By Jonathan M. Winer
In the 42 years preceding the 2011 uprising, Gaddafi controlled all power in Libya. Since the uprising, Libyans, fragmented by geography, tribe, ideology, and history, have resisted having anyone, foreigner or Libyan, telling them what to do.
POST-SKHIRAT BALANCE OF POWER
The LPA’s Government of National Accord (GNA) created a geographically and ideologically balanced nine-person Presidency Council (PC) as well as two legislative bodies, the State Council in Tripoli and the HoR in Tobruk, and extended the tenure of the latter, which otherwise had run out in the fall of 2015.
It established a process by which the HoR was supposed to consult with the State Council, and endorse a cabinet selected by the PC, whose ministers would reflect appropriate horse-trading among Libyan constituencies.
In practice, the requirement of a functioning HoR proved to be the Achilles’ heel that ensured the GNA would never be effective.
The HoR’s speaker, Aguila Saleh Issa, rejected the idea that anyone outside of his control should exercise power from Tripoli. He told those close to him that the east had only just started receiving benefits after suffering for decades under Gaddafi and should try to retain as much power as possible.
When his faction saw that a majority of the HoR would endorse a cabinet proposed by the PC in June 2016, they turned off the electricity in the building and locked the doors to prevent a vote.
Over time, the fractious nine-person PC transitioned into a more traditional form of governance. The head of the PC, Fayez al-Sarraj, acted as prime minister; other members, including two representing the easterners and one from the Tuaregs, resigned.
A few PC members carved out concrete portfolios, especially Ahmed Maiteeg from Misrata, who focused on practical issues such as securing the coastal highway. Prime Minister Sarraj elevated his status domestically through frequent meetings with foreign counterparts.
His cabinet, appointed but not confirmed, functioned at various levels of competence, including several Gaddafi-era technocrats who knew what they were doing.
Western governments with their own interests in Libya’s economy supplemented UNSMIL’s efforts by establishing working groups to bring together Libya’s economic institutions so that basic decisions could be made about expenditures despite Speaker Aguila’s functional boycott.
Prime Minister Sarraj made the brave decision in March 2016 to take up residence in Tripoli in the face of threats issued by the self-proclaimed head of the previous government in the capital displaced by the GNA.
He was supported in this decision by the Italian government, as well as Maiteeg, who had friendly forces available to help. He then built up sufficient support to enable the government, however shaky, to remain there and provide some basic stability to the country.
Despite this stability, the country remained beset by power shortages, crumbling health care facilities, a banking crisis, a more than two year long struggle for control of Benghazi that damaged much of the city’s physical infrastructure, and the take-over of Sirte and its surrounding region by ISIS.
The U.S. and allies worked closely with the Sarraj government and military forces from Misrata and Tripolitania to oust ISIS from Sirte in 2016, at the cost of hundreds of Misratan lives.
At the same time, the UAE, Egypt, and France provided various forms of support to General Hifter’s LNA forces in the east. This enabled him ultimately to take Benghazi in July 2017 after years of fighting and to establish military governorships along many of the coastal
cities east of Benghazi, even as his efforts to take Derna from Islamist extremists continued to face fierce resistance.
Equipment provided earlier through the UAE and continuing support from Egypt played a key role in enabling General Hifter to take military action in September 2016 to push out Ibrahim Jadhran and the National Petroleum Guards at Ras Lanuf, al-Sidra, Zuwaytina, and Brega in the so-called oil crescent along the coast, both confirming his position as Libya’s strongest military force and enabling oil production to resume by ending Jadhran’s extortion racket.
In June 2018, Jadhran once again tried to retake the oil crescent. In response, General Hifter pushed back and declared that from then on, the oil would be distributed by the “eastern NOC,” rather than the national NOC, required under Libyan law and by applicable UNSCRs.
In the short term, the result was to take hundreds of thousands of barrels of Libyan oil off the market, denying the revenues to the Central Bank, which continues to pay salaries to millions of Libyans, including soldiers serving in General Hifter’s LNA.
The ability of the HoR to defy international demands that it endorse a cabinet and work with the GNA was facilitated by the provision in spring 2016 of billions in ersatz Libyan dinars by Russian state printer Goznak.
These dinars went to a separatist “eastern Central Bank” operating under Speaker Aguila. Due to the liquidity crisis, neither the official Central Bank governor, Sadek al-Kabir, nor Prime Minister Sarraj, took steps to declare the currency to be counterfeit.
This resulted in General Hifter and Speaker Aguila having very large sums available to them with no accountability or oversight, enabling them to ignore international pressure for the most part.
Russia has never explained its reasons for issuing the fake currency. However, in this period, it also undertook public efforts to promote General Hifter, meeting with him in several venues and treating him as a near head of state.
This had the predictable result of enabling him to ignore demands from the U.S, Italy, U.K., France, and others to deal with Prime Minister Sarraj and the GNA until pressure from Egypt and the UAE (as well as France and Italy) ultimately enabled the two to meet.
Periodically, General Hifter declared his intention to take over the entire country by force and by popular acclaim, mimicking the 1969 coup against King Idris. But in practice, he has lacked sufficient support both to take further territory and to hold it.
Recurrent health problems, infighting, and allegations of corruption have further inhibited his ability to act unilaterally, especially in light of the recognition by his sponsors that Egyptian security depends on a stable, unified, Libya with national institutions, which General Hifter alone cannot provide. And yet, with foreign backing, he has remained the only plausible candidate to become a purely military successor to Gaddafi.
During its first two-and-a-half years of existence, the GNA experienced an array of crises. These included multiple resignations at the PC, the replacement of the head of the State Council in Tripoli, struggles over control of the Central Bank and NOC, multiple claimants to Libya’s sovereign wealth fund, periodic terrorist attacks, and turf wars among militias.
Despite these challenges and others, including ongoing power outages and runs on the banks, Libya’s institutions have successfully avoided both progress and collapse. It has remained in the interests of those who hold power to maintain the status quo rather than to take chances on change.
The system is working, at least to some extent, as evidenced by the fact that for most of 2018, Libya was pumping around one million barrels per day (bpd), generating some $25 billion a year in revenues, until local militias closed the gigantic Sharara oil fields at the end of the year, costing Libya some 300,000 bpd.
Annual revenues of $25 billion would be more than enough to meet its near-term needs in terms of salaries and necessities. However, Libya could be producing much more: it has proven reserves of 48 billion barrels, the largest in Africa, 23 and up to 2011 its output was as high as 1.6 million bpd.
With investment, it could reach that again, or even top it, reaching as much as 2.1 million bpd. But under the current system, much of the revenue generated from oil is squandered on
patronage networks, cash payments to large numbers of Libyans who do not actually do any work, militia-related bribes and corruption, and anyone able to obtain letters of credit from the Central Bank. This allows access to hard currency at the official rate, facilitating enormous profits on the black market.
Libya’s patronage networks are extensive:
(a) in the west, the militias receive official salaries (guaranteed by the Central Bank and the GNA) and are also well-positioned to extract extortion of various kinds from their territory and assets (like airports); and
(b) in the east, General Hifter’s LNA is sustained in similar ways, while HoR Speaker Aguila has used government contracting and
counterfeit Russian dinars, among other tools, to build out his system.
After securing the Skhirat Agreement during his first weeks in office through vigorous diplomacy, UN SRSG Kobler had to deal with the reality that major stakeholders, in particular Speaker Aguila and General Hifter, would not accept the GNA’s authority.
In practice, he was unable to make much further progress over his remaining 18-month tenure. In the summer of 2017, a new UN secretary-general appointed a new UN SRSG, Ghassan Salamé. Like SRSGs before him, he began with great enthusiasm and a new political road map.
First, the road map would reduce the PC’s membership from nine to a more manageable three to address widespread frustration and resignation of many council members.
These three would make political decisions to be implemented by a separate prime minister on an interim basis until the country could hold elections.
Second, the UN would convene a democratic national assembly so that many Libyan voices could be heard on the country’s future.
Third, there would be a vote on a constitution, so that Libya could move beyond a transitional government to a permanent one.
Finally, elections, including both a direct popular vote for the new position of president of Libya and elections for a new parliament, would take place.
Over the following nine months, whenever the Salamé road map gained traction, one or more major Libyan actors boycotted, retreated, prevaricated, reinterpreted, or otherwise failed to take the necessary steps, blocking progress due to a lack of trust or good faith and divergent regional, political, and personal interests.
Then, on May 29, 2018, after intensive consultations involving the participation of a wide range of international actors, French President Emmanuel Macron was able to convene a meeting in Paris attended by Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj, General Hifter, Speaker of the House Aguila, and Head of the State Council Khaled Meshri.
At its conclusion, President Macron announced that the Libyans present had agreed in principle to support the Salamé plan, including a national conference, a vote on a permanent constitution, and elections on a president and parliament by December 10, 2018.
This appeared to be a hopeful, and important, moment. But implementation of this plan required Libya’s leaders to be uncharacteristically willing to put aside personal ambitions for the good of the country.
Characteristically, it was immediately followed by General Hifter and Speaker Aguila telling their followers that they had agreed to nothing in Paris. Moreover, diplomats were privately saying that France had given General Hifter too much attention and he was taking the Macron initiative as a sign that France was ready to join Russia, the UAE, and Egypt to support him taking power by force, if necessary.
In practice, the Paris Agreement triggered military action on the ground. Within days of the meetings, a militia group affiliated with disgraced former National Petroleum Guard force leader Jadhran sought to reclaim control over the heart of Libya’s oil crescent.
In response, General Hifter retook it. Following that, Speaker Aguila’s self-appointed eastern “government” issued a statement authorizing sales by representatives of the eastern NOC. Such efforts to take and sell the oil without regard for existing contracts, Libyan law, or applicable UNSCRs remain a fundamental threat to the country’s survival.
In practice, General Hifter’s control over the oil in the east would not have enabled the eastern NOC to sell oil, as neither it nor the eastern government are recognized internationally.
But blocking the oil deprived Libya of revenue, and risked wide-spread criticism. Accordingly, UN mediation resulted in the oil returning to NOC control.
Libya’s unified oil production and sales system has been a central factor in keeping the country from splitting apart, and any effort to grab it threatens to break civil accord more broadly.
Coming right after the Paris Agreement, the episode highlighted the ongoing struggle for control of Libyan national resources. Implicitly, it begged the question of whether stability did not resolve the issues over everyone would honor the results of any grievance, greed, power-sharing, separatism, future national election – or instead, would and personalities that have fractured the see it as an occasion for groupings to claim country since Gaddafi’s fall.
An example of power locally through taking whatever that type of violence took place at the end opportunities may permit regardless of the of August 2018, when competing militias impact on the country as a whole.
continues in Part 5
Jonathan M. Winer has been the United States Special Envoy for Libya, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and counsel to United States Senator John Kerry. He has written and lectured widely on U.S. Middle East policy, counter-terrorism, international money laundering, illicit networks, corruption, and U.S.-Russia issues.
Middle East Institute