By Rhiannon Smith
The hope is that the UN political process will provide a route out of this stalemate.
Six years after the death of Muammar Qaddafi and the declaration of a “new” Libya, the country has never been closer to collapse. Three governments, two parliaments and myriad militias compete for power and influence, using political manoeuvring and military might to attempt to gain leverage over one another. Increasingly, these divisions are coalescing along regional lines, with the east of the country pitted against the west.
A reinvigorated UN dialogue process launched in September by the UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, hopes to reconcile rival factions, approve a new constitution and establish presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. The first stage of the process is to amend the 2015 Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) so that both political factions will ratify it.
In his address to the UN Security Council on November 16, Salame stressed that negotiations between the House of Representatives (HoR), the parliament based in eastern Libya, which is aligned with military commander Khalifa Haftar, and the High Council of State (HCS), an advisory body based in Tripoli and aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), remained on track.
Yet on the ground, tensions have recently ramped up between allies of the GNA in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya, led by Haftar.
Sarraj is Libya’s internationally recognised head of state, and, as such, he derives his legitimacy from the LPA framework and the support of international backers. However, Sarraj has little power over the actions of militias nominally under his control. Conversely, Haftar has no formal political role but has exerted control over swathes of eastern Libya through the LNA. He claims he can be the strongman the country needs and bring the militias under control.
As the UN-led talks have started, both factions and their patchwork of ever-shifting allies have attempted to extend their spheres of influence into the domain of the other to strengthen their claims to legitimacy. Both have failed. Haftar’s military prowess now wanes and Sarraj is scrambling to consolidate his position.
Haftar sought to expand his limited military presence in western Libya. In early October, forces allied with the LNA took control of Sabratha from the people smugglers who had ruled the roost there and Haftar declared that the capital was next. In response, the GNA sided with the LNA-aligned groups in Sabratha, declaring it a victory against criminals. However, Haftar’s allies appear to have overstretched themselves in the pursuit of taking west Libya and the GNA struck back.
In early November, an alliance of forces linked to the GNA defeated LNA-aligned forces in Wershefana, south of the capital. Significantly, Haftar’s longtime allies from Zintan joined the GNA in this fight, considerably weakening the LNA’s military momentum in western Libya and undermining Haftar’s strongman image.
Recent developments have shown that Haftar is unable to ensure civilian protection even in so-called controlled territory. Benghazi is seeing a breakdown in security, with rising levels of armed assaults, kidnappings and assassinations. The situation is being compounded by the LNA’s inability to control aligned militias, with battalions and commanders recently implicated in massacres and war crimes.
Haftar’s opponents in the west are not faring much better. The GNA sought to extend its political power into eastern Libya. In August it appointed Faraj Gaem as the GNA’s interior minister in Benghazi. Gaem received significant resistance to his presence in the city, including two assassination attempts.
While Haftar was on the back foot over the defeat in Wershefana and accusations of war crimes, Gaem attempted to challenge the strongman’s control over the city. This backfired and resulted in Gaem’s arrest and a ban on GNA officials travelling to the east.
Even in its own backyard, the GNA’s lack of control over militias involved in smuggling or criminal activity continues to erode its legitimacy. There is evidence of massacres and torture carried out by GNA-aligned militias, including reports of prisoners from the Wershefana campaign being executed. A recent CNN report showing slave auctions taking place near Tripoli has not helped this.
Haftar’s military prowess does not give him de facto veto in the political environment if he can’t even use it to consolidate territorial control, while Sarraj’s ability to use politics to challenge authority appears impotent.
The hope is that the UN political process will provide a route out of this stalemate. On November 21, the HoR voted to approve the latest round of LPA amendments. However, it remains unclear whether it approved Article 8, which gives the supreme command of the armed forces to the Presidential Council.
This has long been a sticking point for the HoR and its allies in eastern Libya as Haftar wants this power for himself. The LPA lacks significant buy-in from local groups and organisations, particularly the militias, in part because its support for any broader faction is usually based on concerns not addressed in the political agreement. For local elites, the formation of larger alliances puts local unity at risk.
As it stands, the larger political and military alliances are becoming increasingly irrelevant for normal Libyans who have been abandoned to fend for their own personal security and economic survival. Not only is reconciliation fracturing at the top, it is undermining things at the bottom too.
Rhiannon Smith is Managing Director of Eye on ISIS in Libya and Libya Analysis.