Since the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained in a persistent state of crisis. Western politicians and media have largely failed to understand developments during this period and the nature of the divisions in the country are now such that external observers have repeatedly lost track of who is in charge of what, and this confusion shows no sign of abating. The Next Century Foundation wishes to provide some much needed clarity regarding the current situation in Libya.
The entrenched divisions in Libya are reflected by its myriad political factions, who each claim to have authority over the region. The international community has done little to diffuse these tensions by supporting whichever faction best suits their vested interests rather than prioritising the interests of the Libyan people. Currently, there are four main political factions in Libya:
- The Government of National Accord (GNA) – The GNA was established in 2015 in UN-backed negotiations to try and impose a stable authority in the region. It is the only internationally recognised government in Libya and is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Unfortunately, however, the GNA has failed to exercise any kind of authority extending beyond its very limited domain in western Libya, where it operates from Tripoli. Many argue that the GNA is a corrupt institution, accusing its leaders of earning exceptionally high salaries while doing little to resolve the country’s problems.
- The High Council of State – The High Council of State was formerly the General National Congress in Tripoli, formed in Libya’s first democratic elections in 2012. After its members refused to dissolve the congress in 2015 (and lose their salaries) a deal was struck during the UN negotiations to re-establish the congress as the ‘High Council of State’, an advisory body to the GNA. The reality, however, is that they have long since diminished as an influential political force. It is headed by Khaled al-Mishri, who replaced Abdarrahman Swehli in April 2018. He is a leading figure in the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya).
- The Tobruk Parliament – also known as the House of Representatives, it was established after controversial national elections with a turnout of around 18% in 2014. It is based in Tobruk, a port city in the east of Libya. Its chairman is Aguila Saleh Issa who regards his Tobruk-based government (headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thenni) to be the only legitimate government in Libya. It is also important to note that the Tobruk parliament has endorsed the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar.
- General Haftar – General Khalifa Haftar controls almost the entire east of Libya. With a personal militia force at his disposal (which he calls the ‘Libyan National Army’ (LNA)) and backing from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar has taken command of key strategic centres like Tobruk, Benghazi and most recently Derna. The capture of Derna on 28th June was an important step in consolidating Haftar’s position, as it remained the last sizeable bastion of opposition to him in the east. Prior to Haftar’s takeover, since October 2014 Derna had been led by the Shura council of Mujahadeen, a coalition of Islamist militias. On May 7th, General Haftar announced the “Zero Hour” for the “liberation of Derna” and his forces began ramping up their military offensive.
Other, arguably more influential, centres of power in Libya are its financial institutions. Saddiq Kabir, for example, is head of the Central Bank and responsible for paying the salaries of many Libyans. Mustafa Sanalla is head of the National Oil Corporation and Abdullmaged Breish is head of the Libyan Investment Authority.
It should also be noted that General Haftar recently attempted to oust Saddiq Kabir from his position as governor of the Central Bank but was unsuccessful. He accuses Libya’s Central Bank of funneling money to extremist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The external interference in Libya from countries near and far has done little to encourage a quicker resolution to the conflict. This is particularly evident in the way General Haftar’s support comes more from abroad than at home. Egypt, for example, has been supplying his forces with training and various weapons, even carrying out direct air raids in Derna against Haftar’s opponents. At the same time, the UAE are operating their largest foreign military base in Al Khadim, 100 kilometres east of Benghazi. In much the way Iran have entrenched a military presence in Syria aimed at lasting into the future, the UAE have identified the chaos in Libya as too good an opportunity to miss for extending their regional influence.
France, on the other hand, has been hosting conferences in Paris aimed at fostering dialogue between General Haftar and al-Sarraj, all the while providing General Haftar with extensive military support during his endeavours in Derna and beyond. It would not be overly cynical to suggest that France’s main concern regarding Haftar’s quest for leadership is the financial benefits it could accrue through Libya’s oil. With such a multitude of foreign actors behind one man, Libyans have good reason to fear that they will be the ones benefitting least in any eventual political settlement.
The complexity in the east is mirrored by the chaos along the southern border. Since 2011, the constant state of flux in Libya has made it very easy for neighbouring countries like Chad and Sudan to infiltrate the 1500-kilometre-long border as and when they like. There is no longer any effective government presence in the south, only ongoing struggles for authority and control amongst local militia forces. Since 2014, the presence of Chadian rebel group FACT in the southern Fezzan region has only increased: they have been reported to have taken temporary control of key areas in the city of Sabha for example. Counterbalancing this is the similarly sizable Sudanese presence in the south. Fighters from JEM, a Sudanese opposition group, have been fighting alongside Haftar’s forces. The various forces pulling against each other in the south highlight the difficulty that any central Libyan government will have in regaining full control of the area in the future.
On May 29th, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Paris with representatives from Libya’s four political factions: al-Sarraj, Haftar, Saleh and al-Mishri. Each representative endorsed a motion to hold elections in Libya on 10th December, when the mandates of the High Council of State and the Tobruk Parliament will run out. It was also agreed that by 16th September a constitutional basis and electoral laws would be established.
Whether these elections (if held at all) will be fruitful, however, is another matter. In May of this year twelve people were killed in “an ISIS attack” on the headquarters of the Electoral Commission. Nor is it likely that there will be agreement on a draft constitution any time soon. A constitution is vital for providing a consensus around the rules and legal framework that would govern the elections. Particularly in Libya, elections in the absence of a constitution would be more likely to exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it. However, despite the relative consensus over the necessity for a constitution, there is still division over its content. Some Libyans want a referendum on the current draft constitution while others want a completely new text. There are also reports that the constitutional committee was abandoned after it became apparent that its leader had dual Libyan-American nationality. Whatever happens, once an agreement has been arrived at it is essential for the international community to support the decision of the Libyan people, 1 million of whom are registered to vote in December’s elections should they take place.
On 14th June a coalition of armed forces seized the largest oil terminals in Libya’s eastern oil crescent, resulting in many civilian causalities and damage to infrastructure. General Haftar has since accused the Central Bank of channeling money to the militia leader responsible for blockading the oil terminals. Although General Haftar’s LNA was successful in recapturing the facilities on the 25th June, he announced that management of the facilities would be transferred not to the internationally recognised National Oil Corporation, but to a different NOC in the east. In retaliation, the official NOC imposed a force majeure on the oil terminals; 850,000 barrels a day were blocked from exportation and Libya lost over an estimated 900 million dollars. On the 11th July Haftar was made to hand back control of Libya’s oil ports to Sanalla’s NOC following a letter from US President Donald Trump that threatened legal action over Haftar’s crippling of Libya’s oil production. Although this relieved the immediate crisis, it brought to the fore underlying frustrations in Libya over the distribution of wealth and the plundering of resources. These concerns need to be addressed in order for political reconciliation to progress. The situation also highlighted the need to protect the country’s wealth so that – despite the political turmoil – public services will continue to function.
Although the upcoming elections are heralded as a positive step forward by many, it is difficult to see how they will bring about any fruitful change while the country is so fragmented. If there is no constitution then corruption and political violence will only flourish. Divisions in Libya will also remain entrenched while international powers continue to exploit the region and prevent self-determination of the Libyan people. There is little point in diplomats congratulating themselves on rhetorical commitments to elections and ongoing dialogue, for there will be very little to congratulate until Libya reemerges as a functioning state.
Indeed, the situation in Libya remains desperate. The al-Sarraj government has had three years to create some stability with a view to peace, and has yielded no results. Lawlessness in Tripoli is rife and the government turns a blind eye to foreign aircraft landing on Libyan territory at will. There has been a scarcity of bread, fuel, and electricity in the capital for years now, the Central Bank is regularly late in paying the salaries of much of the Libyan population, and the drafting of the new constitution has suffered numerous setbacks.
Compounding the humanitarian crisis are the large numbers of refugees being trafficked through Western Libya from Chad, Niger, and Sudan. The position of the GNA in western Libya is also weakened by the growing threats of militias who control other nearby cities such as Misrata and Zintan. Exasperated by the lack of constructive change under al-Sarraj’s government, they plan to march on Tripoli to incite change in the capital.
All of these failures are pointing in the direction of a change, a fresh approach in the governing of Libya. Whether the international community has enough credit to install a new government in place of al-Sarraj is doubtful considering their underwhelming track record. Nor can we be certain that the international community has the will to implement such wide-sweeping reform in what is now an even more divided Libya. The best hope for a Libyan government to reassert its sovereignty over the whole country is to find ways of making compromises which generate goodwill amongst the key domestic actors. General Haftar agreeing to allow four oil export ports to reopen is an example of this. At the same time, the kind of decentralised style of government which was so prominent in Libya following its independence must be the foundation from which oil rents can be fairly redistributed to help address dire living standards. Gradually, local authorities could coordinate with each other on the security front and move towards a unified national force. By no means is it an easy task, but it may represent an encouraging starting point on the way to rebuilding what is a terribly torn country.
By Ardi Janjeva and Isobel Thompson