On May 18, militias belonging to the Misratan Third Force and its affiliates launched an attack on the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Barak al-Shati, an airport base in the Libyan province of Fezzan, and killed 141 Libyan army personnel and civilians, according to LNA sources. Many were unarmed and were shot in the head at close range. Fifty of them were young cadets who were camping there on their way to return to their hometowns after a graduation ceremony in Tukra (a town east of Benghazi). The victims belonged to almost all tribes of the South, and the large number of funerals across the south shows how many this attack affected.
The Misratan Third Force is nominally loyal to the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord (GNA), which arose through the Libyan Political Agreement of December 2015 and is headed by President Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli. In reality, the GNA has no real control over the group. The LNA spokesman, Ahmad al-Mismari, accused al-Serraj and his defense minister, Mahdi al-Barghathi, of ordering the attack and breaching a truce agreed upon between him and General Haftar, head of the LNA based in eastern Libya. The GNA denied ordering the attack and suspended defense minister, al-Barghati, and the head of the Third Force, Jamal al-Treiki.
Haftar, supported by the internationally recognized House of Representatives in the East, refuses to acknowledge al-Serraj as the country’s president or recognize the authority of the GNA, despite their international backing. Furthermore, the LNA promised a “strong” response to the attack, and in the following days heavily bombed the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) in Jufra, one of the militias who had taken part in the attack and with whom the LNA has fought other battles.
That same day Barak al-Shati was attacked, militants claiming to belong to the BDB blew up and killed one of the most prominent eastern tribal leaders and several members of his family as they exited a mosque after Friday prayer.
The two events have caused more damage to attempts for reconciliation in Libya than most in the last three years. There are four significant implications of these attacks in shaping the future of the country.
First, it showed that al-Serraj and the GNA lack control over the militias that are ostensibly loyal to them. Although the LNA has publicly accused the GNA of being responsible for the massacre, it is unlikely that the GNA would have ordered the massacre, if for no other reason than that it violates the May 2 truce between the LNA and GNA. Those accusing the GNA, though, point out that the attack may undermine Haftar’s support in central and southern Libya and may allow smaller rouge militias belonging to the Misratan Third Force to regain control of illegal traffic across Libya’s long southern borders.
Second, the fact that the GNA has so little control over its forces shows that the Skhirat Accords, which created the Presidential Council, cannot be implemented by al-Serraj in his current weak position and unpopularity. The GNA’s weakness is further emphasized as Libyans get ready for Ramadan but find that there are shortages in markets, inflation is rampant, and the country is unsafe. Given these conditions, it is hard to imagine the al-Serraj government being able to restore security and stabilize the economy.
A day before the attack, the Grand Mufti of Libya, Sadiq Ali al-Ghariani, called for “all those able to make jihad, by weapon or word, against Haftar,” and he has also said that al-Serraj has no authority to negotiate with Haftar. He accused him of being a puppet to foreign countries. Al-Serraj had suggested he would be willing to negotiate with Haftar when they met three weeks ago in Abu Dhabi to negotiate the May 2 truce. Al-Ghariani’s views are considered radical and several countries have put a travel ban on him to prevent him from entering, but his influence and statements further undermine al-Serraj.
Third, the fact that the massacre impacted so many southern tribes has united them in a way not seen since 1969 when Ghaddafi enacted a policy of fragmenting tribes and undermining traditional tribal contracts of the south, in an effort to implement a divide and conquer strategy. Despite adversarial relations between many tribes, tribal leaders are calling for tribal unification and to fight the threat of criminal gangs and intruding militias under one Fezzan provincial banner.
Lastly, those who call for a federalist structure for Libya—a country divided into semi-autonomous provinces—will use these attacks and the weakness of the GNA to promote their cause. Federalists have been calling for the reestablishment of the historic province of Cyrenaica in the East to guarantee that a central government based in Tripoli and favoring that region over the rest of the country, as it did under Ghaddafi, does not reemerge. Libya used to be structurally and then economically divided into three provinces until 1969: Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica. Eastern Libyans, who were marginalized under the Ghaddafi regime, are upset at the relocation of many of Libya’s crown corporations such as the National Oil Company, Libyan National Airline, and the Central Bank, from Benghazi. They point out that under King Idris, Benghazi was then constitutionally the twin capital city. Federalists have already rejected the idea of directly empowering municipalities under a central government based in Tripoli, in fear that this will result in their continued neglect.
The federalist solution should not be discounted out of hand. While the Libyan conflict has been portrayed as one of ideological differences, it has always had tribal, provincial, and economic dynamics. Building a consensus among distrustful Libyans under current circumstances is not possible without a disengagement period, and it is unlikely Libyans will agree on a national government based in Tripoli in the near future. Insisting on implementing the current UN proposed agreement with its centralized model of governance may lead to a weak central government, continued conflict, and the division of the country along military and tribal lines.
On the other hand, negotiating a power sharing agreement based on a federal model of distribution of powers, rights, and responsibility—while preserving the Libyan Central Bank and National Oil Company—could stabilize the country. It would provide an interval of peace and stability and encourage provincial institution building. Most importantly, it will permit equitable allocation of desperately needed human security elements to each of the provinces, which is a concern raised repeatedly in the last three years with accusations of the west being favored over the East.
Libya’s tribal structure has always been strong, whereas its national identity has been slowly developing for years. Even at the level of language and culture, Libyans differ from each other between the East and West, and the Amazigh draw from a different culture and language basis than those of Arab descent. When a UN resolution established the United Kingdom of Libya in 1951, the people of the three provinces had to be eased slowly into the idea of being part of one country, and it took them 12 years to ultimately unite as one Kingdom of Libya. Perhaps what Libya needs after 42 years of its constitution being suspended, social contract disrupted, and opponents to Ghaddafi silenced brutally, is another period of rehabilitation through federal governance.
In 1950, Adrian Pelt, the United Nations Special Envoy to Libya, concluded that the only possible way to reconcile the differences among the fragmented populations of Libya was to adopt federalist model of governance among the three provinces. Given the weakness of the Presidential Council and to establish control over the entire country, it might be worth reviving the federalist model, even if just as a stepping stone to a fully united Libya.
Hani Shennib is the founding president of the National Council on US Libya Relations.