Increasing Tension in Libya’s Western Faction and Prospects of Settlement

EPC | 01 Feb 2021

Over the last weeks of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, many signs have accumulated of rifts and a realignment between the actors of the camp affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA). It can be said that these tensions revolve around the competition over the restructuring of power, against the background of the settlement talks and the related redrawing of the map of security and military influence between the actors of this camp.

The competition is mainly between Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA, who wants to keep his position, and thereby the continuation of the status quo and the domination of the Tripoli militias over the capital, and Fathi Bashagha, Minister of the Interior in the GNA, the most prominent candidate to succeed him as prime minister, as part of a possible deal[1] that is often talked about by Libyan politicians, the other side of which being Counselor Aguila Saleh, the candidate for the presidency of the Presidential Council (PC).[2]

This deal, which is said to have won the support of the Acting Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams, has triggered a series of interactions between the beneficiaries and affected actors, in a manner that led to a state of lack of cohesion between the actors of the camp. While those internal tensions are still developing and have not yet developed into the point of military clashes, the available indications indicate the possibility that the current conditions may lead to security disturbances, both in the form of armed clashes and through the repetition of the September 2020 protests which were a cover for a similar conflict between the same actors within this camp.

While the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) appointed, in mid-January 2021, the Slovak diplomat Ján Kubiš as a new UN envoy, this is not expected to lead to the annulment of the arrangements worked on by Williams during the past months, especially that she had international support in preparing for the election process at the end of 2020 and the formation of a unified authority to regulate the conduct of elections. Kubiš will most likely work to build on the accumulation and progress that have been made by the UNSMIL, or at least with regard to the outlines and the general path of the settlement, given that the formation of a new unified authority is a major pillar in this regard.

Dimensions of the current tensions

The tension between Sarraj and Bashagha can be linked to the conduct of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), and the increased chances of a consensus on forming a new authority in accordance with the aforementioned deal, which prompted a political and security realignment within this camp. In the wake of the disruption that occurred during the LPDF regarding the mechanisms for selecting the holders of positions in the new authority, during the third week of December 2020, Sarraj took a decision to separate the affiliation of the Special Deterrence Force (SDF, Radaa), the strongest militia in the capital which controls the Mitiga airport and prison, from the Ministry of the Interior and attach it directly to the PC, while authorising the militia to establish new branches and additional powers in cities under the authority of the GNA and be financially independent.

This decision on the SDF got the blessing of the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), which is made up of a loose alliance between the capital's militias that do not have a common interest except to maintain their monopoly over control of the capital in the face of militias affiliated with other cities in the western region. During the same week, the commander of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB) Haitham al-Tajouri returned to the capital after an absence of months, and launched a media attack against the Minister of the Interior (whose Ministry had previously issued a decision to arrest Tajouri), stressing that any forces would be welcome to enter the capital if they were affiliated with the “Ministry of Defence or the Chief of Staff”,[3] without reference to the Ministry of the Interior, perhaps out of his desire to neutralise the forces that Bashagha seeks to attract to reinforce his presence in the capital.

In addition, on 9 January 2021, a group of "dissident" Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Tripoli-based House of Representatives (HoR), mayors and political activists declared, in a video statement, their opposition to any deal aimed at overthrowing the current PC. The statement also included an attack on the Justice and Construction Party (JCP, the Muslim Brotherhood), as supporters of Bashagha. This support existed in the previous round of the power struggle behind the veil of the August and September 2020 protests. The JCP responded with a media counter-attack on the Sarraj government, which reinforced the features of the existing political division in the capital between Sarraj and the Tripoli militias on the one hand, and Bashagha and the JCP together with the Misrata militias essentially on the other hand.

For his part, Bashagha announced on 10 January 2021 that Operation Snake Hunt would soon be launched to eliminate organised crime organisations and outlaws, in cooperation with the Western Military Zone and the Tripoli Military Zone, with Turkish support. Hours after this announcement, the Ministry of Defence, the Western Military Zone and the Tripoli Military Zone issued a statement confirming that they were not informed of the aforementioned Operation and that, therefore, they would not participate in any planning for the planned Operation.

On the other hand, but not far from the tensions on forming a new authority, the dispute arose over oil export revenues. The dispute is between two parties affiliated with the Tripoli authority, the first being Mustafa Sanallah, Chairman of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), and the second is the Governor of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) Al-Siddiq Al-Kabeer. In December 2020, a discord occurred between the two sides against the retention by the NOC of the revenues in its account in the Libyan Foreign Bank (LFB) rather than transferring them to the CBL.

According to his statements in this regard, Sanallah seeks to protect oil revenues and separate them from the conflict between the two camps, pending the formation of a unified government to prevent the pro-Haftar camp from closing the oil facilities once again in objection to the use of oil revenues to finance militia action and finance the Turkish intervention in Libya. On the other hand, withholding oil revenues constitutes a financial strangulation of the Tripoli government, and thus a direct harm to the interests of the parties benefiting from it internally and externally.

In this way, Sanallah’s position tends to support the trend of forming a unified authority, while Kabeer’s  position appears more closely related to the interests of the Sarraj government. This alignment is not far from another conflict track within this camp between Fathi Bashagha and Al-Siddiq Al-Kabeer, given that Bashagha had previously issued, on 10 December 2020, a decision banning Al-Kabeer from travelling, to which Al-Kabeer responded by freezing the assets of the Ministry of the Interior at the CBL.

While those tensions coincided with changes affecting the regional environment of the conflict, the current conflict remains more dependent on the more local factors and competition between the actors affiliated with the GNA. It can be said that the external factors in this context act as a catalyst for the local actors in terms of the resulting different environment that brings about a set of opportunities for each actor inside Libya.

Limits of regional influence

The external environment of the conflict is witnessing a number of changes during the current stage, most notably the change regarding the US administration and the reconciliation between the four boycotting countries and Qatar. In the light of its association with actors in the Libyan conflict, this change will naturally reflect on the considerations of the parties to the conflict.

When considering the movements of external actors on the Libyan arena, which coincide with the ongoing tensions between the political and security wings of the GNA, the importance of the Turkish and Egyptian roles would be particularly important: Turkey, as the most prominent external actor in the capital; and Egypt, by virtue of the new move it has taken with the aim of rapprochement with the Tripoli authority. This raises questions about the limits of the impact that those external movements have on the tensions in Tripoli.

At the level of the Turkish position, it can be said that the experience of a year of direct contact with the political and military situations in the western region, especially after the end of the Tripoli war, has provided Ankara with sufficient capability to explore the size of the complexities associated with the internal power struggle and the nature of competition between the various local forces.

In view of the map of contacts conducted by Ankara with the political and security actors in western Libya, including direct meetings, it can be said that Ankara is keen to maintain its relations with the various actors, without explicitly aligning itself with a particular actor. However, this does not negate the possibility of a Turkish inclination towards Bashagha, who over the past months has sought, through extensive visits and contacts with external actors supporting the two parties to the conflict, to present himself as an actor capable of establishing a balance point between the interests of the competing regional and international actors in Libya in case of an international decision to end the division. Besides, Bashagha's control of the capital may constitute a favourable scenario from the perspective that the Misrata militias are the most loyal to the Turkish ally, compared to the Tripoli militias whose presence primarily reflects the continued Italian influence.

On the other hand, Misrata’s endeavour to tighten its control over the capital Tripoli entails certain risks from the standpoint of the Turkish interests. This is attributable to two main reasons: first, the Turkish support for this approach would affect the loyalty of the rest of the cities with military weight in the Western region, mainly Zawiya and Zintan; and second, there is a Turkish interest in keeping the main weight of the Misrata forces in a permanent state of readiness on the eastern front of the city, without being exhausted in armed confrontations inside the capital, given that the occurrence of armed confrontations on the line of contact between Sirte and Jufrah is more likely in the near term compared to the occurrence of new military confrontations in the vicinity of the capital against Turkey's opponents.

As for the Egyptian move, Cairo's rapprochement with the Tripoli government, and the issuance of positive statements by the Turkish foreign minister regarding Egypt, also have an effect as an indirect catalyst for local actors, pushing them towards more internal competition, but without necessarily pushing Cairo to seek directly to give priority to a specific actor, for several reasons, namely: first, the rationale of the Egyptian move towards Tripoli is to give the impression that Egypt standa at the same distance from the Libyan actors and distances itself from the policy of sharp bias for a particular party, as was the case before; second, in the light of the apparent alliances, Bashagha’s project remains linked to the JCP, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya; and third, the bet on ousting Sarraj collides with the existing Italian support for him, and it would be difficult for Cairo to add new complications to its relationship with Italy in favour of Cairo’s relationship with Ankara.

As such, the interactions taking place in the heart of Tripoli do not reflect a new regional consensus, as much as they reflect a state of competition between local actors, to benefit from the changing external environment of the conflict. Indeed, that environment has undergone several changes that have strengthened the existing state of liquidity, resulting from the lack of maturity of the new balances that were generated by the Tripoli war, and the emergence of a number of political and military scenarios, none of which is easy to exclude.

Western Libyan conflict and prospects for a final settlement in Libya

The final status negotiations in Libya have recently witnessed three important developments:

  • The agreement by the Libyan negotiating parties in Hurghada (the Constitutional Committee) on the procedures for the referendum on the new Libyan constitution, which is being prepared by a special constituent body, and the procedures for holding the general elections scheduled for 24 December 2021, provided that those discussions would be completed at another meeting in Hurghada on 9 February 2021.
  • The consensus reached by the Libyan Advisory Committee held in Geneva regarding the mechanisms for selecting the executive authority of the PC with its President, two Vice Presidents and the Prime Minister, with the initial agreement that the President of the PC be from eastern Libya and the Prime Minister from western Libya. The struggle has already begun to rage over the premiership between Fathi Bashagha and Ahmed Maitiq, Deputy Prime Minister of the GNA, who has recently built strong ties with the leadership of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Egyptian government.
  • The agreement by the two parties to the Libyan Dialogue during the Bouznika meetings in Morocco on the criteria and mechanisms for appointment to key sovereign positions on the basis of regional balances: the Governor of the CBL, the Head of the Libyan Audit Bureau (LAB), the Head of the Administrative Control Authority (ACA), the Head of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the Chairman of the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC), the Head of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General.

While some positive indicators are moving in the direction of a political solution in Libya, mainly the emergence of signs of a regional and international agreement on the determinants of a consensual solution, the most important obstacle facing it is the resolution of the sharp competition in western Libya, which revolves around the military militias and the political and tribal groups of Tripoli gathered around Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the armed political forces in Misrata and their Muslim Brotherhood allies who support Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. Russia has also clearly started to market Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son, for a pivotal political role in the upcoming arrangements.

References

[1] There are many sources, of varying affiliation and orientation, that refer to this deal as the most favourite option and the one with the most support by Stephanie Williams. For more details, see the following links:

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