Libya’s Crisis: The Battle Between Two Libyan Bitter Rivals; Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj

Alao Abiodun
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Libya has been politically unstable since 2011 when a successful uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s longstanding regime left a power vacuum. A transitional government was elected in 2012; it quickly became dysfunctional. To replace it, the North African country held an election in 2014 but this led to the creation of rival governments, each backed by a powerful coalition of militias.

Libya has been on the brink of an all-out civil war that threatens to upend years of diplomatic efforts to reconcile two rival armed political factions. An advance led by Khalifa Haftar, the warlord from the east of the country, has diplomats scrambling and the UN appealing in vain for a truce. The French government, the European power closest to Haftar, insists it had no prior warning of his assault, which is now less than 20km from the capital, Tripoli.

Libya is split between two administrations, one based in Tobruk in the east and that largely supports General Khalifa Haftar, and the UN-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli to the west, with Fayez al-Sarraj as prime minister.

Since the 2011 toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has also been tactically divided by a multitude of rival factions seeking to gain dominance in the North African nation too. Some of these people are: Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, 58, heads the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. He has held the post since March 2016 with the support of cities in the west, but the GNA has not won the backing of Libya’s parliament based in the eastern city of Tobruk. Sarraj is supported in the Libyan capital by three militias, which are in charge of security in Tripoli and its surroundings.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) dominates the country’s east and also has a presence in the south. The 75-year-old’s hostility towards the GNA has been seen as a major cause of the current crisis. But Haftar has gained in stature for fighting jihadists. He ousted Islamist militias from the city of Derna, which had been the only part of eastern Libya out of his control. The military figure is accused of wanting to impose a dictatorship and of being backed by foreign powers, notably Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France. Haftar’s LNA is made up of former officers from the Libyan army, militiamen, fighters from allied tribes, as well as non-jihadist Salafists.

Aguila Saleh Issa was elected parliament speaker after 2014 polls. Militias seized control of the capital later the same year, prompting the assembly to flee to the eastern city of Tobruk. In the west, the General National Council (GNC), appointed in 2012 elections, has refused to step down to allow the exiled lawmakers to take up their seats. Haftar says he takes his legitimacy from the Tobruk-based parliament. Saleh is a former judge and has the support of his tribe, Al-Obeidat, one of the most powerful in eastern Libya.

Khalid al-Mishri was elected in April as head of the High Council of State in Tripoli. The body was part of the UN-sponsored deal signed in Morocco in 2015, which also led to the creation of the GNA. The High Council is made up of ex-members of the GNC. Mishri is a member of the Justice and Construction Party, the country’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. While he is hostile to Haftar in the east, he has not expressed clear support for the GNA.

What happened in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi’s death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body unilaterally resolved to extend its own mandate.

Haftar called on the GNC to disband. Haftar then led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC that August. With rival militias ruling Libya’s streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar’s troops with the lack of security in the capital, the Haftar-supported House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature.

In late August 2014, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya’s parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remained the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya was limited.

Libya’s Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled that November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions. The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court’s ruling, saying it was made “at gunpoint”.

Libya became torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias changed frequently, which only added to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

Efforts by the UN to establish a “unity government” led to a third administration, this one led by Fayez Sarraj, claiming overall political legitimacy for the country and setting up shop in Tripoli in late March 2016. International legitimacy was bestowed upon it, though it too was unable to claim control over Libya’s vast territory.

For the following few years, the UN-supported Unity Government controlled much of Western Libya, while the Haftar-supported Tobruk Government controlled much of the country’s east. Now, in April 2019, the UN-backed government clings on pockets of territory surrounding several of the north-west’s major power centres including Zawarah, Zawiyah, Aziziyah, Tripoli, Bani Walid and Misrata – but Haftar’s LNA has advanced along the coast and has taken Sirte and most of the rest of the country. The southern fringes remain in the control of a variety of tribal groups and militias.

Both main sides in the civil war are propped up by an array of warlords, militias and criminal gangs. While most of the international community at large supports the Tripoli-based Unity Government, Haftar’s forces in the east have the backing of Russia, the UAE and Egypt – which have used their air forces to support Haftar’s fighters on the ground.

Who is Khalifa Haftar?

As thousands continue to flee the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the country’s most notorious warlord, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is engaging in a battle of sorts. He has delivered on his threat to use military force against the internationally recognised government if he isn’t named the country’s supreme military commander.

He is the face of the eastern Libyan government. Recent military push by his forces to take control of Tripoli has thrust him onto the international stage once more. Libya’s military strong man, Khalifa Haftar was born in 1943 in the country’s eastern city of Ajdabiya.

He studied at al-Huda School in Ajdabiya in 1957 and then moved to Derna to obtain his secondary education between 1961 and 1964. Haftar joined Benghazi’s military academy in 1961. At the age of 26, he took part in the coup that brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969. And in 1980, Gaddafi promoted Haftar to the rank of a colonel and sent him to fight in Chad where he was captured by Chadians in 1987.

With the start of anti-Gaddafi uprisings in 2011, the field marshal returned to Libya where he became a key commander of the makeshift rebel force in the east. The commander defected from the Libyan army upon his release. Backed by the CIA, he formed the military wing for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya to overthrow Gaddafi.

Khalifa Haftar later rose to power in February 2014 when he called on Libyans to topple the elected parliament and the General National Congress. He survived an assassination attempt on June 4, 2014 then faded into obscurity until the launch of Operation Dignity. Libya’s most potent warlord has been active in the country’s political scene for over forty years. He is currently playing a lead role in the second Libyan civil war.

Read Also: Understanding Libya’s Current Political Crisis and The Failure of Imposed Democracy

Khalifa Haftar’s emergence as a Libyan power player didn’t receive the warmest of welcomes from European leaders. A former general in Muammar Gaddafi’s army, Haftar fell out with the dictator in the 1980s and spent most of the intervening decades living in the United States. He returned only as the country was dissolving into civil war in 2011.

Who is Fayez al-Sarraj?

Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj is the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya that was formed as a result of the Libyan Political Agreement signed on 17 December 2015. He has been a member of the Parliament of Tripoli. Since assuming leadership of the GNA, Sarraj has struggled to exert his authority throughout Libya, and the country remains largely fractured between opposing political forces and generally unstable.

Born in Tripoli, Sarraj comes from a prominent and wealthy family of the city, which owned shops and vast amount of land. His father, Mostafa al-Sarraj was a minister during the Libyan Monarchy. Trained as an architect, during the Gaddafi era he worked in the Housing Ministry. In 2014, he served as the Minister of Housing and Utilities in the Maiteeq Cabinet of the GNC. Some critics “regard Sarraj as a politician imposed by foreign powers.” At the time of his appointment “Guma el-Gamaty, a member of Libya Dialogue, the UN-chaired body that created the new government, said Sarraj was expected to ask for help to combat Isis and train Libyan units.”

After Libya’s 2014 elections, Libyan government was split between the Islamist-dominated New General National Congress in Tripoli and the internationally recognized legislature of the House of Representatives in Tobruk. Sarraj has been Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord since its installment in December 2015 as part of a United Nations-led political agreement. Prior to his initial arrival in Tripoli in March 2016, Sarraj survived two separate assassination attempts.

Over the past two years, the GNA has struggled to gain a foothold as a legitimate institution of authority inside the country, and Libya has remained divided. The government’s initial proposed group of ministers was rejected by the House of Representatives (HoR), leading Sarraj to form a government that received a no confidence vote from the HoR. Infighting among rival militias has only intensified, and Libyan citizens have faced economic hardships, including inflation, corruption, and smuggling, that are “melting away the country’s cash reserves”.

The United Nations representatives who initially formed the unity government have since expressed concern over its ability to make progress. In December 2016, the Security Council noted the “limited authority” of the GNA and stated that “the Libyan Political Agreement did not fulfill the expectations. The implementation has stalled.”

Months following this statement, an April 2017 U.N. Security Council meeting summary cautioned that “Libya could relapse into conflict” and said the government has struggled to “deliver basic services while endeavoring to fight terrorism, illegal migration and oil smuggling.”

In an attempt to make the government more effective, reports have surfaced throughout 2017 of a consensus to restructure the GNA and overall Libyan Political Agreement. In July 2018, Libya rejected European Union’s plan aimed at stopping migration from Libya. On 10 April 2019, United Nations chief António Guterres said, at the UN headquarters, that he still hopes to avoid “bloody battle for Tripoli”. Two days before that troops loyal to Faiez Serraj began moving toward the capital.

However, serious questions remain as to whether another interim government will solve the country’s political crisis because overcoming Libya’s crisis also goes beyond creating an effective national government.

Libya’s transitional leaders, some of whom will be presidential candidates, are entangled in – and benefit from – the country’s war economy. So do various armed factions that may view the vote as a threat to their interests and disrupt the process before it begins.

There are also a number of peace processes being simultaneously rolled out, which confuses the way forward. And there are new security risks and still no constitution, which undermines the legitimacy of institutions that many still view as interim and temporary.

From the perspective of European states, as well as Libya’s neighbors, the continuation of the crisis poses countless security challenges. Despite the motivation that many domestic and foreign actors in the Libyan civil war have to peacefully resolve the conflict, the crisis rages on.

This civil war can only be resolved if the different actors agree on a security architecture, a form of government, economic reforms, geographic locations for major national institutions, and more. Legitimizing such reforms and institutions via popular referendums would require the various actors in Libya to accept the outcomes regardless of the results.


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