By Mattia Toaldo
In Libya there are very few truly national actors. The vast majority are local players, some of whom are relevant at the national level while representing the interests of their region, or in most cases, their city. Many important actors, particularly outside of the largest cities, also have tribal allegiances.
Since the summer of 2014, political power has been split between two rival governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, with the latter having been recognised by the international community before the creation of the Presidential Council – the body that acts collectively as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces – in December 2015.
Several types of actors scramble for power in today’s Libya: armed groups; “city-states”, particularly in western and southern Libya; and tribes, which are particularly relevant in central and eastern Libya.
One country, three governments
At the moment Libya has three centres of power.
The first is the Presidential Council (PC), which has been based in Tripoli since 30 March 2016. The PC is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj – a former member of the Tobruk Parliament, where he represented a Tripoli constituency – and it was borne out of the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015.
According to this agreement, the PC presides over the Government of National Accord (GNA), also based in Tripoli. The GNA should be endorsed by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) according to the agreement, but on two occasions the HoR has voted down the list of ministers.
The second centre of power is the rival Government of National Salvation headed by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell – resting on the authority of a rump of the General National Congress (GNC), the resurrected parliament originally elected in 2012 – is also based in Tripoli, although it no longer controls any relevant institutions.
In October 2016, Ghwell tried to reassert himself but failed to gain wider support. The vast majority of the members of the GNC (also known as the “Tripoli Parliament”) have been moved across to the State Council, a consultative body created under the LPA which convenes in Tripoli and is headed by Abdul Rahman Swehli, a Misratan politician (and HoR member) who had previously been threatened with EU individual sanctions.
The third centre of power is made up of the authorities based in Tobruk and al-Bayda, which were also supposed to work under the LPA. The House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk would become the legitimate legislative authority under the LPA but it has so far failed to pass a valid constitutional amendment to enshrine itself as an authoritative institution.
Instead the HoR has endorsed the rival government of Abdullah al-Thinni which operates from the eastern Libyan city of al-Bayda.
The Tobruk and al-Bayda authorities are under the control of Egypt-aligned, self-described anti-Islamist general Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA). The HoR has held only two quorate meetings throughout 2016 to reject the government line-up proposed by the PC.
Prime Minister al-Sarraj is not a strong figure on his own, but some of the other eight members that make up his Presidential Council have close links to powerful stakeholders.
His deputy, Ahmed Maiteeq, who served a short stint as prime minister of Libya before being hit by a court ruling, represents the powerful city-state of Misrata, which is the biggest backer of the GNA from both a political and military standpoint, though some elements in the city remain opposed to it. Misrata’s militias were a crucial component in the downfall of Gaddafi and are still one of the two most relevant military forces in the country, having taken the lead in the fight against ISIS in Sirte.
Another important deputy is Ali Faraj al-Qatrani who represents General Haftar, who in turn heads the LNA – the other large military force. Al-Qatrani has previously boycotted meetings of the PC on the grounds that it is not inclusive enough, and has publicly called for military rule under the LNA.
Another member of the Presidential Council, Omar Ahmed al-Aswad, who represents the town-state of Zintan in western Libya, has boycotted the meetings of the PC but has recently decided to rejoin. Zintan played an important role in the fall of Gaddafi-controlled Tripoli in 2011 and has good relations today with the UAE.
A third deputy is Abdessalam Kajman who aligned with the Justice and Construction Party of which the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest component while another deputy Musa al-Kuni represents southern Libya.
Finally, Mohammed Ammari represents the pro-GNA faction within the GNC (the “Tripoli parliament”), and Fathi al-Majburi who was once an ally of the Facilities Guards (PFG) commander Ibrahim Jadhran until he was dislodged from key eastern oil ports by the LNA.
Two other institutions are based in Tripoli and play a major role in Libya’s politics.
The Central Bank of Libya, which is where oil money is paid and government money is disbursed. Though pledging loyalty to the PC, it has had an uneasy relationship with it.
The National Oil Corporation (NOC) is also formally loyal to the PC but has had relatively good working relations with Heftar’s LNA after its seizure of eastern oil ports.
The speaker of the General National Congress Nouri Abusahmain and the prime minister of the “Government of National Salvation”, Khalifa Ghwell, come from the cities of Zwara and Misrata respectively.
Their military support base is the Steadfastness Front (Jabhat al-Samud) of Salah Badi. While they have received some weapons from Turkey in the past, they were never controlled or influenced by Ankara.
Initially they represented the Libya Dawn coalition which included Islamists, the city-state of Misrata, and several other western cities (including parts of the Amazigh minority).
Both Ghwell and Abusahmain have been hostile to the PC and have been subjected to sanctions by the EU because of this. Their support base has gradually shrunk, although they still retain some capacity to disrupt al-Sarraj’s activities here and there – as Ghwell’s taking over of some buildings in Tripoli in October illustrated.
They have the power to be particularly disruptive if popular support for him decreases, or if some of the militias now supporting him decide to switch sides.
The link between Khalifa Haftar – the head of the HoR-aligned armed forces – and the Speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh Issa, is very strong.
Haftar rules from his headquarters in Marj (in eastern Libya) and has strong military control over both the al-Bayda government and the HoR in Tobruk. Also because of Haftar’s popular support in eastern Libya, very little happens in the HoR without his approval.
In 2016, Haftar’s forces made significant advances in Benghazi both against the Islamist-dominated Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council and the Islamic State group (ISIS), with his opponents now limited to pockets of territory in the city.
The Tobruk centre of power has also established its own Central Bank and its own NOC which are not recognised on international markets and which were supposed to merge with their Tripoli counteparts. The merger has, so far, not happened.
While al-Sarraj’s support base is now concentrated mostly in the west and in the south of the country, his attempts to expand influence in the east were dealt a blow when the LNA dislodged the PC’s powerful ally there, PFG commander Ibrahim Jadhran, from the oil terminals he had long controlled.
A controversial figure, Jadhran fought against the militias from the city of Misrata in the past and is criticised by many Libyans for instigating and upholding a blockade of oil fields between 2013 and 2014. For this reason, his dismissal by the LNA was widely welcomed. Many of the PFG subsequently defected to the LNA. A smaller number remain loyal to Jadhran.
Also called Tandhim ad-Dawla (the Organisation of the State) by Libyans, ISIS controlled the central Mediterranean coast of Libya around the city of Sirte until a Misratan-led operation to uproot it began in May. ISIS has carried out attacks in all major Libyan cities, including the capital Tripoli. ISIS has also had a presence in other parts of Libya, including Benghazi, where it was largely defeated by Heftar’s LNA. Its affiliates have mostly been driven out from the towns of Derna and Sabratha by anti-Haftar forces.
No other Arab country plays as powerful a role in Libya as Egypt. Testament to Egypt’s involvement in the region is the regular travel Libyan leaders make to Cairo. The relationship between Tobruk and Egypt is not just defined by significant arms deliveries but also by a shared political project: eradicating political Islam and enhancing the autonomy of eastern Libya.
For Egypt, according to some authors, having Cyrenaica – the eastern region of Libya – under the role of a leader that is friendly to Egypt (Haftar for instance) would create a buffer zone with ISIS and a territorial hinterland for any opposition to the regime in Cairo.
Nevertheless, over time Egypt has put out at least two statements that contradict this position. On the one hand, diplomats and the MFA have given assurances of their support to the UN-led political process; on the other, the security apparatus has supported Haftar, even when it was clear that he was on a collision course with UN-backed unity efforts.
United Arab Emirates
Although sharing some of the same goals as Egypt, the UAE has a more nuanced position on the situation in Libya. Reportedly, it has been more supportive of UN negotiations and ultimately less engaged on Libya since its intervention in Yemen. Nevertheless, Emirati weapons are still delivered to both Haftar and the militias of the city-state of Zintan, according to a report from a UN panel of experts.
Moreover, the UAE’s political influence should not be underestimated. Aref al-Nayed, who was Libyan ambassador to Abu Dhabi until he resigned in October, was key to the UAE’s role in Libya and was even touted as potential prime minister at one point.
Turkey and Qatar
Neither Turkey nor Qatar have the same level influence on the Government of National Salvation and its allies that Egypt and the UAE have on the Tobruk side.
Turkish companies have, according to the UN panel of experts, delivered weapons to one side (the defunct Libya Dawn coalition) and Qatar has maintained links with one Libyan politician and former jihadist – Abdelhakim Belhadj – since 2011.
Yet none of the major Libyan actors respond to input from Ankara or Doha the way that Tobruk aligns itself with Cairo’s policies.
Algeria and Tunisia
The two Maghrebian countries, while having a high level of interest in what happens in Libya, have not built a network of proxies in the country like other Arab or regional powers. Both countries have been vocal supporters of reconciliation and a political solution while closely coordinating with each other to contain the spillover from ISIS’ presence in Libya.
Mattia Toaldo is a policy fellow for ECFR’s Middle East & North Africa programme where he focuses on Libya, Israel/Palestine and migration issues.