international analysis and commentary

Libya’s competing centers of power and the West’s priority: support the political process


After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi and particularly since the summer of 2014, Libya lacked a central government and was instead divided between multiple centers of power. Despite the signing of a UN-backed deal in December 2015, the country is still divided between the Government of National Accord (GNA) sitting in Tripoli and the rival institutions in the east of the country under the control of anti-Islamist, Egypt-backed General Khalifa Heftar. The competition between these two centers of power is fought over the control of institutions (particularly those included in the UN deal) and increasingly over who will liberate Sirte (the coastal town located halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi) from ISIS, thus gaining a certain degree of gratitude and recognition by the US and Europe.

This competition unfolds while some relevant external powers show significant levels of schizophrenia. Egypt officially supports the UN deal but concretely delivers weapons and military assistance to Heftar. The same can be said of the Emirates, although with less political commitment on the side of Heftar. France and the UK give more than declaratory support to Tripoli’s GNA but then send their special forces to support Heftar. Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi supported Egypt (until recently) but then pursued a Libyan strategy at odds with that of Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi: while the Egyptian president made it clear that he does not want Islamists in power in Tripoli, Rome pursued a power-sharing deal that would include members of the Muslim Brotherhood alongside others.

The result of these competing and contradictory strategies by external powers and multiple Libyan centers of power is that the country might be heading for de facto partition. The question is whether it will be divided in two between the GNA and Heftar or whether it will fragment in as many pieces as the country’s city-states, tribes and other local configurations.

The UN-backed GNA is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and is headquartered in a naval base in Tripoli. Sarraj can count on a diverse coalition with the city-state of Misrata and some of Tripoli’s militias in the driver’s seat. This coalition also includes most of the other city-states in the west and in the south of the country alongside the Petroleum Facilities Guards of the east headed by controversial commander Ibrahim Jadran, a former ally of Heftar. Most of those responsible for the security sector in Sarraj’s government come from the same neighborhood in Tripoli, namely Suq al-Jouma, and this has made his arrival in Tripoli smoother. Formally, Sarraj heads a Presidential Council of nine members and a Government of National Accord with a Defense Minister, Mehdi Bargathi, who comes from the ranks of Heftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) but is disliked by the General.

Many Libyans and external observers still doubt that Sarraj could be anything different from the many who  ruled Libya from the fall of Qaddafi until the resumption of the civil war in the summer of 2014: a weak prime minister surrounded by militias who take him hostage while plundering public coffers.

Heftar’s power structure is less well defined. He is still formally the Head of the Armed Forces of Libya, although the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement includes a clause that states that the military leadership would be reset once the Government of National Accord is established. This partially explains Heftar’s (and his loyalists’) opposition to the agreement which is more fundamentally related to their opposition to any compromise with forces that they see as merely Islamist militias.

The core of Heftar’s real power sits in an informal war room in the eastern city of Marj. The LNA, despite the name, is not a regular army although it does everything to demonstrate that it is. Rather, it is a collection of different groups with a heavy civilian component that has not received proper military training alongside a strong tribal element both in the east and in the west of Libya. Political institutions, particularly the government sitting in Beyda and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Agila Saleh, are an emanation of this military structure.

Over time, they have built parallel economic institutions whose task is to provide the money to run this parallel state. They are following a two-fold strategy: the provision of cash either by the UAE or by printing money with Russian help; and the sale of oil, again through Emirati subsidiaries and in violation of UN resolutions.

The institutional battleground for these two centers of power is the House of Representatives (HoR). Elected in 2014, it was immediately boycotted by dozens of its members because it sits in Tobruk, in Heftar’s heartland. The HoR was always the internationally recognized parliament and therefore the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement is built around it. Without the HoR’s approval, the GNA cannot work and almost no major appointment can be made.

Heftar’s grip on the HoR was therefore very visible once the agreement was signed and included a clause that would have removed him from power. The House was prevented from voting on several occasions and with a decisive degree of violence and blackmail against some parliamentarians. Successive letters signed by a majority of its members have shown that there is conditional support for the UN-backed agreement – provided it does not fire Heftar.

The struggle between the General and Sarraj’s supporters is now about the location of the HoR. Should it move outside of Tobruk, as the UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler and most Western ambassadors would like alongside many HoR members, it would be seen as the beginning of a new phase in the de facto partition of the country. Membership of the House would change as many of the current boycotters would join its meetings (and vote in favor of Sarraj) while most, if not all parliamentarians from the east would start a boycott, many out of personal conviction and some because of physical threats. The crucial question would then be how many members of parliament join the new configuration and whether in the end they would manage to attract back their colleagues from the east by showing a sincere commitment to their main concerns: that Cyrenaica not be marginalized again as under Qaddafi; and that the rule of militias eventually gives way to a unified national army.

In parallel with the institutional battle, there is a less metaphorical one being fought on two fronts. In Benghazi, the forces of the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (politically close to Misrata) are fighting against Heftar’s forces. But the most important battle is the competition to liberate Sirte, now controlled by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. As some activists close to the Heftar’s camp said, “Those who will conquer Sirte will rule the country.”

Ultimately, this leads to the big policy question for Americans and Europeans alike: what real system of incentives can they put in place for these competing Libyan power centers? They can opt for a system based on support for Sarraj and for the unity government, counting on the political process to also produce a military response to ISIS. The alternative option is to focus on counterterrorism efforts, rewarding and supporting different groups (starting with Heftar as the UK and France are doing) based on how they fight jihadists on the ground.

The second strategy is most likely doomed to fail, as it encourages competition between groups rather than cooperation. It does not solve the governance issue, namely who will rule the areas liberated from ISIS and who will contain its expansion in other parts of Libya. It’s time for the West to bring its political and counterterrorism strategies in line, supporting actors hostile to the political process in the name of the fight against ISIS could backfire soon.