Q&A: Navigating a Faltering Transition in Libya

Violent battles in Libya’s capital have intensified over the past several weeks, with the Tripoli airport under siege and a recent decision by the US government to evacuate US embassy staff. Libya’s political transition has been overwhelmed by deteriorating security, but international attention is sporadic at best—often only responding to attacks from Islamist militias or counterattacks by opposition factions. What is happening on the security, political, and economic fronts throughout the country and what should the international community do?

Why is there such a security collapse?

The absence of an effective, assertive state, police, and army has created a vacuum in which gangs, extremists, and other rogue elements are able to operate, leaving victims with little recourse. Crime and terrorism—from petty thievery to armed assault to targeted assassinations—disrupt daily life in Libya. Politically motivated killings have become a near-daily occurrence. National security personnel, journalists, and activists are the most common victims, including the recent high profile assassination of lawyer and human rights defender Salwa Bugaighis.

Who are the Islamists in Libya?

There are a range of Islamist groups operating in Libya, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Blood of the Martyrs, and the Salafists. The most extremist and disruptive Islamist player on the scene, however, is Ansar al-Sharia. A title taken by many groups across the Middle East, Ansar al-Sharia serves as a label for many who desire to establish an Islamic state in the country. The affiliations and scope of ambition varies from group to group. In Libya, Ansar al-Sharia is an Islamic militia group that came about during the Libya Civil War. In January 2014, the US State Department officially recognized two branches of Ansar al-Sharia as foreign terrorist organizations. Ansar al-Sharia in Libya has been involved in kidnappings, suicide bombings, attacks on security forces, assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya. In early May, it carried out an attack on Libyan security forces in Benghazi, killing eight soldiers and wounding twenty-four more. They have also destroyed Sufi shrines across the country.

Who is Khalifa Haftar and what is he trying to do?

Khalifa Haftar is a former military commander under ousted dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. He defected during Libya’s war with Chad, received CIA training, and moved to Virginia to live in exile for the next two decades, only to return to Libya during the 2011 uprising. The renegade general is riding the wave of malcontent among the Libyan population to launch an offensive against Islamic militants, an initiative he announced in May 2014. His forces declared Ansar al-Sharia the target, but in reality, they pursue all Islamists. After two months of bloody clashes with Islamist militias, now all consolidated around Ansar al-Sharia’s leadership, the situation on the ground is at a stalemate. Haftar’s military campaign, known as Operation Dignity, has all but failed.

Although Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign created a great deal of fanfare, he and his followers (mainly comprising fellow former Qaddafi military personnel, tribal supporters, and other anti-Islamist groups) have not made any significant gains. In fact, they remain in their compound in the town of Marj, outside of Benghazi, and do not control any other territory. They have effectively become another militia on the scene, with insufficient strength to overpower the others.

In his effort to root out Islamists, Haftar used violence successfully to only one end: his allies in the western part of the country attacked the General National Congress (GNC), forcing it to resign and to call for new elections. The objective was to eliminate an Islamist-dominated political institution, paving the way for new elections that, according to electoral forecasts, could shift to the hands of non-Islamists. Now, as clashes in Tripoli continue between Islamist and non-Islamist militias, escalating most recently in the destruction of Libya’s main airport and more than one hundred deaths, it is clear that while Haftar’s campaign has stagnated, it has contributed to the political and armed entrenchment of already-polarized forces within the country.

What is the role of the General National Congress?

Since Haftar and his allies attacked the GNC, it has played a nominal role. But even prior to this assault, the GNC had been severely constrained by infighting and a lack of leadership. Elections for a new legislative body were held on June 25, and the outgoing GNC is expected to hand power over to the newly elected parliament in the coming weeks. In its lame duck period, the GNC has remained silent about the violence gripping Benghazi but GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmain in recent days voiced fierce objection to any hint of foreign intervention in response to the inter-militia clashes in Tripoli. It is unclear what role the outgoing parliamentarians will play in the future. Many have come under attack, even fatally so, targeted by unknown rogue elements.

What about the recent House of Representatives elections?

Libya’s High National Election Committee recently released the results for the House of Representatives Election, held on June 25. Initial reports indicate that non-Islamists will outnumber Islamists, but as yet remains unconfirmed. Candidates ran as individuals and not as members of political parties, leaving an open question regarding their affiliations and the relative balance of Islamists versus non-Islamists as the House begins its work.

The new parliament will likely have little impact on inter-militia conflict or provide the momentum to lead Libya out of its current morass. The lack of preparation, time allotted to campaigning, and deteriorating security severely undermined the elections. Less than 20 percent of voters turned up at the polls; citizens were unable to cast ballots in several places due to high levels of insecurity, which exacerbated what appears to be general frustration and apathy among the public toward an ineffective political system. This raises serious questions about the representativeness of the new legislative body.

In an effort to signal its commitment to Libya’s eastern region—severely neglected and underdeveloped by the central government over the last few decades—authorities have said that they will base the House of Representatives in Benghazi. It is unclear how the nascent, fragmented security apparatus would protect the institution in the violence-ridden city.

What is the status of the new constitution?

In February 2014, Libyans cast their ballots for the Constitutional Committee, a sixty-member body with a mandate to draft Libya’s constitution. However, voters in some parts of the country feared the lack of security, keeping them from participating in the vote. Key minority groups boycotted the election over grievances about limited representation, leaving thirteen of the sixty remain vacant. Efforts to rerun elections in places where violence rocked polling stations proved futile.

In an effort to make up for these significant weaknesses in its formation, the assembly toured the country in recent weeks to hear from the public about issues the constitution should take into consideration. It also established a special committee to reach out to the Amazigh (Berber) community, which has effectively withdrawn from the political process since last year when the electoral law for the assembly was first written (allocating only six seats to the country’s three main minority groups). With progress on those fronts incremental, the assembly held an inaugural session in the eastern town of Bayda in April—again, in an effort to connect with the marginalized east—but will not officially begin its drafting work until representatives fill the remaining vacant seats. As of now, there is no timetable for those elections or the start of the drafting process.

What is happening with Libya’s National Dialogue?

In August 2013, then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan endorsed the idea of a national dialogue to facilitate a process of national reconciliation. An independent preparatory commission was established to brainstorm how to structure a national conversation about some of Libya’s most pressing issues and possible resolutions. The Commission is headed by Fadel Lamen (a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East), and it launched a considerably successful countrywide tour, holding town halls to earn buy-in from important stakeholders and hear from citizens about top priority concerns that the national dialogue ought to address.

The implementation phase of the national dialogue, however, remains unclear. Mechanisms for selecting representatives from different localities and demographics have not yet been mapped out. Moreover, the national dialogue is operating with no legal authority, raising concerns that its efforts and outcomes will have little impact. In the climate of a tenuous political situation and spiraling insecurity, none of the proposed ideas have thus far resulted in any concrete steps.

Why has Libyan oil production been so low? Will recent terminal reopenings have an impact?

Though Libya has a large wealth of oil reserves, which produced about 1.4 million barrels a day (b/d) before 2011, political instability and militia takeovers have greatly hampered production, crippling Libya’s economy. Since early July 2014, several major oil fields and terminals have returned to government control and reopened for export supply.

Ibrahim Jadhran, a former rebel leader, was tasked to protect Libya’s oil facilities in 2012 as a commander in the government’s Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). However, in 2013 he defected from the government forces and took over and stopped exportation from many facilities in the east. His demands included greater revenue sharing with the eastern region, government transparency, and federalism. In March 2014, he attempted to sell oil from terminals under his control. Eventual intervention by Libyan government forces failed to stop the ship from leaving Libyan waters. This failure prompted the GNC to vote then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan out of office, replacing him with interim Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. Al-Thinni’s government was able to reach an initial agreement with Jadhran in April 2014, which reopened two smaller oil terminals, Marsa al-Hariga and Zueitina, in exchange for amnesty for Jadhran, pay for his men, and investigations into the finances of the state oil sales. A new deal, made official July 1, 2014, reopened two of Libya’s largest oil export terminals, Ras Lanuf and es-Sider. Jadhran cites the election of a new parliament as the impetus behind this move.

Nonetheless, serious threats to Libya’s oil production remain. Jadhran sees this latest deal as a “goodwill gesture,” granted in light of the recent parliamentary elections. If the new parliament is dominated by Islamists, or if it makes no visible moves towards transparency and federalism, Jadhran’s forces could take back the terminals handed over to the government. Haftar and the Zintani groups whose protestors blocked oil fields in the southwest have similar expectations of the new parliament.

How can Libya get out of this current state of affairs?

The international community and Libyan leadership can, and should, take three critical steps to help the faltering transition get back on track. These steps will require significant political will, capital, and coordination.

  1. The first step would be for the international community to issue an ultimatum to the warring factions, under threat of military intervention, to withdraw from Tripoli and Benghazi and surrender their arms. The United Nations should then deploy a peacekeeping force to protect civilians and key state installations.
  1. Once official Libyan and international forces restore security, a tripartite coalition would launch a political dialogue. The United Nations would convene the negotiations and international partners would pressure the various militias and relevant political and tribal actors to the negotiating table. The National Dialogue Preparatory Commission (NDPC) would represent Libya as the third co-chair of this endeavor. The coalition would work to establish a roadmap to address properly political grievances through nonviolent means. The United Nations might consider seeking help from neighboring Malta, Morocco, or other neutral countries to host these negotiations. Their involvement could remove militia representatives from a highly volatile and pressurized environment that may limit the space for compromise.
  1. In parallel with these procedures, the NDPC would resume its work on a comprehensive national dialogue, engaging the population at large to discuss national identity, reconciliation, transitional justice, system of government, and more.

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, focusing on the politics and economics of North Africa.

Lara Talverdian is the assistant director for research with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East where she researches the political transitions in North Africa.

Katherine Wolff is an intern with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: A general view shows fire burning at a fuel depot near the airport road in Tripoli July 29, 2014. Libyan forces on Tuesday battled Islamist militants with rockets and warplanes for control of an army base in the eastern city of Benghazi after at least 30 people were killed in overnight fighting. A rocket hit the fuel depot near Tripoli airport two days ago, igniting a huge blaze that Libyan fire-fighters on Tuesday were fighting to put out. Italy's government and Italian oil group ENI had agreed to help them, the government said. (Photo: REUTERS/Hani Amara)