same strategies. In my analysis, I detail how the decisions made in this Prisoner’s Dilemma were largely driven by the historical make-up of the country, the links between internal and external actors, and the control of hydrocarbons.

Pulling these thoughts through to recent events in mid-2022, it is clear that these underlying drivers have continued up to have a bearing over Libya’s contemporary political landscape. Indeed, the early July frustrations have followed the absence of a political agreement and combined with the ongoing power competition in the country to trigger the mass mobilisation of protests. It is also clear that global inflationary pressures resulting from the Ukraine conflict’s squeeze on fuel, COVID-19 recovery, and the associated supply chain constraints are set to combine with the Tripoli-led and Tobruk-led actors’ ongoing disagreements. In turn, the status quo tells us that these two players (in the Prisoner’s Dilemma context) continue to be driven by their respective context-based interests as opposed to the Game Theory framework’s pathway to an outcome-maximising strategy.

This piece is based on the following article:Amir Magdy Kamel, ‘Libya and the Prisoner’s Dilemma’, Contemporary Arab Affairs 2022, Vol.15 no.2: pp.25–51. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/caa.2022.15.2.25

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