By Christian Weisflog
A ceasefire has prevented further escalation in Libya for the time being. But now the internationally recognized government in Tripoli is fighting to survive in the face of street protests.
A few weeks ago, Libya threatened to escalate: the combat units of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli wanted to continue their offensive towards the east with Turkish support.
After conquering the strategically important coastal city of Sirte and the Jufra air base, the gate to the so-called Libyan oil crescent would have been wide open.
To prevent this, Russia moved fighter jets from Syria to Libya. Egypt declared Sirte and Jufra to be the red line and threatened to invade.
Recently, however, the signs in Sirte point to relaxation. On August 21, Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the unity government in Tripoli, and his opponent Aguila Saleh, the chairman of the parliament in eastern Libya, announced that they would cease all fighting and hold elections soon.
There have been many ceasefires in Libya after the overthrow of long-term ruler Muammar Ghadhafi in 2011, and they have been broken just as often.
“But this is not just wishful thinking,” says Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui from the Clingersael Institute in The Hague.
Great powers are looking for Modus Vivendi
“Several regional opponents are talking to each other and are looking for a modus vivendi,” explains Harchaoui in an interview. Ankara and Cairo, which are otherwise spider-opposed, have spoken out in favor of a ceasefire and demilitarization of Sirte.
A Turkish delegation has been in Moscow for the past two days to find a common political solution for Libya. And the USA is also ready to make major compromises with Russia, says Harchaoui: “Washington only expects Moscow to demilitarize Sirte.
Nobody talks about the rest. ” The US would tacitly accept the Russian presence in the southwest and in the oil crescent in the east.
So far, Khalifa Haftar in particular has spoken out against the ceasefire. One of his spokesmen described the initiative as a mere PR coup by the Sarraj government.
With the support of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, France, Egypt and Jordan, the former high general of the Libyan army has marched from the east to the gates of the capital Tripoli in recent years.
Haftar wanted to turn back the clocks and, following Ghadhafi’s example, reinstall autocracy in Libya. But with the Turkish intervention at the turn of the year , the tide turned.
Haftar’s troops and the Russian mercenaries who supported him had to retreat to Sirte in June.
“If Haftar does not succeed in generating a military dynamic again in the next few weeks that puts him back in the limelight, he will be forgotten,” says Harchaoui. However, without the support of Russia and Egypt, Haftar will lack the means to launch an offensive.
In Moscow and Cairo it seems to have come to the conclusion that the 77-year-old general in Libya cannot plan for the long term. The UAE, which prefer a tough line against the government in Tripoli, which they consider to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, should not dare to escalate further on their own.
Haftar must therefore hope that the Sarraj government and its allied militias will make a mistake. For example, by provoking an offensive by his opponents on Sirte, which could force his international supporters to react militarily.
Ceasefire breaks old conflicts in Tripoli
But even if the specter of a great war in Libya seems to have been banished for the time being, nationwide peace is still a long way off. Paradoxically, the military victory over Haftar in Tripoli leads to renewed instability.
If the different militias and factions defended the capital together until June, old animosities are now breaking out again. In addition, there were street protests in the second half of August because of the lamentable electricity and water supply.
In the hot summer months, the electricity network is only able to cover 60 percent of the demand. The problem has worsened in recent months ecause power lines were allegedly looted during Haftar’s offensive .
“There is great dissatisfaction in the whole country,” says Harchaoui. The demonstrations are therefore quite spontaneous and authentic. Since there is no monopoly on the use of force in Tripoli, all the factions tried to manipulate social protests.
While Prime Minister Sarraj instructed his security forces to stop the unauthorized protests due to the corona crisis, Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha promised the demonstrators to protect them.
Bashagha is a former militia leader from the coastal town of Misrata and is said to have ambitions to replace Sarraj in office.
After Bashagha traveled to Turkey last week without the Prime Minister’s knowledge, Sarraj suspended him on Friday.
The capital’s militias celebrated the decision with shots of joy, as Bashagha, as interior minister, had tried to clean up with them.
The conflict between the prime minister and the rebellious interior minister is an existential threat to the internationally recognized government, writes the Libya Herald.
In order to dampen the anger on the street, Sarraj signed a series of partly populist decrees. Among other things, women with children are to receive social benefits, and public positions are to be created for unemployed university graduates.
The conflicting parties continue to arm
Under these confused conditions, it is questionable how a new social contract for the whole of Libya that goes beyond an unstable modus vivendi is to be negotiated.
Because who is really authorized to negotiate on behalf of the people? As for Sarraj, his power consists only of international recognition.
Internally, he has neither a strong popular base nor a loyal security apparatus. Haftar’s star is sinking. Allegedly Moscow is supposed to be looking for a suitable successor in the Ghadhafi clan.
In view of the fragile situation, a return to the scenario of a major war cannot be entirely ruled out. As a previously confidential UN report shows, the international supporters have heavily upgraded their fighters, weapons arsenals and bases in Libya in the past weeks and months.
Since July 8th, Haftar’s side in eastern Libya has been supplied with 70 cargo planes and ships. 30 planes and ships had brought supplies for the Sarraj government and its allies to the west, Stephanie Williams, the UN envoy for Libya, told the Security Council in New York on Wednesday.
Even Qatar, which had severely reduced its support for the rulers in Tripoli for years, has sent cargo planes to the Libyan capital again in recent months.