Nearly a decade into Libya’s byzantine conflict, a sustainable solution appears as distant as ever, even though negotiations are ongoing. As global and regional players jockey for influence, international efforts to resolve the conflict remain stymied and ineffective. Meanwhile, Libya’s vast oil reserves—which provided a decent standard of living for many Libyans prior to 2011—have been under blockade, devasting the economy and livelihoods and leading to mounting frustration among Libyans. Further muddying the waters, the prime minister of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, announced he would step down in October and transfer power to a new administration. USIP’s Nate Wilson discusses Sarraj’s resignation, a deal to end the oil blockade, the deteriorating economic situation, and how it all impacts the prospects for peace.

Anti-Qaddafi fighters celebrate atop a tank after taking control of the town of Sirte, Libya, Oct. 20, 2011. Nearly nine early later, a solution to Libya’s conflict remains distant. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times).
Anti-Qaddafi fighters celebrate atop a tank after taking control of the town of Sirte, Libya, Oct. 20, 2011. Nearly nine early later, a solution to Libya’s conflict remains distant. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times).

What led to Sarraj’s resignation and will a successor be chosen?

It’s a complicated picture. But it is important to remember that he made his resignation at the end of October conditional upon an agreement over a new government to be negotiated in Geneva next month and he likely will not resign without one. This puts pressure on Libyan parties to conclude a new deal by then, one that would also exculpate him from any alleged crime. But the GNA’s internal strife and protests in the West, along with Sarraj’s own weariness, likely convinced him to make this announcement.

Internal divisions within the GNA emerged recently when Sarraj’s Presidency Council temporarily suspended Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha. The ostensible reason was violations committed by militias under his ministry during recent protests, but Bashagha had been outspoken about GNA corruption. Bashagha shrewdly was able to keep his position after challenging Sarraj to hold a public hearing, which ultimately took place behind closed doors. He further cemented his place in a future government and also seems to have cultivated good relations with Turkey. This relationship is important for Turkish-led security sector contracts but is also threatening to Sarraj and constitutes another reason for the suspension as well as Sarraj’s upcoming resignation. So it is likely that Turkey, while not welcoming Sarraj’s resignation, will still have a prominent seat at any negotiating table.

One reason that Sarraj has stayed so long is because he has the support of powerful militias in Tripoli. It’s possible that while he would like to dislodge them and decrease their influence, he is unwilling or unable to do so. Moreover, it is likely that his supporters convinced him, until the public protests, that if he resigns, a worse government would take over. Beyond militias, the GNA has not been able to provide essential services to Libyans and has been beset by endemic corruption, two major grievances which led to protests.

A successor in a “new executive authority” is unlikely to be chosen in the short-term. There will have to be a new deal between the major Libyan players and external actors, including Turkey on the GNA side and Egypt, the UAE, and Russia siding with the eastern-based House of Representatives and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF). However, as the resignation of Sarraj should remind observers, many Libyan political actors make their own calculations and are not easily swayed even by their own major backers. A prominent example of this was Khalifa Haftar’s attack on Tripoli in April 2019, which may not have been sanctioned by his external supporters.

If a successor is chosen, it will be an internal compromise and they will likely hail from Misrata or maintain the power structure whereby Misrata maintains outsized influence in the security sector, a situation Haftar would oppose. Some have speculated that Aguila Saleh, current head of the House of Representatives, could be the new head of a Presidency Council. But this outcome would have to emerge from a political dialogue. Although there are efforts to move forward from a recent meeting in Morocco, as well as U.N. meetings, it is unclear that Libyan parties will be willing to make difficult compromises.

Libya’s oil production is prepared to resume after a tentative deal was struck between GNA Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maetig and Haftar to lift a months-long blockade. Could this signal an opportunity for continued dialogue?

Yes, and the trend is toward making an agreement. However, the great unknown is Haftar’s place in a new deal, although his representatives have been involved in military and security talks, most recently this week in Egypt. His relationship with Saleh, head of the House of Representatives and Haftar’s ally in the East, is even uncertain.

In the wake of cease-fire statements last month, there has been a dizzying number of attempts at dialogue, but no agreed-upon way forward. France has offered to again convene a meeting with the U.N. and “the Libyan neighborhood,” as French President Emannuel Macron termed it. Separately, it is likely that talks between Turkey and Russia are also taking place. These countries’ means of influence vacillate between provision of war materials and diplomatic efforts. The United States has been active diplomatically to support a political settlement, mostly through the U.N.’s process. The Maetig meeting ending the blockade took place in Sochi, Russia and recent meetings have taken place in Switzerland and Morocco.

These external talks may be necessary, but it is worth noting the continued suffering of the Libyan people from COVID-19, lack of electricity and of cash to purchase basic goods while privileged members of the Libyan political class travel internationally. The perception is that these are the same men—very few women are involved and almost no young people—who got Libya into its current state and are still benefitting from their positions. This could backfire and even if their intentions are good: they may not have legitimacy with Libyans who suffer from their country’s degraded state. Moreover, it should be underscored that striking deals, which alone seems fraught with challenges, is the easy part. Turning agreements into actual peace and implementing details is where the real work is needed, a space rarely focused on.

Many Libyans, including Sarraj, as well as international actors such as Turkey, oppose the deal to lift the blockade despite its devastating effect on the Libyan economy. What’s behind the opposition, and what does this mean for the future of the conflict? 

Since June of this year, Haftar has been on his back foot after the failed attempt to take Tripoli by force. Other actors in the East have risen like Saleh, while others like Maetig are trying to gain momentum. Saleh’s House of Representatives is impotent, but it does claim legitimacy from being the elected legislative body even if it has not met with a quorum in years.

Sarraj’s opposition to the deal stems from the idea that agreement would give Haftar legitimacy as a political actor at the same time his military bona fides are under siege. Haftar could easily claim that he was the political broker, and at the same time sideline the eastern Interim Government. Sarraj claims to want other conditions met before agreeing to a deal, such as foreign militias to leave the country, but presumably Syrians fighting for the GNA can stay for now.

What it means for the future of the conflict is that oil will continue to be a major stumbling block to any political settlement. Libyans have not agreed to set oil aside and instead the trend is to use control over oil fields as a way to gain political influence. One prominent example of this is the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), which is a militia that asserts control over fields as a means of political and financial gain. There are also indicators that foreign actors are directly engaging and sponsoring PFG units, as indicated by the presence of foreign mercenaries and clashes between units supposedly under Haftar’s command. Coming to a workable agreement on the control of oil fields and oil revenue will be a major challenge to overcome in upcoming negotiations.

Haftar’s announcement ending the oil blockade came on the heels of public protests in his stronghold of Benghazi. There have been similar protests recently in Tripoli. Could the deteriorating economic conditions in Libya force the two sides to pursue a political agreement?

These may be more important in the long-term than temporary deals struck. The demonstrations show the frustration of regular Libyans with the deteriorating living condition—these are the first mass demonstrations in years. In Benghazi, protests led to or coincided with the attempted resignation of the Interim Government in the East. There are a number of reasons for the absence of protests, including a weak civil society, a hope people will have their basic needs met in the future, and a polarized state in which authorities regard protests against them as support for their opponent rather than a judgment on their performance.

Civil society is historically seen as an imposition from the international community. I once had a member of civil society tell me that when he was confronted with this charge by an authority he retorted that Facebook is more of an import, so he ought to delete his account on the most popular social media site in Libya. This speaks to the Qaddafi regime’s legacy of demonizing potentially helpful organizations in an attempt to keep out unwanted foreigners.

Libyans in general were used to a decent standard of living prior to 2011. Certainly not everyone—for example, the southern Fezzan region was and remains underdeveloped—but as a rentier state the regime was able to use oil revenues to stay in power through a patronage system and provide for society’s basic needs while not imposing taxes. This ability has been hampered by corruption and the use of oil fields as a political bargaining chip.

The GNA and the Interim Government, backed by the LAAF, have been able to keep demonstrations to a minimum. But this may be changing: one protest in the East was in Al-Marj, a Haftar stronghold. The old playbook of blaming protests on outside agitators, terrorists, or opponents may not be working anymore. When the Ministry of Interior tried to do this after militias under its umbrella opened fire on protesters in Tripoli, within hours the public knew that it was simply an untrained security actor that had no business controlling crowds. It is possible that this is a new protest movement could produce positive results.

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