By Nicola Missaglia
After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, many different actors – political and military; Islamist and not; tribal, local, domestic, foreign and transnational – are competing with one another for power and hegemony in Libya.
What are the main forces at play today, and what are they trying to achieve? To tackle this issue and have a better understanding of the situation, we offer a brief guide to the major domestic players “on the ground”.
Who is Who in Libya
1- The Presidential Council and Libyan National Accord Government Headed by Fajez al-Serraj in Tripoli
Headquartered in Tripoli, the Libyan Presidential Council (PC) has nine members and carries out the functions of head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces. Its president Fajez al-Serraj is also Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli as well. Installed in March 2016 in the naval base of Abu Sittah, near Tripoli, the PC is a body formed under the terms of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) which was signed on 17 December 2015. Currently, the Government of National Accord is the UN-backed and officially recognized government in Libya. The legislative body recognized by the international community and in charge of the democratic legitimation of the GNA is the House of Representatives (HoR), headquartered in Tobruk, in the Cyrenaica region in the eastern part of the country. Although the House of Representatives stated its support for the al-Serraj government in a number of written declarations, to date the official endorsement the GNA should receive from the HoR, as well as general relations between these two organizations, are stymied by the great influence exerted in the eastern part of the country – hence also in Tobruk – by General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army and hostile to the Tripoli-based al-Serraj government (see below). This situation is, at least in part, one of the reasons for the inefficiency of al-Serraj’s government, leading to a growing discontent that – even at the international level – is rapidly eroding consensus for the GNA.
2- General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA)
The other major political-military actor on the Libyan scene is the powerful General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, head of the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA exerts a de facto control on Cyrenaica, in the eastern part of the country, where Haftar’s general headquarters are located (in Marj). The Libyan National Army is the General’s own ambitious definition of a broad but heterogeneous army comprised of soldiers, former police officers, special forces, armed civilians, and brigades of militias (including, it seems, salafi militants) under his command. At first, Haftar formed the LNA to serve an anti-Islamist function – with the so-called “Operation Dignity” launched in 2014 against Islamist armed groups in Benghazi – but it evolved into an authentic tool of political power. Supported politically and militarily by nearby Egypt – in turn supported by the United Arab Emirates and interested in eradicating political Islam from Libya, but also in creating an autonomous buffer zone in eastern Libya governed by a leader close to Cairo – thanks to his military strength, Khalifa Haftar de facto controls the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, the “parliament” the UN recognizes, and is able to indefinitely postpone its approval of the GNA and al-Serraj’s Presidential Council in Tripoli. In 2014, the House of Representatives itself appointed Haftar head of the Libyan National Army and, in this context, the closeness to Haftar of the Tobruk parliament’s spokesman, Aguila Saleh Issa is worthy of note. The General’s aim is to broaden and extend his power, progressively undermining al-Serraj’s leadership and forcing the international community to assess alternative options (or at least officially include Haftar in the country’s transition process). This strategy seems to have produced initial results in that the European Union (but also other international actors including the United States) has officially asked al-Serraj to devise a more inclusive cabinet and evaluate the integration of Haftar’s forces into the future governmental structure.
3- Khalifa Ghwell’s National Salvation Government
In Tripoli, there is a second power center, the National Salvation Government (also known as the “Tripoli Parliament”), led by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell. This government, Islamist-leaning and hostile to al-Serraj’s GNA, bases its legitimacy on the authority of the General National Congress (GNC) – headed by Nouri Abusahmain and built on the remains of the original parliament elected in Libya in 2012 – but is recognized neither by al-Serraj’s GNA nor by the UN. Ghwell and Abusahmain’s hostility to the GNA has led to sanctions levied by the European Union. Today most of the members of the General National Congress belong to the State Council, a purely consultative body created through the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) that meets in Tripoli. Although the popular consent on which, in recent years, both the National Salvation Government and the GNC founded their legitimacy is progressively eroding – it was concentrated mainly in the heterogeneous and now dissolved “Libya Dawn” coalition, which included Islamist factions, the city-state of Misrata (now pro-GNA) and various cities in western Libya – it is still able to undermine the efficiency of the GNA and al-Serraj by means of acts of sabotage, and to erode the latter’s already precarious legitimacy. On October 14, 2016, for example, Ghwell attempted a (failed) “coup d’état” against al-Serraj’s government.
4- The “Eastern” Government of Abdullah al-Thinni in al-Bayda
In eastern Libya, in the city of al-Bayda near Tobruk, there is a third center of power, consisting in a government led since March 2014 by Abdullah al-Thinni, who succeeded Ali Zeidan as Prime Minister. This government is heir to the ad interim transition government elected after the fall of Qaddafi and, officially, should transfer (or should have transferred) its powers to al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord, recognized by the international community and instituted in virtue of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) in 2015. However, this transfer of powers has not yet occurred, officially because the Tripoli GNA has not been given a vote of confidence by the Tobruk House of Representatives, which for the time being seems to back precisely the government of the “Eastern Prime Minister” Abdullah al-Thinni in al-Bayda (who, it appears, has rejected the idea of a “unity” Government of National Accord in Tripoli because he was not anointed as Prime Minister). The key to understanding this situation can be seen in the almost complete control that General Haftar – contrary to ceding powers to the Tripoli GNA – exerts not only on the House of Representatives but also on the al-Bayda government. Both these bodies are frequently described as the “Tobruk authorities.” This situation has de facto produced the coexistence of two “competing” governments, splitting the country in two and creating a deep crisis of legitimacy of Libya’s political authorities.
5- The Islamic State in Libya
Originally installed in the eastern city of Derna in 2014, since 2015 IS consolidated its presence in Libya by taking control of the central coastal city of Sirte (Qaddafi’s hometown, greatly emarginated after his fall) and in the surrounding region, launching military and terrorist attacks on other cities, including the capital. Sirte, where the group quickly installed a system of government based on fear and upheld its own radical interpretation of Islam, was an IS stronghold in Libya throughout 2015 and until spring 2016. Since March, the Misrata militias on the one hand and the militias of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (see below) on the other – both officially supporting al-Serraj’s GNA and coordinated by it – in fact instigated a ferocious and successful military campaign against IS, culminating first in a long siege of the remaining IS troops gathered in the center of Sirte and then, thanks to air support from the United States Air Force (summoned by the GNA), in the near total liberation of the city beginning in August 2016. On 13 September 2016, Italy announced the opening of a hospital in Misrata to treat the injured troops fighting IS. Although the IS group is still present in Libya – especially in some parts of Sirte, Derna and the western city of Sabratha, as well as, in all likelihood, in the form of sleeper cells in other parts of the country – its offensive potential in Libya has now been drastically reduced.
6- The Islamist Groups in Benghazi
The main coalition of armed Islamist groups not belonging to the Islamic State operating in Libya is the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), a military coalition composed of Islamist and jihadist militias created in 2014 in response to General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity.” As its name indicates, this coalition is headquartered in the central-eastern city of Benghazi, where, to date, clashes with Haftar’s Libyan National Army have been particularly intense, and it groups together Ansar al-Sharia, Libya Shield 1, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade and several other Islamist militias. Among BRSC members, Ansar al-Sharia (formed in 2012 by militia members determined to impose the Islamic law in Libya) is undoubtedly the most numerous and powerful. An ally of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM and the Al-Mourabitoun group (both also operating in the southern part of the country), as well as Jihadist groups operating in Egypt such as the Mohammad Jamal Network, Ansar al-Sharia leaped to fame for the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American citizens. Following the fall of Qaddafi, Ansar al-Sharia organized training camps for foreign fighters, above all Tunisians, and worked hard to recruit youth radicalized by Haftar’s military campaign. Although the appearance of IS in Libya led to quite a few defections from Ansar al-Sharia – and consequently from BRSC – the group is still able to withstand attacks from Haftar’s LNA. And while relations with IS (or what remains of it) are tense because of the latter’s attempts to co-opt militants from rival groups, in Benghazi, IS and BRSC have fought together against General Haftar’s LNA on some occasions.
7- Ibrahim Jadhran’s Petroleum Facilities Guards
In the years following the ouster of Qaddafi, the so-called “Petroleum Facilities Guards” (PFG), a militia guided by revolutionary leader Ibrahim Jadhran, was present in various parts of the country and officially tasked with protecting infrastructure, oil wells, and terminals in Libya. Today the PFG have practically disbanded, but the term is still used to designate the militias, operating mainly in eastern Libya, that are still faithful to Jadhran. In 2013, the Petroleum Facilities Guard took control of a number of terminals for oil export in Eastern Libya with the purpose of selling crude. This takeover, which lasted nearly a year, is costing the country millions of dollars. On different occasions, the PFG repulsed IS attacks on oil infrastructure, and nowadays Jadhran supports al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord. In spring 2016, it took part with other militias in the GNA-led “liberation” of the town of Sirte from IS.
The Libyan Crisis – Chronology of main events
2011, February – Inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, protests erupt in Benghazi and spread to other cities. Clashes escalate between anti-Gaddafi rebels and security forces.
2011, March – UNSC authorizes no-fly zone over Libya and air strikes to protect civilians. NATO assumes command.
2011, July – The international Contact Group on Libya recognizes the main opposition group, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the legitimate government in Libya.
2011, 20 October – Colonel Gaddafi is captured and killed by rebel forces in his hometown Sirte. Plan to hold elections within 8 months are announced by the NTC. In November, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam is captured.
2012, January – Clashes erupt between former rebel forces in Benghazi, un happy with the nature of change under the governing NTC.
2012, 7 July – The General National Congress, a legislative authority, is elected by popular vote and takes power from the NTC on August 8. Tasked with transitioning Libya to a permanent democratic constitution, it is given an 18-month deadline to fulfil this goal. It is dominated by islamist forces, notably by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan party, the Justice and Construction Party.
2012, March – From Benghazi, NTC officials in the oil-rich east launch a campaign to establish autonomy for the region, increasing tension with the central NTC in Tripoli.
2012, August – Transitional Government hands power to the General National Congress elected in July. Mohammed Magarief (liberal National Front Party) is its chairman and interim head of state.
2012, September – Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia, storm the US consulate in Benghazi, killing US ambassador and three other Americans.
2012, October – General National Congress elects Ali Zeidan to the post of Prime Minister.
2013, May – General National Congress chairman Muhammad al-Magarief resigns in compliance with the new law banning Gaddafi-era officials from holding public office. The GNC elects independent MP Nuri Abu Sahmein, a Berber, as chairman.
2013, August – Petroleum Facility Guard militia blockades oil export terminals.
2014, February – General National Congress refuses to disband after its mandate expires. Protests erupt and general Khalifa Haftar appears in televised announcement declaring that the GNC had been dismantled, calling for a caretaker government to oversee new elections. His announcement is dismissed by acting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, condemning it as a “coup attempt”.
2014, March – Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is sacked by the General National Congress after a tanker laden with oil from a rebel-held port breaks through a Libyan navy blockade. Businessman Ahmed Maiteg is elected Prime Minister.
2014, May – Petroleum Facility Guard militia lifts closure of two oil terminals.
2014, 16 May – Libyan National Army general Khalifa Haftar launches “Operation Dignity” offensive against the General National Congress. The LNA leads a military assault and airstrikes against Islamist militias in Benghazi and tries to seize the parliament building accusing PM Maiteg to be controlled by Islamist groups.
2014, June – PM Maiteg’s appointment is ruled illegal by the supreme court and he resigns. A new parliament is elected (25 June) with a low turn-out and Islamists suffer a heavy defeat. Clashes break out between the new parliament and forces loyal to the outgoing General National Congress.
2014, July – Security situation deteriorates as Tripoli’s islamists and Misratan militias launch “Operation Libya Dawn” to seize the Tripoli international airport, partially destroyed by fighting. UN staff and foreigners are evacuated, embassies shut. Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia seizes control of most of Benghazi.
2014, August – General National Congress, whose mandate has expired, is forced to hold elections to a new House of Representatives, which takes power and replaces it on 4 August. Islamist parties acting under the leadership of Nouri Abusahmain (formerly president of the GNC) use armed groups to take control of Tripoli and declare that the GNC is once again the national parliament, with Abusahmain its “president”.
2014, October – UN-brokered talks between the new parliament, the government abased in Tobruk and Islamist Libya Dawn militias holding Tripoli are resumed with visit by Un Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Islamic State forces seize control of the port of Derna.
2015, January – UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva start. Libyan army and the militia alliance in Tripoli declare partial ceasefire.
2015, February – IS releases a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. Egyptian jets bomb IS targets in Derna.
2015, March – IS establishes control over port-city of Sirte and surrounding region. On March 2, the internationally backed House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk officially appoints general Khalifa Haftar commander of the “Libyan National Army”.
2015, 17 December – Both the House of Representatives and the General National Congress sign the UNSC-endorsed “Libyan Political Agreement” (LPA) or “Skhirat Agreement”. Under the terms of the agreement, a nine-member Presidency Council and a seventeen-member interim Government of National Accord would be formed, both headed by Fayez al-Serraj, with a view to holding new elections within two years. The House of Representatives would continue to exist as a legislature and an advisory body, to be known as the High Council of State, will be formed with members nominated by the New General National Congress.
2016, January – UN announces the new, Tunisia-based interim government. Neither Tobruk nor Tripoli parliaments agree to recognize it. IS attacks Ras Lanuf oil terminal.
2016, 30 March – The new, Un-sponsored, “unity” Government of National Accord arrives in Tripoli by boat because opposing forces block airspaces.
2016, April – UN staff returns to Tripoli.
2016, May – Unity government (GNA) leads military campaign to retake the town of Sirte seized by IS a year previously. Misrata militias constitute the majority of the military forces of the GNA in this operation.
2016, September – The Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar seizes key oil export terminals in the east, taking control from the central region’s Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG), headed by Ibrahim Jathran.
2016, September – Italy announces it will build a hospital in Misrata to support the GNA’s military campaign to retake the town of Sirte from IS. The hospital is operational in October, Italy’s Defense minister Roberta Pinotti announces.
2016, 14 October – A “coup d’état” attempt is conducted by the former head of the Government of National Salvation Khalifa al-Ghawil against the UN-backed Government of National Accord headed by Prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The attempted coup d’état failed.
2016, December – GNA authorities declare that IS group is defeated and drawn out from Sirte, its stronghold in Libya.
2017, 9 January – Italy announces re-opening of its embassy in Libya’s capital Tripoli as part of a broader effort to curb migration departures.
2017, 11 January – General Khalifa Haftar is given a tour of a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. The event is understood as a show of Kremlin support for the faction leader who opposes Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.
2017, 2 February – GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj meets President of the European Council Donald Tusk in Brussels. On the same day, he meets High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini. Fayez al-Serraj and Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni sign a “Memorandum” to “close” the Libya-Italy migration route.
2017, 3 February – Informal meeting in Malta of the EU heads of state to address the “external dimension of migration”. Discussion focuses on the Central Mediterranean route and on Libya, in order to step up cooperation with the Libyan authorities to “stem migratory flows, break the business model of smugglers and save lives.”
Nicola Missaglia is ISPI Assistant Research Fellow in the Mediterranean and Middle East Program.