If Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi had survived the Arab Spring, this month he would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of another revolution, which he himself carried out against King Idris. Now all he can celebrate from the grave is the chaos that Libya’s 2011 revolution left in its wake, turning an oil exporting country into an impoverished one controlled by two governments and a collection of militias.
It’s hard to talk about Libya as a failed state, since the label of “state” doesn’t properly describe it. It’s purportedly led by a government that is recognized by the international community. That government is itself run by a nine-member presidential council headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The governmental structure was established in 2015, following an agreement signed after many tribulations in the Moroccan city of Skhirat.
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The government, which is headquartered at the Abu Sitta naval base near Tripoli, is neither supported nor recognized by the House of Representatives, which is based in Tobruk. The speaker of the house is Aguila Saleh Issa. He is allied with Khalifa Haftar, the renegade military commander who seeks to take over the capital, Tripoli, and become the country’s leader.
Haftar, who accompanied Gadhafi through the 1969 revolution and also served the CIA, is the head of a well-armed militia that calls itself the Libyan National Army. Haftar has taken over the eastern areas of Libya and set up headquarters in Benghazi, from which he has waged a successful campaign against the Islamic State and other Islamist forces. He is now receiving the assistance and support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Russia.
The paradox here is that while the international community has been trying to settle the complicated political conflict in Libya, these four countries are working against that goal, foiling reconciliation efforts and undermining Sarraj’s ability to control the country.
Sarraj enjoys the support of Turkey and Qatar, which are rivals of Egypt and the UAE. Although he can rely on a consortium of armed militias, they are incapable of confronting Haftar’s forces. They also need to deal with over a dozen tribal militias, as well as the Islamic State in southern Libya and another army, called the Petroleum Facilities Guard, which operates independently.
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In April, the internationally recognized leader, Sarraj, and the United Nations planned a “national conference” designed to bring together all of the rival political forces to develop a blueprint that would lead to elections and a new constitution. But a few days before the conference was scheduled to convene, Haftar launched a major assault on Tripoli and the gathering was canceled.
At the same time, international mediators tried to bring a halt to Haftar’s assault and arrange a cease-fire between his forces and government troops. At the request of the United States, Egypt became the patron of the talks, but without much success. Haftar — with the support of the House of Representatives in Tobruk as well as the unrecognized prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, who is based in the city of Bayda — is demanding that his control of Tripoli be recognized as a condition for participating in the national dialogue.
The military confrontation also naturally has stark economic consequences in that Haftar’s forces have control of the oil fields and export terminals in the east of the country and have deprived the government of highly needed revenue for running the country. Although in recent months, the government has managed to increase its oil production from 350,000 barrels a day to 1.2 million, that level is still so far below the potential that it has given the country a huge budget deficit that is expected to reach about $10 billion this year, mainly due to the need to borrow to fund the payment of salaries to civil servants and to the militias that support the government. Beyond that, this country of 6.5 million citizens is caring for more than 800,000 refugees and migrants, including about 8,000 people in detention centers.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned last month that the absence of a political solution in Libya could drag the country into civil war. The statement was a bit surprising in that a civil war, albeit limited in scope, has been waged in the country for years.
The diplomatic disagreements between France and Italy over a solution to the Libyan situation and between Turkey and Qatar on one hand and Egypt and the UAE on the other, and the UN’s limited ability to forge a political consensus have so far halted prospects that a plan for a solution would be accepted by all of the parties involved — or at least by the country’s military forces.
As long as Haftar believes in his ability to impose his will militarily and conquer Tripoli, and as long as the recognized government of Libya expects that it can foil Haftar by force, Libya will continue to be a country that is the sum of its parts.