This paper aims to analyse the main factors that have contributed to destabilising the fragile balance in Sirte under the rule of the LAAF.
Political Division and Administrative Weakness
At the political and administrative levels, the seizure of Sirte by LAAF forces in January 2020 immediately translated into the replacement of the Elected Municipal Council 15 by a new local authority appointed by the Interim Government.
As early as 7 January, this new ‘Steering Committee’ assumed control of the city. Including seven members from the city’s main tribes, it reflected how the LAAF and the Interim Government attempted to manipulate tribal loyalties to ensure their control.
The rivalries and tensions between the Steering Committee and its elected predecessor also illustrated the impact of political divisions at the local level, notably in terms of governance capacities and service delivery.
The Influence of Tribal Dynamics on Local Authorities
Since the LAAF took control of Sirte, the Elected Municipal Council has no longer possessed any authority on the ground inside the city, as its members have followed the political affiliations of their tribes.
They have shown no sign of political activity since their overthrow, although they do not conceal their enduring hostility to the Steering Committee, which they consider to have usurped the legitimate local authority.
Some of them retired to their homes and chose to remain silent, while others relocated to western Libya, in opposition to the General Command. The Steering Committee of the Interim Government, which was appointed without clear criteria, came to control the levers of local government.
The swift decisions made by the Interim Government – dismissing officials and replacing them with loyalists in order to tighten administrative control – appear to lack any standard of competence, and primarily used tribal affiliation and loyalty as their selection criteria.
Therefore, the removal of the Elected Municipal Council could hardly be conducive to peace, as positions in the city of Sirte would become dependent on the extent of people’s bias and involvement in the conflict.
Decisions by the Interim Government’s Ministry of Local Authority have significantly contributed to a consolidation of tribalism and a deepening of schisms in Sirte. As expected, the Steering Committee chose a leader from the upper echelons of tribal power, Salem Amer al-Firjani, as its head.
This was in line with the most opportunistic tactics usually used by tribes to maximise their benefits. The leader will hold enough power to become a threat to government ministers, who usually comply with the requests and needs of his tribe.
Political Divisions Hinder the Work of Local Authorities
However, the new municipal Steering Committee also faces many legal, administrative and social obstacles. The Elected Municipal Council – which was dissolved following the takeover by the LAAF – has played a significant role in obstructing its work.
In late January
2020, the mayor, Mukhtar al-Madaani, filed a lawsuit at the al-Bayda Court accusing the new Steering Committee of storming his office and having no official record of the transfer of power in accordance with the provisions of Libyan law.
The lawsuit resulted in delays in the disbursal of any budgetary funds to the Committee by the Interim Government, which demanded such legal records as a condition. Despite pressure imposed on the former mayor, culminating in his arrest on 22 January 2020 by Benghazi Criminal Investigations, after his release he refused to attend the handover ceremony, which took place without his presence.
Although the members of the Elected Municipal Council no longer possess authority in the city at the present time, it is impossible to ignore their social and political weight, which enabled them to win the past municipal election.
The Municipal Council has also maintained contacts with political actors in both the GNA and the Interim Government. This may contribute to limiting support for the Steering Committee, which lacks electoral legitimacy.
For members of the Municipal Council, obstructing the work of the new city institutions means hindering their capacity to provide services to the city’s residents. This is the best means of mobilising the streets against it.
In addition to these administrative and legal challenges, internal conflict within the Firjan tribe is another important factor obstructing the work of the Steering Committee. The clans and families of this tribe have been engaged in an undisclosed yet noticeable internal struggle over the chairmanship of the Steering Committee.
This conflict has prompted each clan to use its political influence over the Interim Government to obstruct the work of the Committee. Each clan has a representative in parliament, an officer or an official affiliated with the LAAF, who is able to obstruct the work of city institutions in Sirte without the need to be present.
This is probably due to the administrative loopholes in the implementation of Law 59 of 2012 regarding the jurisdiction of municipal councils, as the municipalities remain hostage to the
central administration, allowing the Ministry to choose the chairs of service institutions in the city and disburse their operational budgets.
The Impact of Political Divisions on the Provision of Services
Tribal and political conflicts over local government have contributed to a deterioration of living and service conditions in the municipality of Sirte. However, the general public considers the level of services and security to be the most important criterion with which to evaluate local authorities.
The average citizens care little about the strategic objectives of the LAAF aimed at controlling Tripoli: they need parties to provide them with security and vital services, tasks at which the LAAF bodies in Sirte have failed in comparison to conditions prior to January 2020.
Some actors in Sirte believe the centralisation of the Interim Government is primarily to blame for this deterioration of economic, social and security conditions. Most services are available in the villages of the eastern region, while they remain absent from the city of Sirte.
To the people of Sirte, fuel and vital medical services such as childhood vaccinations and development projects have all become empty promises and ink on paper. Support from Misrata for the city of Sirte with medical vaccinations in mid-November 2020 further exacerbated popular ire towards the Interim Government.
One important reason for this failure is that the Steering Committee has not been recognised by the GNA, while it has also faced many obstacles and challenges from the Interim Government in the eastern region. In October 2020, the chairman of the Steering Committee described the city as “devastated,” saying the Committee had not
received any support or budgetary funds since it assumed the reins of the local authority in January 2020.
This same Committee had previously made a statement considered controversial about the Benghazi Criminal Investigation Units preventing fuel tankers from reaching the city, creating more suffering, with the residents now yearning for the centrality of the GNA.
The low levels of security in Sirte also significantly impacted trade and commerce during the period between June and December 2020. The arrival of armed groups such as the 9th Brigade (‘Kaniyat militia’), the 166 th Infantry Brigade 24 and other ill-disciplined groups has also disrupted the work of the security services and made them unable to protect citizens.
Armed robberies of shops have become commonplace in Sirte in the light of the security services’ collusion with or inability to confront armed groups. This has recently led to the closure of most gold and currency markets in the city, due to fears of having their stores targeted.
The closure of the road linking Sirte with western Libya due to the military conflict has also exacerbated the suffering of young people. The young population in Sirte depends primarily on trade with Tripoli and Misrata, and the closure of this road has doubled transport costs through the long and unsafe roads to the south.
This has caused disruption to businesses, contributing to a surge in the number of unemployed in Sirte. Some young men have opted to board emigration boats to Europe, in what is considered a recent phenomenon in the city.
The fragility of LAAF alliances: Salafists, Former Regime Supporters and Mercenaries
Living conditions seriously deteriorated in Sirte over the course of 2020, contributing to destabilising local society. However, the threat to the city’s stability has also been a result of the alliances through which the LAAF established control over the city and the neighbouring region.
The fragility of these alliances has increasingly come to the fore, and raises questions regarding their durability especially if, the political and military context would undergo significant changes.
The Salafist Threat
The Salafist movement is considered the most prominent local ally of the LAAF. However, the movement’s social penetration and strategy represent a threat to societal stability in Sirte. The movement now has a military wing, the 604 th Infantry Brigade, which announced its rallying of the LAAF on 9 January 2020 after the fall of the city.
Moreover, the Central Security Agency in Sirte – considered the Salafist wing of the GNA-affiliated Ministry of the Interior prior to its defection – has been working to recruit more members from the city. Their current numbers are considered to exceed 500.
The presence of two military and security wings guarantees the group wider influence, while it also receives financial support from both the Ministries of Defence and of the Interior. It also benefits from another source of revenue, the smuggling of scrap.
For the general public in Sirte, Salafists have become synonymous with torture and tyranny. The movement has exploited the security services which it controls to attack the places of worship of other religious groups.
For instance, the group was accused of destroying al-Zawiya al-Issawiya, the most prominent historical landmark in the city associated with Sufism. They have also conducted arbitrary arrests, and some prisoners have died under torture in the movement’s prisons.
This has prompted the population to call the Salafists a variety of names, including ‘the new ISIS’ and ‘the 604 th Kidney Failure Brigade,’ referring to their method of torturing people by beating them in the kidneys. They also face charges of killing civilians.
The most recent case, in October 2020, was that of Salem al-Aswad, who was accused of witchcraft before some of his close acquaintances demonstrated his innocence. It is highly unlikely that the security and military agencies under Salafist control will be held accountable for the deaths of prisoners in the future.
The judiciary’s absence and inability to do so has resulted in the leaders of tribes resorting to temporary social solutions to ease the tensions between the families involved. This increases the likelihood of the families of victims seeking revenge and therefore a future risk of perpetuating violence.
Moreover, the LAAF alliance with Salafist groups in Sirte, as in eastern Libya, is one based on tribal loyalty and control more than on religious factors. The Salafist groups have so far displayed great flexibility in changing their views and alliances in return for gaining power. Changes in Libya’s overall political and military context may trigger new shifts on their part.
Former Regime Supporters and Overlapping Interests with the LAAF
As the second most prominent allies of the LAAF, supporters of the former regime have also contributed to undermining the fragile stability in Sirte. As some members of tribes affiliated with the former regime returned to the security services with broad powers, their new positions allowed them to exact revenge against pro-February 2011 revolution supporters by carrying out numerous arrests and raids.
Moreover, the Sirte Criminal Investigation Agency, which was recently created and headed by Abdul Jabbar al-Gaddafi, along with the Internal Security in Sirte, has overseen many arrests that clearly contributed to a wave of local anger and further worsening perceptions of the LAAF among the local population.
Signs of tension between the LAAF and supporters of the former regime surfaced during summer 2020, as international efforts aimed at ending the war intensified. The desire of each side to use the other to achieve its strategic interests underlined the fragility of the alliance.
After its withdrawal from southern Tripoli in July 2020, the LAAF reaped no benefits from its alliance with supporters of the former regime.
The behaviour of some of them had created a negative image for the LAAF and weakened its social base support. In addition, it was also noted that most of these supporters had rescinded their support for the LAAF and returned to their political homesteads, with the apparent aim of bringing Saif al-Gaddafi to power.
In mid-August 2020, Sirte witnessed an armed escalation between the Qadhadhfa tribe and the LAAF following marches in support of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, which prompted the General Command to raid the homes of certain tribesmen, killing one in residential neighbourhood No. 3.
The tribe officially ordered its members to defect from LAAF factions, and it was noted that former regime supporters in Egypt also withdrew their support for the LAAF. Moreover, after their alliance with the LAAF, some supporters of the former regime finally ended up joining the GNA-affiliated forces.