Libya Tribune

The announcement of the head of the government of national unity relaunches the discussion around the future of the country, including a possible national reconciliation desired by the UN.

I declare my sincere wish to cede my functions to a next executive power, before the end of October at the latest.”

This September 16 announcement by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj quickly made headlines. It was nonetheless expected in Tripoli, where the rumor was already running several days before the official news.

Fayez el-Sarraj certainly has well-known reasons. The one who has led the Tripoli-based government of national unity (GNA) for nearly five years is faced with a series of pressures creating an unprecedented context.

The protests in Tripoli last August tarnished the government’s reputation and “increased the pressure on Sarraj, since he was facing accusations of corruption from several parties, including some officials from the Libyan Central Bank,” said at L’Orient-Le Jour Samuel Ramani, researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford.

But his departure, solemnly announced in a televised address, may not be what he claims to be, several observers warn.

There is a game of unspoken, ambivalence and gray area which means that we do not know if he is really going to leave“, estimates Jalel Harchaoui, specialist in Libya in the research unit on conflicts at the Clingendael Institute, The Hague.

According to him, we can only speak of the resignation “as a tangible event, when Sarraj has effectively left his post.”

On closer examination, the ad does send scrambled information.

First, because there is a history in Libya which consists in using resignation as a political instrument. In this sense, the decision may have more value for its announcement effect than for its effective implementation.

When politicians announce their resignation, they generally stay,” Jalel Harchaoui quipped.

Then because the words of Fayez el-Sarraj leave the door open to all possibilities. “He never said that he would resign, but that he would leave power if such and such conditions are met,” remarks Tarek Megerisi, researcher specializing in Libya at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

Among the conditions: the reestablishment of a dialogue between the major factions of the country and the formation of the new tripartite Presidential Council, as provided for by the UN initiative of August which includes the relaunch of a process of national reconciliation.

But the other option, almost equally possible, is that it does not speak and maintains a cloud of blur, making the pleasure last for months,” said Jalel Harchaoui.

Gain time

Why would Fayez el-Sarraj, engaged since August 21 in a process of national reconciliation under the aegis of the UN and with the tacit approval of Turkey, would he seek to create this zone of latency? 

In the short and medium term, the announcement represents a political gain to regain control. “He claims to be serious, but it could simply be a way of extricating himself from the problems in which he is stuck,” said Tarek Megerisi. 

The announcement of the resignation would thus make it possible to freeze commitments and resume the initiative. “We can no longer demand the signing of pacts, consider agreements, wait for promises in the name of Libya … No one will be able to bother him with stories of economic or military agreements, of alliances … By holding a conference of hurry, especially since the current Prime Minister, who for some represents a compromise potentially difficult to replace, could be aware of his value on the local political scene. “

The gray figures, the in-between, like Sarraj, do not run the streets,” notes the researcher.

The choice, to replace him, of a too timid figure vis-à-vis Turkey would be difficult to accept by the latter, which has invested a lot in order to make Tripoli its new reserved domain. 

Conversely, a too radically proturque figure would arouse the hostility of certain local militias. “Finally, by threatening to resign, he reminded the whole world that he was a rare commodity,” summarizes Jalel Harchaoui.

Whatever the immediate political calculations, the man seems to have, in the long term, decided since 2017 on a political exit. “He is old, tired and never wanted to be Prime Minister for a long time. However, it has already been so for five years ”, specifies Jalel Harchaoui.

Leave, yes, but not under any conditions. He doesn’t want to leave like a thief: he doesn’t want to stab Turkey and have to take refuge in the Gulf afraid to travel for the rest of his life. 

Above all, he does not want to do the opposite, to grant great favors to Turkey and to find himself locked up in Istanbul like a vulgar Islamist, without being able to go to see his daughter in Bahrain. 

For Fayez el-Sarraj, negotiating an exit through the main gate could therefore mean saving time.

But in addition to the reasons behind the Prime Minister’s announcement, and his decision to implement it or not when the time comes, the question of the aftermath dominates the internal political debate. 

Several names are circulating about potential replacements. Former prime minister and businessman Ahmad Maiteeq, known for his moderate positions, supported by Turkey and with a base in Misrata, is one such potential candidate. “I would rank him among the most credible candidates to succeed Sarraj, although it is still too early to say 100%,” said Samuel Ramani.

Beyond the speculations opened by Sarraj’s announcement, it is the UN initiative, sealed on August 21, which is put back on the table. And with it, the political but also the economic, financial and monetary future of a Libya on the verge of partition. 

The initiative for a new national understanding will not resolve all the divisions, nor even the struggles for external influence aimed at taking control of Libyan ground. 

Geographically, there will undeniably and perhaps even irreversibly remain a sphere of influence dominated by Turkey in the west, and by Egypt and Russia in the east,” notes Jalel Harchaoui. 

But the UN initiative could make it possible to avoid a total division of the territory: “Cover the whole with a thin film which would act as a unity government and would allow, at least on paper, a modus vivendi between the factions ”, summarizes Jalel Harchaoui. 

For this, Fayez el-Sarraj is not absolutely essential. But a resignation could delay the process, or even paralyze it, if it proves difficult to find a successor.

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