In mid-September 2020, Fayez al-Sarraj, Chair of the Presidential Council and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, announced his intention to resign from his post before the end of October at the latest, in the hope that the Dialogue Committee would, by then, have appointed a new prime minister and Presidential Council. This came a few days after the interim government, based in the eastern city of Al-Bayda, also tendered its resignation to the president of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issa. The timing of these two events, and the continuation of each government’s activities within the scope of its temporary control, is a sign of progress in the current discussions on both the political and military tracks. It also provides a space in which to build common ground with a view to launching a new transitional period, during which existing divisions could be overcome and preparations could be made for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, in accordance with agreed constitutional provisions.
Although his resignation appears conditional on the success of the current negotiations, in his resignation speech al-Sarraj suggested that the abnormal circumstances in which his government was operating and the pressures to which it was subject on a daily basis may have been behind his decision to resign, given the internal conflicts within the pro-GNA camp. As if in confirmation, during Al-Sarraj’s visit to Ankara on October 4, Turkey’s government spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said that al-Sarraj’s decision to resign was the result of disagreements on certain issues with other parties in Libya and that Turkey’s relationship with the country was not tied to specific figures. Given Ankara’s insistence that it had no prior knowledge of the planned resignation, and Erdoğan apparent “regret” at the decision, it appears that al-Sarraj’s resignation was indeed, at least in part, the result of internal divisions between the various local parties involved in the GNA, which may be a source of concern for its international backers.
This paper will examine the possible reasons behind al-Sarraj’s decision to resign, the likelihood that he will leave his post, and the possible scenarios.
Reasons for al-Sarraj’s resignation
Al-Sarraj’s decision was motivated by various factors, including the progress of the settlement process, developments in the relationships between the various parties involved in western Libya’s GNA, and increasing pressure as a result of popular protests.
These developments within the GNA have made it difficult to control the armed militias operating in the capital, which have been involved in a growing number of clashes in recent weeks. Al-Sarraj has also been increasingly at odds with the other leaders of the Presidential Council and the GNA with regard to decision-making. Nonetheless, the hostility of the current environment towards al-Sarraj remaining in power could in fact drive some allies to increase their support for him, given the difficulty of reaching consensus on a new prime minister, especially among parties – such as Turkey – that are less optimistic about the success of the current negotiations. Despite being closer to other GNA leaders such as Bashagha, Ankara has shown little enthusiasm for al-Sarraj’s resignation. While this may be a deliberate attempt to mislead opponents regarding its true intentions, it could yet be true; al-Sarraj is the least costly option for Ankara at this stage, given its reliance on the failure of the negotiations and on the difficulty of the GNA overcoming its intense internal rivalries.
1. Al-Sarraj resigns and a new unified government is formed
Al-Sarraj could fulfil his promise and leave power by or around his declared deadline of the end of October, provided that the conflicting parties within the GNA reach an agreement on a new unified government and Presidential Council.
This will depend on a number of conditions, including the USA’s success in managing the current situation and fostering a positive negotiating environment, while at the same time curbing the influence of international parties that are attempting to obstruct international efforts in that regard by complicating the issues under discussion or promoting armed conflict. This scenario is also dependent on whether the 5+5 Joint Military Commission is able to reach a rapid consensus on the proposal to make Sirte the seat of the unified government. The return of popular protests in cities in eastern and western Libya may help achieve the necessary consensus in both the military and political tracks; in the face of mounting internal pressure, the leaders from both camps will likely be more willing to show flexibility.
The obstacles to this scenario are the same as those usually experienced during negotiations. First, some domestic parties participating in the negotiations may present an obstruction, especially as the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is keen to uphold the rule that the negotiations should discuss only the criteria and mechanisms for selecting candidates for positions of office, and must not discuss the actual nominations themselves. Second, the forces of western Libya have refused to grant Khalifa Haftar a military position, following indications in early October that Haftar’s forces and members of the Russian Wagner Group were increasing their presence in the Al-Shuwatrif area on the edge of the western region and at Al-Jufrah and Brak al-Shati military bases in central Libya. This threatens to lead to new military confrontations that could spell the end of the entire negotiating process.
This scenario appears likely, especially as negotiations are progressing well and steady progress is being made on issues that have long been sources of disagreement. The USA is a strong supporter of the scenario, as confirmed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who, during his visit to Rome in late September, stated that his country would use all the tools in its diplomatic arsenal to ensure success in the negotiations. This outcome will nonetheless remain dependent on whether the 5+5 committee can achieve an agreement, whether progress can be made on several military and security issues, and whether the ceasefire can be maintained.
2. Al-Sarraj resigns, but divisions persist
Al-Sarraj may resign before a unified government is formed or the east–west divisions overcome. In this case, al-Sarraj may resign only from his role as prime minister, while continuing to chair the Presidential Council. Whether al-Sarraj resigns from one or both his current positions, his resignation will represent an attempt to renew the legitimacy of the ruling authorities in Tripoli and to ensure that changes in the balance of power between domestic and foreign pro-GNA parties are represented in the government.
For this to happen, consensus must be reached on both the military and political tracks; this will be difficult to achieve, however, especially given the objective difficulties of relocating the government headquarters to Sirte and the necessary – yet contentious – joint security arrangements that will be required. The likelihood of the scenario may increase if another wave of protests sweeps western Libya, whether in response to continuing deterioration in living conditions and government services or because of the increasing divisions between the political and security components of the GNA, which are seeking further escalation in the protests as a means of pushing for government change.
The lack of legitimacy required to justify restructuring the Presidential Council, given the continued divisions and numerous withdrawals that have occurred over the years, may pose an obstacle to this scenario, however, and any changes in the GNA leadership may do little to end the existing divisions and occasional armed clashes between the main centers of power in western Libya. It will also be difficult for Washington to encourage western Libya’s various powers to renew the current leadership’s legitimacy if the existing political and security conditions continue.
This scenario appears unlikely, given the difficulty of achieving satisfactory consensus among the western camp. This option would also require the international community to accept the continuation of divisions in Libya and persistence of poor security conditions in the western region in general and in Tripoli in particular. Nonetheless, in the event that the situation in the western camp deteriorates further and al-Sarraj is unable to contain the crisis, he may be forced to stand down as prime minister to make room for a replacement that is supported by Washington and Ankara. The GNA has seen several changes to its ministerial posts in recent years; the same could happen to the post of prime minister, given the repeated calls for its separation from the role of Chair of the Presidential Council.
3. Al-Sarraj does not step down and the ceasefire remains in place
The status quo in place since the introduction of the ceasefire could continue, with no substantive progress having been made towards achieving a peace settlement or ending the country’s divisions.
This may occur if the parties to the conflict refuse to make the concessions required to allow for a temporary settlement, either because the political and military leaders are keen to preserve their own positions of power and are resistant to international attempts to exclude them, or because of more serious disagreements on how to ensure that the interests of the main social groups, including the country’s various cities, tribes, and militias, are represented. The desire of the USA and Egypt to avoid further armed conflict will also be influential. Likewise, some tribes in the eastern regions may be reluctant to send their sons off to fight new wars, and their leaders may be more likely to pursue non-military methods of protecting the interests.
Nonetheless, there is also a significant international desire to reformulate Libya’s political scene, remove the dominant political class, and foster a political and military environment capable of ensuring cooperation on vital issues related to oil production, counterterrorism, and irregular migration.
This scenario will become significantly more likely if divisions within the GNA continue to widen (albeit to a lesser degree than under the previous scenario), as this would allow the parties involved to secure the minimal gains already made and avoid paying the political and financial cost of renewed armed conflict.
This scenario is likely to occur in the short term, especially given the expected challenges related to military and security issues that the 5+5 committee will have to overcome. This could lead to the implementation of arrangements agreed upon between the House of Representatives and the State in Bouznika relating to the selection of sovereign officeholders, the formation of a unified government, and the mechanisms for ending the transitional period. If the current negotiations fail to reach a settlement, this scenario would also be less costly and, therefore, more likely than the previous scenario. In that event, military tensions could escalate in the medium term.
4. Al-Sarraj does not resign, and military tensions escalate
Al-Sarraj could remain in power, while eastern and western forces clash militarily once more, supported by international backers.
This could occur if agreement cannot be reached on how to proceed with the negotiations – rather than the failure to reach consensus on contentious issues – with one or both sides pushing for a return to armed confrontation. Among the GNA, a rise in armed clashes resulting from internal conflicts could push domestic groups or their international backers to launch new military operations, similar to the operation to seize control of Sirte conducted in June, with the aim of turning attention back to disagreements with the eastern camp and putting a temporary halt to internal conflicts. This could also be used as a means of achieving new military legitimacy for al-Sarraj’s aspiring successors.
The eastern camp, in particular Russian-backed Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, also has its own strong motivations for pushing for a return to armed conflict. As the USA is providing intense support for the negotiations process is a means of preventing the growth of Russian influence in Libya, it is in Moscow’s interest to derail the process. Haftar is also keen to preserve his position as the main representative of eastern interests, which he is struggling to do in light of current developments. He is also keen to take advantage of the fragmentation within the GNA to regain control over western areas lost when his forces were forced to withdraw back in May.
There are several main obstacles to this scenario, however. Western Libya’s militias have no real interest in going to war over Sirte, unless the decision to move the government headquarters to the city is actually implemented: they are therefore currently more focused on maintaining and expanding their control over areas of Tripoli and its environs. In addition, Turkey has withdrawn many of its fighters from Libya for redeployment in the continued conflict over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region. In general, Turkey is currently more concerned with various measures to calm conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, it has become clear that both Egypt and the USA have come to an agreement to reject further military escalation in Libya, especially as both countries are keen to prevent Russia and Turkey from increasing their military influence. Lastly, there are indications that tensions are growing between Haftar and certain tribal and political leaders in eastern Libya. Tribes from the eastern region of Cyrenaica (Barca in Arabic) are also reluctant to be drawn again into military conflict over Tripoli, given the high human and political costs and the lessons learned from the Libyan National Army’s Operation Flood of Dignity, especially given the complex balance between the international powers keen to prevent a return to conflict.
This scenario is not unlikely, given that, in early October, the GNA’s Sirte–Al-Jufrah Operations Room issued repeated statements indicating that Haftar’s forces and Russian-affiliated forces were continuing to build their military presence and dispatch foreign fighters to military bases in Al-Qardabiyah, Al-Jufrah, and Brak al-Shati and towards the Al-Shuwayrif area on the border of the western region.
While conflict is unlikely to become the only option, it will probably be used as leverage during negotiations, and the parties pushing for conflict are likely to be pressured into backing down.
 While speculations have been discussed, negotiations on the nominations have not yet begun. UNSMIL is continuing to insist on keeping a clear separation between the negotiations on the criteria and mechanisms for selecting new appointments – the proposals for which are currently awaiting final approval by the House of Representatives – and the negotiations on the nominations themselves. Sources indicate that the international parties supporting the negotiations would like to see new faces from among the GNA’s second row leaders to replace those currently in power, as they have been the main cause of tension in recent years.
Samir Ramzi | 03 Jan 2021
Sherif Abou El-Fadl | 29 Dec 2020
EPC | 22 Dec 2020