By Dr Mustafa Fetouri
A new round of violence erupted on 27 August south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, between militias nominally allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the 7th Brigade, which claims to be part of the Libyan Armed Forces.
However, it is not clear if the brigade is part of the forces dominating eastern Libya and led by Field-Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who has defeated all opponents so far.
Local mediators, including forces loyal to the GNA stationed outside Tripoli, managed to negotiate three ceasefires between the warring parties, but all collapsed as quickly as they were agreed to.
After a week of violence, hundreds of displaced civilians, dozens of homes damaged, over 30 civilian deaths and nearly twice as many wounded, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), headed by Ghassan Salame, stepped in.
With the help of local dignities representing all sides, UNSMIL got the parties involved to agree to a fourth truce that seems to be holding so far apart from occasional gunfire.
Exactly what the 7th Brigade is, and how serious a threat it represents to the deceptive relative peace that Tripoli seems to have enjoyed over the past couple of months is not yet clear.
There is little information available about the group and its leadership, let alone its political inclinations and where its loyalty lies.
Like many of the little wars that Libya has witnessed over the past seven years it is hard to draw a clear line between those involved and why they are fighting.
Basically, the 7th Brigade was set up by the GNA last year as part of the new army that it was trying to build but, for unknown reasons, it was then disbanded in April, although that seems to have been a paper exercise. The personnel and command structure are still in place otherwise it would not have been able to launch such a vicious surprise attack on the capital.
In the second mediation meeting, held last Sunday, the mediators appeared to consolidate the ceasefire and, finally, have the warring factions accept a permanent truce around the capital while postponing the brigade’s demands for a while.
The latter are hard to meet since they include evacuating all militias from the capital and handing over security of sensitive buildings to a more regular police force.
It was Salame’s way of buying time as he has been doing in his role as UN envoy for a while. He knows that there is no workable solution and the capital cannot be saved all of the time as the roots of the problem are still there.
The conflict has been about money, influence and territorial gains and Tripoli is seen as the centre of it all, with dominant militias running the GNA from behind the scenes.
By Monday, 10 September, the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation in the heart of Tripoli came under attack when terrorists entered its landmark building around nine o’clock in the morning and started shooting.
At least 11 people were injured, two critically, with one person killed and serious damage to the building. While the attack ended quickly it showed that divisions and quarrels will always provide a perfect opportunity for terror groups to strike wherever they like.
As expected, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack and promised more to come. An eyewitness told MEMO how the four or five heavily armed attackers forced their way into the building through a side door used occasionally by the public.
They faced almost no resistance from the usually unarmed security guards. “As soon as they came in they started shouting ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and shooting at any one they could see,” explained Haj Hassan, a librarian who hid under his desk before fleeing. The guards, he added, “did nothing” to stop them.
This was the first such attack in Tripoli, which demonstrated that whatever security arrangements are in place to protect sensitive buildings, they are neither professional nor sufficient enough in a country awash with arms.
The NOC is an extremely important institution for Libya as the company responsible for producing and selling Libya’s oil and thus keeping the country afloat and not classified as a completely failed state.
Mustafa Sanalla, the NOC’s chairman, is credited with being able to negotiate his way around the capital’s many militias while keeping the oil industry running. During his tenure, Libya’s crude production has risen to 1 million barrels a day, a level the country has not seen since 2012
The day before the attack I had a meeting with Sanalla in his office. He was hopeful and defiant about doing whatever is possible to keep the NOC politically neutral and concentrate his efforts on the only thing he understands well, pumping oil to “help save the country and provide for its people.”
The UN’s Ghassan Salame still talks of holding elections in Libya by 10 December as agreed by the factions in their Paris meeting in May. It looks increasingly unlikely, though, that the situation on the ground will allow elections to take place in the foreseeable future.
In his report to the UN Security Council last week, the UNSMIL official acknowledged that the country is a shambles and more and more conflict can be expected. The terror attack on the NOC building was evidence of that.
He repeated his warning about rampant corruption and how the militias dominating the GNA are making money at the expense of the country. Salame also criticised the nominal parliament, based in eastern Libya, for failing to deliver the required legislation for the elections to be held.
More dangerously, perhaps, Salame also talked about how various foreign groups from Chad and Sudan, Libya’s southern neighbours, are taking control of parts of the south and providing military assistance to those local factions which are able to pay them.
Tripoli might have been spared this time around but how long can it be spared destruction?
It will not be long before another episode of violence breaks out, forcing more destruction and misery on the civilians who have been through wars and suffering ever since NATO intervened and toppled Gaddafi in 2011.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize. His third book in Arabic is due out in September.