Since August 23, 2020, a wave of protests has swept across the Libyan capital and several western and southern cities in response to deteriorating living conditions and critical services under the Government of National Accord (GNA). Although public services have been deteriorating for a long time, political division among members of the GNA – the coalition ruling in the capital – is one of the main reasons why the warring parties have begun using the situation of popular discontent to undermine each other.

While some aspects of the crisis have temporarily been contained, the causes and dynamics of the protest movement persist, and demonstrations and marches continue. This raises questions about whether the political repercussions of the crisis can be contained, and whether the main players will pursue calm or further escalation as they use the crisis against one another.

 Dimensions of the crisis

1. The popular dimension: In addition to the main hotbed of protest in Tripoli, rallies have spread to a number of western and southern cities, such as Al‑Zawiya, Sabratha, Al-Jumail, Al-Ajaylat, Ghat, Sabha, and Ubari. Protestors chanted anti‑corruption slogans and denounced the deterioration of living conditions, above all the crises in electricity supply, fuel, cash flow, sanitation, healthcare, and financial and administrative corruption.

Although the real crisis in living standards is the main objective driver of the unrest on Libya’s streets, the protest movement is not necessarily spontaneous, given the political rifts in the Tripoli-based ruling coalition. The outbreak of the movement coincided with the explosion of long-standing disagreements and tensions within the ruling coalition, which is evidence of the fact that various competing groups are attempting to take advantage of the crisis in living standards to serve other political goals and exert pressure on their rivals.

In contrast to the political parties that are exploiting the crisis, the organizations that have appeared since the protests started, most importantly Hirak August 23 and Himmat Shabab Libya, have demonstrated limited ability to lead the movement and impose themselves as main players. There are no negotiation channels between them and the authorities, and they are not involved in public discussions to seek solutions to the crises that sparked the protests, choosing instead to focus on their media performance and on keeping the movement alive.

Three weeks on from the outbreak of the unrest, popular discontent continues to simmer, and coordinators are calling for further protest action, most importantly demonstrations on September 16. If the issues dividing the Tripoli authorities persist, these organizations might be able to scrape through and keep the protest movement going. In addition, fresh negotiations in the Moroccan city of Bouznika and in Geneva may affect the political future of the parties to the conflict; many of them therefore need to keep the flame of the protest movement burning to give themselves more room to maneuver.

2. The political dimension: The protests have triggered extensive rivalry within the Presidential Council and the GNA, specifically the conflict between the GNA’s three main players: Prime Minister and Chair of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj, his deputy Ahmed Maiteeq, and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. Both Maiteeq and Bashagha aspire to succeed al-Sarraj as leader of the Presidential Council or the GNA, especially as negotiations on the Libyan conflict have resumed and efforts are being made to create a formula for a partial, internationally agreed settlement during the coming phase.

The conflict between Bashagha and al-Sarraj came to a head when al-Sarraj issued a decree for the precautionary suspension of the Interior Minister, who was later reinstated under pressure from the USA and Turkey. There are signs of continuing conflict between al-Sarraj and Maiteeq, as the latter rejected al‑Sarraj’s decision to appoint him as the Chair of the General Assembly of the Economic and Social Development Fund.

The political rivalry between Bashagha and Maiteeq has split their hometown of Misrata, as evidenced by pro-Bashagha protests outside the Maiteeq family residence. This division is the largest that Misrata has seen since 2011; the population’s cohesiveness has been a key factor in its protest power over the last decade. The schism is all the more serious considering that a large section of the city’s militias are aligned with Bashagha, whereas Abdulrahman al-Suwayhili, the former Chair of the High Council of State, is supporting his nephew Maiteeq. The al-Suwayhili family is one of Misrata’s old political families and wields significant economic and political power.

The political division has, however, come to an end for two reasons. The GNA and its external supporters are concerned that the current state of affairs may influence the Sirte crisis, and that Misrata forces have become particularly occupied with armed confrontations in the capital. In addition, with the resumption of the negotiation process and the resulting opportunities for possible agreement on new, more stable political arrangements, the GNA’s international supporters have been keen to contain the differences among the competing parties.

3. The security dimension: From the outset of the protest crisis, the Tripoli militias (under the umbrella of the Tripoli Protection Force) aligned themselves with al-Sarraj, while the Misrata militias aligned themselves with Bashagha. This is consistent with the conflict between these militias in recent years, as the security equation in the capital since the GNA was formed has been based on the exclusion of non-Tripoli militias from the security scene in the capital, above all the Misrata militias, which held greater sway before the GNA came to power. Since becoming Interior Minister, Bashagha has tried to market himself to Washington by attempting to bring an end the influence of the militias in Tripoli and to place them under the authority of the Interior Ministry. In practical terms, however, this has meant marginalizing the Tripoli militias in favor of returning Misratan influence to the capital.

Since the start of the Turkish intervention in Libya, Bashagha’s power has grown; the Misrata militias have returned to the capital, while the influence of their Tripoli counterparts has declined noticeably. As the confrontation between al-Sarraj and Bashagha has intensified, the Tripoli Protection Force has clearly sided with the Prime Minister against the Interior Minister, particularly when al-Sarraj temporarily suspended Bashagha from work.

With respect to al-Sarraj’s decisions in managing the crisis, in addition to those concerning the service sectors, his new appointments to a number of military posts show a clear tendency towards restoring balance among western Libyan cities with a view to curtailing the influence of Misrata’s pro-Bashagha militias. Salahedin al-Namroush from Al‑Zawiya was made Defense Minister, and Mohammed al‑Haddad from Misrata was made Chief of Staff. Notably, al-Namroush was given the defense portfolio following a rise in security tensions between Al-Zawiya’s militias and the Interior Minister in August 2020, and because Al-Zawiya has considerable military clout.

4. The international dimension: The crisis facing al-Sarraj’s administration can be considered from the perspective of two main disputes between the international parties that support the GNA:

  1. The Turkey–Italy conflict: The most prominent sign of this conflict was Turkey's involvement in preventing 40 Italian soldiers from passing through Misrata airport on July 31, 2020 and in forcing their plane to depart. On August 20, Turkey then began demolishing the Italian military hospital in the city (challenging Italy’s military presence there) in order to build its own naval base on the same site. After the signing of the Skhirat Agreement, the security equation in Tripoli was established under Italian supervision through the Senior Military Adviser for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, General Paolo Serra. Therefore, in the context of the political struggle between Bashagha and al-Sarraj, the current friction between the Tripoli and Misrata militias can be considered an extension of the dispute between Turkey and Italy within the GNA.
  2. The recent US-sponsored ceasefire: The current crisis comes on the heels of al‑Sarraj’s acceptance of the US-backed Libyan ceasefire, which goes against Turkey’s ambitions to expand its control eastward to Sirte and then to the oil crescent. One effect of the acceptance of the US initiative is to sideline the bilateral Turkey–Russia track in controlling decisions on war and peace, which is challenging US efforts, especially regarding the Sirte crisis.

The pressure currently placed on al-Sarraj by the protests in an attempt to force him to make ministerial changes may therefore provide an opportunity for Turkey to impose its hegemony on the GNA’s political and military decision‑making. Al-Sarraj has been trying to dodge this by exploiting the tensions between Turkey and Italy and by expanding his militias to increase his control over Tripoli’s security.

The USA, through its ambassador in Tripoli, has stressed the importance of the role played by al-Sarraj and Bashagha as US partners. The USA hopes to reset the behavior of the conflicting parties in the GNA in order to curtail mutual escalation and avoid a repetition of the armed conflict with the Libya Dawn Coalition that took place in Tripoli before the Skhirat Agreement.

Conclusion

  • There are many considerations and objective drivers behind the popular resentment toward the GNA in Tripoli. However, the way that the protests erupted is mainly down to the political rifts between members of the ruling coalition and the wish of each party to exploit the wave of protests to achieve political goals.
  • Despite the temporary containment of the political aspects of the crisis within the GNA, the protest movement has not completely run its course, especially given the continued deterioration of public services and living standards in GNA-controlled areas.
  • If the current negotiation process fails and there is continued military calm on the Sirte front, it is not inconceivable that western Libya will see a more intense wave of protests, the political divide within the Tripoli-based GNA will resurface, and tensions between the external supporting parties will continue to mount.

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