13 October 2016
The Land Of Three Governments.
The struggle to establish legitimate authority in Libya.
by Neil Tidmarsh
Libya; land of chaos, anarchy and misery. Land of people-traffickers, refugees, militants, militias and terrorists. Land of no government, land of three governments. Three governments? How did that happen?
It’s exactly five years since Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown, in October 2011. The destruction of his regime resulted in a power vacuum, which combined with a massive glut of weapons looted from his vast arsenal to produce a nightmare of violent instability. There are estimated to be somewhere between 1700 and 2000 armed militia groups in Libya, representing many different regions, tribes, ethnicities and ideologies. There are militant Islamists, moderate Islamists, liberals, monarchists, secessionists and many others, including no doubt the purely criminal. They compete for power, resources and territory, but their alliances and hostilities are not necessarily fixed. Added to this mix are jihadists displaced from Syria and Iraq who have come to Libya to target oil fields, kidnap oil workers and launch terror raids against the tourist industries of its neighbours.
An attempt was made to fill this vacuum with a legitimate, democratic, national government – the GNC (General National Congress). It sat in the capital, Tripoli, but had little power or influence over much of the rest of the country. In 2014 that government disputed the results of parliamentary elections, and refused to recognise the new parliament or hand over power to it. The newly elected parliament promptly moved to Tobruk at the other end of the country and set up a rival government, the House of Representatives (HoR).
The new HoR government, in Tobruk, gained the official backing of the United Nations as Libya’s official and legitimate government. The old GNC government, in Tripoli, more or less lost its mandate when Tripoli was seized by Libya Dawn in August 2014. Libya Dawn is an umbrella group of various factions and militias, led by fighters from Misrata (the city which showed the fiercest resistance to Gaddafi) and blessed by a senior Islamic cleric. It appears to present itself as the armed force of the GNC government, but in effect it is itself the official power and authority in the region.
And so the country found itself with two governments, the internationally-recognised HoR in Tobruk in the east, and Libya Dawn in Tripoli in the west. Neither had complete control of even its own half of the country. Real regional power remained with those myriad militias and jihadist groups. The Libyan National Army – the army of the eastern government, the HoC in Tobruk – found itself fighting against Ansar al-Shaira, the jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, which was establishing itself on the HoC’s doorstep in Benghazi. And Isis took advantage of the two governments’ rivalry to establish itself between them, seizing territory centred around Sirte, half-way along the coast.
The United Nations did what it could to help the two governments settle their differences, and eventually established a national unity government – the Government of National Accord (GNA) – with the backing of various parties on both sides. It was set up in the capital Tripoli in August 2016, and consists of a prime minister, Fayez Sarraj, and a nine-member presidential council. It is supposed to have the support of both rival authorities (and eventually, it is hoped, of all the other factions and groups in the country) but the HoR in Tobruk has yet to vote in favour of it, and not all the groups constituting Libya Dawn have yet sided with it.
And so the country finds itself with three governments. Its massive problems continue to overflow its borders and spread themselves into its neighbours’ territory: terrorism in Tunisia (which has built a wall all along its long border with Libya) and Egypt; people-trafficking across the Mediterranean to Italy; the kidnapping and murder of foreign nationals. The international community is ready and waiting to help Libya in any way it can, from humanitarian aid to military intervention, but it cannot do so until invited in by a single, sovereign and legitimate government, which the GNA has not yet proved itself to be. A terrible catch-22.
Nevertheless, some recent developments are encouraging. First of all, those factions of Libya Dawn that have accepted the Government of National Accord have had considerable success in fighting against Isis. Thanks to them, Isis is on the run in Libya. The GNA’s forces have been fighting their way into the Isis stronghold of Sirte over the last few months, and are now in control of almost all of the city. They have had some support from outside forces from the USA and Europe – both officially (with airstrikes and field hospitals) and unofficially (with special forces); but prime minister Fayez Sarraj has sensibly refused offers of large-scale intervention from the USA and Europe, mindful that his position is tenuous and his mandate is far from universal, that foreign intervention would not be popular in Libya, and that Libya has to solve its problems itself as far as it can.
Second, the armed forces of the HoR government in Tobruk – the Libyan National Army – have been successful in their fight against jihadists in their eastern half of the country. Under the leadership of General Khalifa Haftar, the LNA has driven the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Sharia from Benghazi, with Operation Dignity launched in May 2014. His policy of isolating jihadists and militant Islamists by doing deals with local or tribal groups is beginning to bring order to the HoR’s territory.
More recently, he launched Operation Swift Thunder which seized the key oil terminals of Zueitina, Brega, Ras Lanuf and Sidrah in the so called ‘oil crescent’ from a group supposedly aligned with the Government of National Accord but allegedly is holding the terminals to ransom, blocking oil exports and demanding cash to free them up. As soon as General Haftar took the terminals, he handed them over to the National Oil Company, the only body authorised by the UN to export Libyan oil – and subsequently an oil tanker left the port of Ras Lanuf for Italy, the first shipment of oil since the civil war broke out over two years ago.
General Khalifa Haftar is emerging as “the country’s most effective politician” in the words of The Times. “To many Libyans it seems as if he could become the unifying figure they crave.” He was one of Gaddafi’s group of officers which overthrew King Idris in 1969. In the 1980s he commanded the Libyan army in the Chad conflict; but this led to a breach with Gaddafi; when Haftar was captured in Chad, the Libyan dictator disowned him. Haftar spent the next twenty years in exile in the USA (living in Virginia, significantly close to the CIA headquarters at Langley), working towards the overthrow of Gaddafi. He returned to Libya in 2011 when the uprising against Gaddafi began.
At the moment, some see him as a problem as much as a solution; some dislike him for his past associations with Gaddafi and with the USA, and for his opposition to Islamists. Some claim that he is behind the HoR’s reluctance to recognise and support the Government of National Accord; he is said to oppose some of the militant groups of Libya Dawn who are supporting the GNA, and to resent the GNA’s appointment of rivals to high military command. Nevertheless, he is proving himself able to tackle and solve the type of problems that Libya is facing. If the GNA could bring him on board (by granting that high military command which he is said to desire, for instance, and by recognising the Libyan National Army), then perhaps the fractured government of the country could begin to heal and unify.
Libya, with its relatively small population and vast oil industry, should be one of the richest and most successful countries in Africa. No matter how daunting its current problems seem, there are reasons for hoping and believing that one day it will fulfil its huge potential.
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