GLOBALIST | 23 SEPTEMBER, 2018
The Citizen’s Foreign Affairs Primer
Recent developments suggest that Libya is unlikely to enjoy peace and stability in the near future. The incessant fighting, between rival militias backed by rival political patrons, that has cost thousands of lives and crippled the economy, shows little sign of abating soon. The militias’ targets have included oil ports; the Libyan National Oil Companies offices; and government institutions. A country that has the highest reserves of oil in Africa is today faced with increasing poverty among the people.
The latest incidents in late August -early September 2018 saw Tripoli, the capital, become a battleground between two militias- the Special Deterrence Force comprising militias functioning under the Tripoli based Government of National Accord’s sanction and militias outside Tripoli, ostensibly owing allegiance to the same government. The death toll was 50. A new group known as the Tripoli Youth Movement claimed responsibility for the attack on the headquarters of Libya's National Oil Corporation. But the Interior Ministry said the gunmen were affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. A ceasefire brokered by the UN Envoy Ghassan Salame broke down even before it started and reports talked of the renewed fighting involving rockets, mortars and guns. Tripoli airport was shut down after a rocket attack.
Libya in effect has two functioning governments. The rebellion against late Muammar Gaddafi that started in 2010 saw the formation of the National Transitional Council, in February 2011 to act as an interim authority in the rebel-controlled areas. A multinational coalition led by NATO forces intervened on 21 March 2011, supposedly to protect civilians against attacks by the government's forces. After Gaddafi was killed in 2012 by the rebels who had the tacit encouragement of countries like the USA, UK and France a Libyan Political Agreement was signed under the aegis of the UN in 2015 and a new UN-supported "unity government", called the "Government of National Accord, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj arrived in Tripoli in March 2016.
Elections to Parliament took place in 2014 with the results showing the nationalist and liberal factions ascendant and the governing Islamists decimated. The GNA refused to accept the results of the elections. On a petition the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that amendment to Article 11 of paragraph 30 of the Constitutional Declaration, which had set out the road map for Libya's transition and the House elections, was invalid. The Declaration had been finalised in August 2011 by the National Transitional Council.
The effect of the Supreme Court ruling was to overturn the election but the international community ignored the ruling and the UN and international community continues to recognise the GNA as the legitimate government despite it being supported by only a part of the General National Congress and without being approved by the Libyan House of Representatives, which set up shop in Tobruk after the 2014 elections. Despite previously supporting it, the Libyan House of Representatives withdrew its recognition of the GNA by voting against it in the summer of 2016 and becoming their rival for governing the country.
The struggle therefore is about who should rule Libya—the Government in Tripoli which refused to accept the results of the 2014 elections or those in the second Parliament in Tobruk who had scored well. Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, whose stronghold is the east and whose forces control most of the country claims that his ideology is “anti-Islamist.” But his army is said to have Salafist leaders in its ranks and is heavily supported by Saudi Arabia. Haftar is also the French favourite. The Tripoli based government is known to be influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and enjoys the support of Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey. These countries have made Libya a battleground for their rivalry. Middle East scholar Jalel Harchaoui has blamed these countries for fueling the conflict.
The international community and the UN’s efforts to bring the adversaries to the table to create an atmosphere for elections later this year have been futile. Not just the militias but even members of the UN are not in accord about when the elections should be held. The UN Security Council recently extended the mandate for the UNSMIL mission in Libya by another year, until September 15, 2019, but did not endorse a December 10, 2018 date for elections. The council unanimously adopted a British-drafted resolution that called for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held "as soon as possible, provided the necessary security, technical, legislative and political conditions are in place". At a meeting in Paris in May called by the French President there was agreement that elections should be held by the end of the year. But France and Italy have differing perceptions.
Italy has a major stake in Libyan stability. It was the colonial power in Libya and has been a major importer of Libyan oil an activity adversely affected by the turmoil. Italy has also had to face the brunt of illegal migrants with Libya having been converted into a base of operations by human traffickers. Italy has said categorically that the present situation is not conducive to the holding of elections—a view endorsed by the Libyan Prime Minister. Italian overtures to General Haftar have not yielded much. Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanese visited Benghazi and met Haftar who later said, in a scantily veiled reference to the Tripoli government that those following the Italian line were the real problem.
France which has been supporting Haftar is anxious to have elections early. According to Jalel Harchaoui France wants a Presidential system in Libya and has been pushing for elections late this year. Others like the USA and UK are said to be in favour of parliamentary elections but not before June 2019.
The explosion of Islamic State terrorism and sectarian strife in Iraq post Saddam Hussein was said to have led some Iraqis to harken back to the days of the executed leader. His example is also said to have played a role in Bashar al Assad’s standing firm in Syria. There might also be those in Libya who remember the days when oil revenues soared and leading international companies were engaged in a variety of projects.
It could be one reason why Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam is thought to be grooming himself to stand for election as president of Libya. He escaped execution as Libya convulsed and of late was being received by heads of state. Human rights activist Khaled Guel was reported to have told the pan-Arab media outlet Al-Araby Al-Jadeed: “The humanitarian situation is deteriorating and the path forward is unclear, therefore many Libyans now believe the only way to save the country is through Saif al-Islam.” There appear to be no legal barriers to him standing. A 2013 law banning Gaddafi-era officials from holding public office was revoked in 2015. It is now a question of waiting and seeing whose agenda he would be willing to fulfil to achieve his ambition.