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Libya Displays its Uncertainty

30 Oct 2020
By Philip Eliason
The Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez al-Sarraj visits NATO and meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Source: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization,

Step ups and step downs are part of the well-established Libyan playbook of influencing context, environment, players, and observers. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s moves toward resignation may be more about consolidating power than relinquishing it.

Libya is a socially and religiously conservative country. Since the 2011 revolution, it has grown more conservative with condemnation of Sufis by the Grand Mufti, destruction of certain Muslim shrines, official travel bans applied and lifted on unaccompanied women, and claims of support for “human rights” while restricting women’s dress and rights of movement. The revolution opened the opportunity for previously suppressed political Islam to organise and strengthen. More secular Libyans are in a minority. The revolution and collapse of rule of law as it was generated armed militias that have confounded national security reforms.

Libyans have left as refugees or for temporary safety as civil war and increasing crime wracks the country. There are thousands of internally displaced persons from armed conflict between militias and forces from the east and west of the country. Health services are weak and the currency has lost value as oil exports fell – a real problem for an import dependent country.

Libya maintains its rapid forming and re-forming of political and armed groupings, alliance building and opportunism. By announcing on 16 September 2020 his intention to resign at the end of October, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj must have calculated that his statement would assist political dialogue and he would then remain, or he no longer sees benefit in him staying. In the past, Libyan ministers and prime ministers have declared their resignation letters as forged, been held isolated by militiamen until resignation, and stood down only to be projected back into uncertain and contested office by powerful and localised interests.

Recently, Prime Minister al-Serraj has had to live with diminished geographical authority, a revolving door of ministers, and undermining competition for power by members of his small cabinet. He faced the military encirclement of Tripoli by the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in the east of the country, the refuge for a resilient but spoiling national House of Representatives.

Protracted discussions between Libyan factions and members of its post-revolutionary transitional institutions under the auspices of the United Nations Special Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) resulted in the  “Libyan Political Agreement,” in effect since 17 December 2015. Designed by the agreement, al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) was meant to be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). This has not happened. The HoR was and is a relic of its earlier Tripoli incarnation until disputes over the 2014 general election results caused it to divide.

Al-Serraj’s immediate predecessor, Prime Minister Khalifa al-Ghwail resigned, departed Tripoli, and shortly afterwards, returned to the capital as “prime minister.” He was supported by factions and regions outside Tripoli and ran an alternative National Salvation Government until its offices were destroyed by armed units associated with the GNA in March 2017. Al-Serraj and the structure of the GNA is backed by the UN and generally seen internationally as the legitimate government.

In unruly Libya, the GNA cannot exercise control over its own territory in the west and its slices of land in the south of the country. For example, the International Criminal Court is not likely to obtain access to those in GNA territory it seeks for human trafficking and human rights abuse due to the violent town, locality, and tribal partisanship deeply woven into the social structure of Libya. In Benghazi,  demonstrations against economic hardship, outages, and unemployment prompted the September resignation of the Tobruk-located House of Representatives Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thani, three days before al-Serraj announced his own apparent resignation. Al-Thani had previously also been prime minister in Tripoli, an indicator of Libya’s recycling of factional elites.

Al-Serraj had to ward off the near creation of a parallel state of Libya run by the competing Tobruk parliament, which had created a central bank, had currency notes printed in Russia, cloned the National Oil Company (NOC) seeking to crack the Tobruk NOC’s monopoly over oil sales and income, and had begun issuing passports and visas to the point of opening separate embassies, notably for a while in Malta.

Turkey and Qatar have assisted al-Serraj’s hold in the capital. Russia, UAE, and Egypt are assisting Tobruk and General Haftar in military operations which have stabilised but not decisively concluded leaving a reinforced long frontline, or “red” line as Egypt calls it between the coastal city of Sirte and Jufra in the south, creating the clearest internal boundary between the two sides since the East’s march on Tripoli began in 2014.

In a Libya marked by militia and proxy state warfare, and seizure, closure, and reopening of oil fields, collapsed revenues, infrastructure decay, rise in criminality, people trafficking, oil smuggling, and continued spot presences of violent extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaida, the UN mission UNSMIL has worked at getting a base for national political dialogue and implementation of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. So have others. The African Union, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, France, and Germany have made or hosted dialogue conferences aimed at a cessation of hostilities, creation of security, a national acceptable governing institution, and national elections.

In recent months, some progress appears to have been made in finding steps towards these goals. The January 2020 Berlin Conference attended by 12 countries excluding Libya, three regional unions (African, Arab, and European) and the UN, and endorsed by UNSCR, laid out “baskets” of work. The major ones were ceasefire, return to the political process, and security sector reform. Egypt, concerned about its contiguous exposure to political Islam from Libya and seeking economic prospects, has steered the Tripoli/Tobruk 5+5 military consultations recently in Cairo and in Geneva.

This set of military talks seems to have had quite surprising results: a permanent ceasefire between east and west and between armed groups. There are signs that it is being implemented. Foreign backers of the east’s army have pulled further east. For this agreement to sustain, there has to be trust and verification of arrangements between parties applied and enforced.

UNSMIL convened a political dialogue on 26 October as a preparatory step to enlist local councils into a national dialogue and to pursue a detailed program of cultivating engagement more widely. A significant in-person Libyan Political Dialogue Forum is planned to be held in Tunis on 9 November. This aspires to  set the basis for a unified government and framework for elections. We can expect more broad interest in this event.

Whenever there seems a chance for a structured path to political unity, Libya tends to atomise into zero-sum bargaining for towns, localities, and tribes. Historical mistrust and absence of practice in wider social and political organisation during the 40 years of rule by Muammar Gaddafi means showing and assuring benefits of nation building are difficult and long-term tasks.

Traditional leaders and others met in Sirte for a large 1000-invitee discussion in mid-October. Russia proposed a 100-person dialogue to include all parties. That, along with Russia’s indirect military activism in Libya, likely prompted Stephanie Williams’ – a US diplomat and the Acting UN Secretary General’s Special Representative running UNSMIL –  visit to Moscow on 15 October.

Al-Serraj’s position was weakened when he was told by eleven EU member state diplomats in Tripoli on 10 October 2020 that the GNA’s Mediterranean border deal with Turkey allowing Turkey to block future exports of oil and gas to Europe from Cyprus will never be accepted. Turkey, a benefactor of the GNA, now needs to reconsider its options.

The resignations of al-Serraj and of al-Thani, whatever their original causes, may lead to more active engagement by others in talks to stabilise Libya. Agreements in the past have bought time, now they may breed real confidence-building measures such as open audits of the National Oil Company and the Central Bank of Libya.

Libyans will remain defensive and locally and tribally focused until security, economy, and income issues are addressed. The powerful grasp over the instruments within these themes by individuals and patronage systems leave government solutions hard to be perceived as credible.

Al-Serraj may not leave just yet, and al-Thani is known for being a serial prime minister. The strength of UNSMIL, commitment of the Berlin Conference attendees, and voluntary reduction of external military support under the new 5 x 5 military talks, form the foundations for Libyans to see and agree that unity is the real option.

Philip Eliason is a former Australian diplomat, and has worked in Yemen, Libya and Tunisia on UK, EU. He has also worked on USAID funded justice sector reform, political dialogue, and constitutional development programs. In 2017-18 he was the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s Senior Advisor on MENA, Africa and International Security.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.