This is the third in the series of papers on different countries in West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region on a decade of the Arab Spring.
In sharp contrast to the visible anger on the streets of Tunisia and a sense of apathy across the cities in Egypt on the eve of Arab Spring’s tenth anniversary, the mood at the Martyr Square in Tripoli in Libya was completely different. Young Libyans assembled with flags in their hands to honour the historic day of February 17, 2011, the first day of protest in Libya a decade ago. The roads around the city were lit up and a series of musical and cultural programs were organized. The celebration in Tripoli appeared as strange as had the response of Colonel Qaddafi a decade ago when, unlike the rulers of Egypt, Syria and Yemen who soon after the uprising pledged political reforms to quell the unrest, Colonel Qaddafi had insulted the protestors and called them rats.[i] Colonel Qaddafi was killed in October 2011 in the NATO-led operation ‘Odyssey Dawn’.[ii] One fails to understand this celebration in Tripoli because the last decade of Libyan politics provides no reason for such revelry. Today Libya is marred with chaos, factionalism, regional and tribal division with no clear political direction. Any hope for peace and stability remains elusive with external interference, non-compliance with past peace agreements and appropriation of national polity by warlords and terrorist forces.
Past One Decade: A Story of Factionalism, Anarchy and Failed Peace Processes
After ten years of Qaddafi’s departure from the Libyan political scene, the country remains divided and polarized at tribal, political and regional levels. The East-West split was reflected in the anniversary celebrations when in comparison to celebrative mood in Tripoli in the west, the mood in Benghazi[iii]in the east was somber.[iv]The National Transitional Council (NTC) formed as an interim authority amid the early days of civil war was itself a divided house as those who had recently deserted Qaddafi and those who had flown back to Libya after suffering long exile to join the post-Qaddafi national politics were not ready to accept each other.The first elections to choose the national assembly called ‘General National Congress’ (GNC) were held in July 2012 but it was largely boycotted by the eastern Libyans who called GNC a tool to reinforce their past marginalisation in national politics.[v]The Fezzan region in the south also acquired a semi-independent status and the post-Qaddafi era was then aptly referred as an era of “regional triumphalism”[vi].
The GNC soon faltered because of the conflict between the Islamists and secularists within it and the growing power of tribal warlords who felt deprived of their traditional political influence in the evolving politics. Soon a fresh election was held in June 2014 and this time the assembly was named ‘House of Representatives’ (HOR).The following month in July 2014, the election for the Constituent Assembly was held with merely13.8% participation-a clear marker of waning interest in the emerging political system.
The post-Qaddafi political process in Libya has been entwined with anarchy, factionalism and the emergence of powerful tribal warlords. Since the Islamists were dominant in the GNC, they refused to endorse HOR and with the help of other militias launched operation ‘Libya Dawn’ against the HOR in August 2014 and forced HOR-members to flee to Tobruk in the east. Tripoli, an official headquarters of HOR, now fell in the hands of the Islamists. Consequently, Libya was split into two administrative divisions: Tobruk-based HOR and Tripoli-based GNC. The HOR became an internationally recognised body while Omar Al-Hassi, an Islamist and prominent member of earlier GNC formed a new ‘National Salvation Government’ with the support of his loyalists in GNC .What later changed the dynamic of Libyan politics was the advent of Colonel Khalifa Haftar in July 2014 as a new actor in the national politics.[vii]
Stability and peace failed to take root in Libya because of the persistent chaos and conflict. Getting rid of Qaddafi was perhaps much easier than building the new political order in post-Qaddafi era. The post-Qaddafi era can be characterised as an era of militarisation of different tribal and radical Islamist forces which seems to have dictated the political journey of Libya in the past one decade. New demands on federalism emerged and the east-west divide deepened. Apart from tribal and regional issues, the movement of the ISIS towards Libya after defeat in its place of origin-Syria and Iraq-also became a fresh source of chaos.[viii] What further strengthened these radical forces was resurgence and reconsolidation of veteran or next generation of Soviet-Afghan war Jihadist[ix] who also joined different radical and terror outfits in unfolding fragile Libyan polity.
Later the conflict between the forces of Haftar, a self-claimed head of Libyan National Army[x] and the Islamist forces led by a veteran military officer Abdal Hakim Biljhaji transformed Libya into a war zone. The capital city of Tripoli fell to the forces of Haftar in April 2019.[xi] Colonel Haftar in the guise of a war against Islamists also targeted his other political opponents.Today he controls most of the eastern and southern Libya which constitutes around 80% of the national territory. The two hostile forces, apart from expanding their territorial footprint, are also eyeing control over lucrative oil sectors.
As a result of the split of the country into two administrative divisions in June 2014, the space for negotiations between the opposing factions has substantively reduced. The UN was however able to bring warring factions like NTC, GNC and HOR to the negotiating table and a Libyan Political Agreement also known as Skhirat Declaration was signed on December 17, 2015.The agreement called for the creation of a Government of National Accord (GNA) and Fayez al-Sarraj was named the Prime Minister. But, soon after, the agreement collapsed as the Tripoli-based Islamist Salvation Government did not allow Prime Minster al-Sarraj to take charge in Tripoli with GNA members being called illegitimate infiltrators.[xii]After a prolonged stalemate and subsequent collapse of the Skhirat Declaration, President Putin hosted Colonel Haftar in January 2020 in Moscow for a fresh political dialogue, but this too ended without any outcome.
In the beginning of January, 2020 a fresh initiative was taken by German Canceller Merkel when, Prime Minister Al Sarraj, Colonel Haftar and representatives from the permanent member countries of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), European Union (EU), Arab League, African Union, UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Italy and Germanygathered in Berlin to chart out a future peace plan for Libya. But this effort too failed to achieve any concrete outcome. Before the Berlin conference, Prime Minister al-Sarraj had met Colonel Haftar in UAE in February 2019[xiii] and both had agreed to hold an early election; there was no forward movement however. Similarly, the dialogue in Bouznika in Tunisia in September 2020[xiv] and Libya (5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) ceasefire talks in Geneva under the auspices of the UN in October 2020 failed to alter the political trajectory on the ground.[xv]
Current Civil War in Libya and External Interventions
The longevity of civil war in Libya should be seen also as an outcome of military and strategic involvement of regional and global powers apart from the effect of ethnic and tribal conflict. This began with the NATO-led operations, launched in March 2011, to rescue the civilians from the pro-Qaddafi forces.
The French President and the British Prime Minister were the first to visit Libya after the death of Colonel Qaddafi and the British government had then pledged to train the NTC army.[xvi] Economic interest was the driving force behind this rush to remove Colonel Qaddafi, as only seven days after the passing of the UNSC Resolution 1973( R2P), France is said to have concluded a deal with the NTC stipulating that France would be guaranteed 35 % of oil contracts in Libya.[xvii]
Colonel Haftar, on the pretext of fighting radical Islam, has been receiving military and economic assistance from Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia. It is worth mentioning here that these three countries had already launched an all-out war against the Islamist forces and hence they found a strong ally in Haftar’s anti-Islamist position. The UAE Air Force is reported to have supplied around 3,000 tons of military equipment to the forces of Colonel Haftar.[xviii]Russia is another strong ally of Haftar in Libya and has reportedly equipped the Libyan National Army (LNA) with helicopter gunships in his war against the Benghazi Islamist Revolutionary- an Islamist outfit which has confronted the forces of Haftar since he joined the civil war in Libya.
If UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia have proved to be a major source of military and economic strength for Colonel Haftar, the government of Al Sarraj and other anti-Haftar forces have been getting the support of Turkey and Qatar. In recent months, Turkey’s role in Libya has become more vocal and aggressive after both Turkey and the GNA signed agreements in November 2019 allowing Turkey to send forces to help the GNA on the ground against the forces of Haftar.[xix]
Current UN Peace Plan and Future of Libya
It could have been a mere coincidence that when the civil war in Libya was completing its first decade, a new interim Prime Minister and three-member presidency council was elected on February 5, 2021[xx]under the UN-led peace plan. In October 2020, the United Nations Special Mission in Libya invited 74 members including 17 women representing different backgrounds to form the74-memebr Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).[xxi]After the voting among LPDF members, Abdel Hamid Dabaiba was elected as interim Prime Minister[xxii] and Mohammad Al-Manfi as President of the three-member Presidency Council.
Under the UN-led agreement, the interim government of Abdel Hamid Dabaiba along with the Presidency Council headed by Mohammad Al-Manfi would work for political reconciliation and bring different factions on the negotiating table. December 24, 2021 has been fixed for legislative and presidential elections in Libya. Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dabaiba is expected to form a cabinet soon[xxiii] and he has reportedly promised to work in consultation with HOR and elected Presidency Council.
As far as the success of the new UN plan is concerned, it seems difficult because many fundamental questions have remained unanswered such as control over the army and national exchequer and fixing responsibility for past crimes[xxiv] issues that can trigger conflict at any time in the future. The Amazigh and Tuareg minorities have already complained against their exclusion from the LPDF and called it an exclusive body.[xxv]The new executive body hardly represents the military or political spectrum of the country and its authority is likely to be challenged. The majority of the LPDF members hail from two prominent warring factions (Haftar and al-Sarraj) and their leanings and political sincerity has been questioned in the past. The interim Prime Minster is himself a controversial person because of his past association with Qaddafi’s regime and he is also accused of corruption as the head of numerous corporate houses.[xxvi]The success of the plan would also depend upon how much cooperation Colonel Haftar extends to the new UN initiative. Similarly, the role of regional powers would be very significant in success of the plan and one doubts if Turkey, a close ally of al-Sarraj, would evacuate its forces from Libya[xxvii]and if the regional and international players would stop supporting their proxies.[xxviii]
Since the ouster of Colonel Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, the country has fallen apart and no ceasefire plan or peace agreement has been able to arrest deterioration in the political landscape of the country. The emergence of primordial identity and related conflicts in the absence of central authority has complicated the situation and achieving peace and creating a political order seems to have become an uphill task. Fresh demands for regional autonomy in southern and the eastern Libya have further added to the chaotic political mix. The presence of large scale weaponry has created an atmosphere of fear. The new UN peace plan suffers from numerous shortfalls and perhaps overlooks the fact that election or creation of any institution would not lead to any solutions until fundamental issues are resolved. Many have already expressed their reservation against the LPDF for its exclusive character. The dominance of LDPF by the loyalists of Haftar and al-Sarraj makes it brittle because the biggest challenge is to overcome the old hostility between the two and create an amicable atmosphere to lead the country towards peace and stability. Peace would also largely depend upon how and to what extent the regional powers would cooperate with this UN plan. The example of Syria is a case in point. It is also difficult to predict if al- Sarraj himself would cooperate as his loyalists failed to get any place in the newly elected executive body and he is reported to have left for UAE after delegating powers to his deputy.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[ii] The operation was launched under the UN-approved principle of Responsibility to Protect.
[v]LarbiSadiki (ed.) Routledge handbook of the Arab Spring ( UK: Rutledge, 2015), P .no. 112
[vii] He was the army chief in Qadhafi’s era but during last years of his rule, both had fallen apart and Haftar had been in exile in western countries and he returned after the ouster of Qaddafi
[ix] Soviet–Afghan war is considered to be a turning point in the world politics. It started in 1979 when the Soviet forces entered into Afghanistan in support of Afghan communist government and the war ended in 1992. This long war added new elements of Jihadism and Islamic radicalism in global politics and many of the veterans and the next generation of the Afghan- Arab fighters are still active in many Arab countries and Afghanistan as well.
[x]He reportedly commands an army of 25, 000 from eastern Libya today.