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. 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 deep divisions running through Libya mean that the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli – headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – has failed to exercise any kind of authority which extends beyond its very limited domain in western Libya. Almost the entire east of Libya is under the control of General Khalifa Haftar. With a personal militia force at his disposal (which he calls the ‘Libyan National Army’), 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. Importantly, the parliament in Tobruk, established after controversial national elections (and currently in direct opposition to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli), has endorsed Haftar’s leadership. This move has met with opposition not only from al-Sarraj’s government, but also from the old Congress based in Tripoli. This congress is made up primarily of people elected in Libya’s first democratic elections, who are now battling to remain politically relevant. The Prime Minister of the Tobruk parliament is Abdullah al-Theni and his speaker is Aguila Saleh. During negotiations in 2015 with the UN (that resulted in the creation of the internationally recognised GNA), the old congress in Tripoli struck a deal to prevent its total dissolution and now officially acts as an advisory body to the GNA under the title of the High Council of State. The reality, however, is that they have long since been diminished as an influential political force. On 29th May 2018 a summit was held in Paris with delegates from each of Libya’s four political factions. It was decided that an election would be held on 10th December 2018. As such, the mandates of both the High Council of State and the parliament in Tobruk will run out and a new government will be elected. At this stage it is unclear whether a new constitution will have been drafted and approved by a referendum before the elections take place.
Ultimately, the most powerful figures in Libya are those in control of its financial institutions: Mustafa Sanalla, head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), Sadiq Al Kabir, head of the Central Bank and Abdullmaged Breish, head of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA).
On the military front, there has been increased activity in the last three months in Derna, Libya’s fourth biggest city. Since October 2014, Derna has been led by the Shura Council of Mujahadeen in Derna, 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. This culminated in victory on June 28th, and the final step in consolidating the Libyan National Army’s grip on eastern Libya.
The extent of external interference in Libya from countries near and far has done little to encourage a quicker resolution. 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.
It is clear that 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, 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 stimulate 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 failure of the Paris summit on Libya in May to produce any concrete results is evidence of the limits of the international community’s understanding of the situation in Libya, and their ability to resolve it. There is room for optimism, however. On the 11th July General 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. This put an end to three weeks of tension after Haftar had seized oil facilities and a force majeure by the NOC on these terminals meant that 850,000 barrels a day were blocked from exportation and Libya lost an equivalent of 900 million US dollars. As eastern oil ports had effectively been closed down, threatening to ruin Libya’s oil industry and exacerbate the wedge between the east and west of the country, Haftar’s return of the ports to the NOC on the 11th July was a welcome end to the immediate crisis. Although this was a relief, 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. Since then, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mongherini has also visited Tripoli and met with al-Sarraj to re-establish the EU’s diplomatic presence in Libya.
Although elections are set to take place in Libya before the end of 2018, many Libyans are arguing that an election at this stage would be futile before a constitution is properly implemented. 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 of 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. Whatever happens, once an agreement has been arrived at it is essential for the international community to support the decision of the Libyan people.
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.