Bombs, threats, cash and bullets: Libya’s third illegitimate government

Reading Time: 8 minutes’s third illegitimate governmentOn Monday 10 April, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier tweeted that he had called Libyan politician Fayez al-Sarraj, to congratulate him on his bravery in entering Tripoli.

al-Sarraj was in London.

In fairness, al-Sarraj, who arrived in the UK on Saturday 8 April on a ‘private visit’ and is not set to attend any ‘official meetings’ may argue he deserves a holiday, after a fraught five months which culminated in a chaotic last three weeks.

But no such break is available for Libya, which now teeters on the brink, fast approaching a third year of Civil War, and overseen by three governments, yet governed by none.

As noted in previous posts on this site, al-Sarraj is the leader of the Libyan Presidential Council, and now head of the ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA), the United Nations-created and –supported political body supposed to reunify Libya and end its four-sided civil war.

If it succeeds, it will replace the General National Congress (GNC) and House of Representatives (HoR).

The GNC was formed after an illegal militia headed by former Libyan army General Khalifa Haftar opened fire on the Libyan parliament just weeks before the state was due to hold a General Election. It sits in Tripoli, where it is ‘protected’ by the Al Fajr (‘Dawn’) militia, an illegal band of heavily-armed fighters who took advantage of Haftar’s insane and illegal attack to enter and occupy the Libyan capital.

The HoR was the ‘government’ created by the General Election of June 2014, which was held against a backdrop of a rapidly-escalating war between Haftar’s force (‘Operation Dignity’), the Al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al Sharia (based in Libya’s second city Benghazi) and Al Fajr, which is largely made up of fighters from the state’s third largest city, Misrata.

Turnout in the election was 18 per cent, the new ‘government’ refused to sit at Tripoli, where war was raging, and Libya’s Supreme Court declared the entire government illegitimate, {it is worth noting that the GNC, which set up in Tripoli in its place, was no more legitimate than the HoR, its mandate having expired in December 2013, and never renewed} but despite these glaring flaws, it won the official recognition of the United Nations, EU and a large number of individual states.

As the two watched from either end of the Libyan state {the HoR now sits at Tobruk, in Libya’s far East}, the Civil War continued, with its fourth – and to date final – combatant IS entering late in 2014. It currently holds Sirte, a city in the centre of the state’s Mediterranean coast, and was expelled from Derna, further East, by Ansar Al-Sharia.

Late in November last year, the President of the HoR, Aguila Saleh, and the Prime Minister of the GNC, Khalifa Al-Ghwell, announced they had agreed a process to unify their respective ‘governments’.

Though this was by no means guaranteed to end the Civil War, as Ansar Al-Sharia and IS are unconnected to either, while ‘Dignity’ and ‘Fajr’ have pledged ‘support’ to the HoR and GNC respectively, but are not controlled by either, it nevertheless appeared to be a long-overdue first step towards the end of Libya’s political division.

Instead, the United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) chose first to ignore the announcement, and then to actively dismiss it, pushing ahead with its own proposal – a Government of National Accord.

For greater detail on this, you can visit here, but in short, the UN took the reckless and counter-productive step of dismissing a Libyan-led political agreement in favour of one it would have to impose from the outside under considerable pressure from the wider international community.

The US had been bombing IS in Syria and Iraq since 2014, with most NATO states following suit in one or both countries within months. But the campaigns were having little impact on IS’ international terror attacks, and were only reducing the organisation’s presence in Syria and Iraq extremely slowly.

A combination of fear {significantly increased in Europe following the 13 November attack on Paris}, concern that IS members in the Middle East may be transferring operations to Libya, and frustration at the general lack of meaningful progress against IS internationally {at a December meeting of states – not including representation from Libya itself – to discuss the Libyan political and military crises, US Senator John Kerry was heard to shout that the UN must deliver a ‘government we can work with!’} led the international community to begin plans to bomb IS in Libya*.

*As noted a number of times on this site, bombing campaigns are extremely unlikely to work against IS, which is a relatively-loose-knit set of militias fighting for a common purpose {almost a ‘franchise’ of terror} which relies on the chaos and violence of war to recruit members and receive weapons and cash. Not only have bombs failed to stop it in the last 19 months, there is no indication that adding more violence to already-vicious wars will ever seriously threaten IS. In order to do that, states – and perhaps their international allies – must work from a position of peace and ordered society.   

But to do so would require a new ‘government’, which would invite the international community to bomb IS. The US, France, Italy and the UK have led the way in promoting the idea of such a government, and in the form of the GNA, the United Nations has been working to impose it on Libya.

Whatever else may be said about it, we should not forget that the GNA exists not because the UN is desperate to end a war which is wrecking the lives of Libyans, or to end a political division which risks ending the state itself, but in order to facilitate a series of bombing raids against an enemy of the West, which can almost certainly not be decisively defeated with airstrikes.

Within Libya, despite repeated reports containing lines like ‘created in a UN mediated deal signed in December’ the GNA has limited support.

Neither the GNC or HoR have voted to support it, and although some local government support has been forthcoming, it is by no means clear that a majority of politicians even at that level back the initiative fully. Many would prefer to see Sale and al-Ghwell’s initiative be given a chance instead, while some have taken issue with individual proposals linked to the GNA and its structure {including the future role of Khalifa Haftar, who wants to be made the head of any new Libyan army. For more details see here}.

None of Haftar, IS or Ansar Al-Sharia have officially backed it, and despite some signs of splits and potential splits within its ranks, Fajr’s official position is to oppose it, and it has threatened to arrest and deport any member of the Presidential Council {which was set up to name the government, and then act as its executive; it currently has seven members, after two resigned over disagreements on issues including the future role of Haftar in post-war Libya} who entered Tripoli

Despite this, on 30 March, the GNA, led by al-Sarraj, entered the city. Though not in a way traditionally befitting the government of a nation.

In order to avoid being stopped, or arrested, the group sailed to Tripoli, and has since been operating from a secure naval base in the city.

Within 24 hours, Fajr had issued a demand al-Sarraj and the GNA ‘leave Tripoli or surrender’, though neither the GNA nor Fajr have yet acted on this demand, while elsewhere in the city, gunmen loyal to the GNA stormed and seized control of Al-Nabaa, a TV station which supports the GNC, cutting its transmissions and forcing its staff from the building.

The following day, on Friday 1 April, the EU took the unprecedented step of announcing it was to impose ‘sanctions’ on three Libyan individuals for opposing the GNA.

The three are GNC President Nouri Abusahmain and the two people behind the Libyan, rather than the UN, political agreement proposals – Khalifa al-Ghwell and Aguila Saleh.

The reward for their attempts at a natively-developed solution to Libya’s chaotic recent history is that the European Union has singled them out to ban them from travelling outside Libya, and has also frozen all of their assets. Seldom has the EU been so personal in its scrambling to rain bombs on a foreign state.

On 3 April the GNA caused controversy in Tripoli {which so far remains the only part of Libya in which it has any influence, even then less than that wielded by the GNC} by threatening to report Grand Mufti Sadiq Ghariani, Libya’s most influential religious figure, to Interpol, after he publicly stated his doubts that Libyans would recognise and accept a ‘government which arrived in a foreign ship, backed by foreign troops’.    

In other matters, its progress has been less dubious. On 31 March it won the tentative, but public, backing of Libya’s Central Bank, National Oil Corporation, and Libyan Investment Authority (for more on the latter, see Cash, below) – effectively, the Libyan state’s major financial institutions, and therefore the basis of its ability to work as a government in the state.

But on 4 April, it took the drastic step of freezing the bank accounts of every single Libyan state ministry and all other government bodies.

It is clearly intended to serve as a signal to its ‘rivals’ and supporters that the GNA is now in control of the state’s apparatus, but the measure – and indeed the GNA itself – has largely been ignored by the GNC, while the HoR, which will vote on whether to accept the UN-imposed ‘government’ on Monday 18 April, responded by announcing that ‘the HoR is the sole legitimate authority in Libya, and the Libyan armed forces remain under the orders of President Aguila Saleh.’

The result of five months of Western pressure on the United Nations, and the latter’s decision to attempt to force its own ‘solution’ to the Libyan political chaos and four-sided civil war is so far that the state now has three governments, none with either legitimacy or useable power, one of which is in a small city in the state’s far East in order to protect itself from a war it cannot and has not influenced, and another is forced to hide in a secure naval base, to avoid being arrested and deported by the third equally illegitimate political group.

Hammering Libya with missiles is incredibly unlikely to defeat IS in the state. And the desperate and ill-thought extremes to which the US, France, Italy and the UK have gone to force yet another powerless, illegitimate government on Libya looks set to create more of the destabilisation – and force more of the conflict – on which IS thrives.


Also on 31 March, perhaps as an intended ‘encouragement’ to Libyans to back the GNA, the UN Security Council announced that it might ‘unfreeze’ Libya’s sovereign wealth fund when the ‘government’ had achieved control of the state.

The fund – effectively all of Libya’s investments, on which it should normally expect either earnings or the ability to withdraw cash to reinvest or spend on other things – has been frozen since 2011, when the UN announced it feared members of Muammar Ghaddafi’s government might withdraw it in its entirety and escape with it.

Despite the fact that Ghaddafi has been dead since October 2011, and that in the Civil War which deposed him NATO hammered several of kits cities into rubble, the UN has chosen not to free the cash, which was urgently required for rebuilding.

Since 2011, Libya has had three governments; one put into power by a popular uprising, and two democratically-elected. Yet none of the three – and therefore none of Libya’s civilian population – has ever been able to access a single dinar of the fund, which is entirely owned by the state.

And the announcement on the last day of March, which was effectively the use of Libya’s own money as a ‘stick’ with which to beat Libyans into accepting a government which exists simply because the international community wishes to be invited to bomb Libya again, was a stark reminder of one of the major reasons for five years of Libyan failure.

The GNC – now vilified by the international community – was once legitimate. It was forced to exist without money.

The HoR, the darling of most of the rest of the world until dropped on the arrival of a government considered more likely to invite renewed bombing raids on Libya, was also deprived of the state’s wealth.

Governments need more than money to succeed, of course, but none, anywhere, has succeeded without any.

Libya’s history post-Ghaddafi has certainly been one of death, chaos and disintegration, but it has also been one of an impossible demand by the rest of the world: to rebuild a state pounded by the best weapons international money could buy, without ever being allowed to access its own finances.

No post-Ghaddafi Libyan government has ever really stood a chance. As a result, the nation has three, each without legitimacy or power, while its people suffer a second Civil War, the real threat of death and the stagnation of their country.

And the failure of Libya would be a disaster. Not only for its own people, who deserve the opportunity to lead decent, peaceful lives, but as a state at the heart of the international refugee crisis, and where IS is operative, Libya’s failure will have impacts far beyond its own borders.

To call Libya a failed state may be premature – though it could just as easily be prophetic – but Libya has been starved of cash for five years. Which nation on Earth could succeed under such restrictions?

This entry was posted in Home and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *