Q&A: Libya crisis explained

Al Jazeera spoke to Guma al-Gamaty about the possible scenarios to end conflict in Libya in light of the Geneva talks.

'To look at it as a conflict between Islamist and Secularists is a total over-simplification.' said al[Al Jazeera]

Nearly four years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s dictator for four decades, the country plunges deeper into the worst wave of violence. The latest casualty has been the central bank building, located near Benghazi port, which was the scene of heavy fighting between rival groups.

The UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that began last week, has brought together all parties involved in the conflict. But on Wednesday, the General National Congress (GNC) said it was suspending its participation in the UN talks and blamed the internationally recognised government for the fresh wave of violence.

Al Jazeera interviewed Guma al-Gamaty, head of al-Taghyeer party (Party for change), one of the new political parties founded after the uprising with 5,000 members and branches in about 16 cities and towns across Libya. 

Al-Gamaty, a longtime opponent of Qaddafi, has lived in exile since 1975 and went back to Libya in 2011 to be part of the unfolding political scene.

Guma al-Gamaty, head of al-Taghyeer party

Al Jazeera: Would you describe the conflict in Libya today as one which pits the Islamists against secularists?

Gamaty: To look at it as a conflict between Islamist and secularists is a total over-simplification. It is, in essence, a conflict over power and wealth. Libya, uniquely, is a very rich country with its natural resources and it has a very small population.

At the same time, Libya, after the revolution, suffered from a total power vacuum and lack of institutions because Gaddafi allowed no institutions [political or civil society] and no state building.

The vacuum was filled by militias, people who had weapons, people who could organise themselves better and quicker and that’s when the conflict started.

The competition started to control and grab various parts of governmental power to have access and tap into the wealth. That is, in a sense, what has been happening.

Although people represent it in different ways saying: ‘There is an Islamist threat, or a terrorism threat.’ But in essence it really is about power and it has a tribal element and a regional element as well.

People and militias move and organise themselves along tribal and regional allegiances and alliances and that is typical of a country that has not experienced real socioeconomic development and real state building.

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Al Jazeera: Who are the real and most influential actors today in Libya?

Gamaty: The real actors are two groups: The revolutionaries who are organised in so many different military groups or militias. They are set up along regional cities or towns. Also, in a way, tribal as well. Each city has its own revolutionaries.

Obviously in the west of Libya, the Misrata Brigades are the most powerful, the largest in number and the most organised. The city is large as well, at least half a million in population.

In Tripoli itself, there are three or four groups. Outside Tripoli, there is the Zintan militia that is very powerful and very influential. From day one, the Zintan militia set up camps in Tripoli and took control of key positions and key institutions such as the airport and the interior ministry.

They also started taking hold of all the different army barracks and in a way they started to strangle Tripoli. 

In the east of Libya, there are revolutionary brigades in Benghazi and there’s also Ansar Sharia [supporters of Sharia]. All the groups, except Ansar Sharia cannot be classified as fundamentalist, extremists or even embracing al-Qaeda or ISIL doctrine. This a misrepresentation of the fact. They might be religious but they are nationalist. 

Ansar Sharia is mainly Salafis who are saying that they want to see Islamic law be installed in Libya as the main reference for government. Not all of them are extremists except for some elements within the group.

Benghazi’s revolutionaries are in alliance with Ansar Sharia in fighting Haftar [Colonel Khalifa Hafter].

UN mediates Libyan talks in Geneva

These are the main groups in Benghazi. There are also two or three groups in Darna. One of them can be described as extremist and adopting al-Qaeda or ISIL doctrine, but the others are not.

On the other hand, Haftar has gathered around him a few hundred of the army, the old Gaddafi army and a few senior generals who knew Haftar from his days with Gaddafi and they set up what they call the Dignity movement.

They put up the slogan that they are going to address terrorism in Libya. I think the real agenda is not take out terrorism, it is to take over power. It’s a counter revolution. It is to emulate what happened in Egypt.

He got some sympathy in the beginning because people believed he could actually bring back stability in two-three months as he promised.

security arrangements, weapons, government legislative body are the key issues that need to be hammered out.

But as he started to bombard large districts of Benghazi in an indiscriminate way, people started seeing him as a failure.

On the political actors side, we have the GNC that was elected in July in 2012, and was supposed to hand over power to the new House of Representatives (HoR) elected in June 2014, and there was some problem with the handover.

So now we have GNC in Tripoli setting up its own government, and the HoR in Tobruk, with its own government. They will be in place until there is a political settlement.

The politicians themselves cannot deliver any settlement without the support of the military groups. And the military groups need the political umbrella to deliver a settlement.

I think the United Nations is working on that track – political and military. Otherwise we cannot have political settlement in Libya.

Al Jazeera: Which parties are attending the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva? And what would it take for the national dialogue to succeed?

Gamaty: I think now almost everyone is attending. Even the GNC has declared that it was only taking part as long as the dialogue takes place in Libya and not outside. On Wednesday, Bernardino León [UN representative in Libya] was in Tripoli and he was going to discuss with the GNC the logistics of where it could be held in Libya and whether it is secure in some towns.

What will make them succeed is that if all parties were willing to compromise. They need to be ready to do away with Haftar and his military operation. They need to distance themselves from him for the sake of a political settlement.

At the same time, in the west, the GNC has to rein in those revolutionaries and reach an agreement together. Otherwise, there is no point of the politicians agreeing on anything if the fighters, especially the Brigades of Misrata, do not agree to it.          

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Al Jazeera: How is the external factor and political actors impacting the Libyan conflict?

Gamaty: On the Haftar side, both Egypt and United Arab Emirates are giving him a lot of support – logistical, military and financial. This is making the situation worse.

On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar are accused of supporting Libya and the Tripoli group. Especially the Islamists. Now, we don’t see any proof of direct logistical support like military intervention or anything.

There might be political support or financial support but we cannot prove that. As far as the Europeans are concerned, we have several countries involved: Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and we have the EU and the United Nations.   

Al Jazeera: What exactly is France’s role in Libya?

Gamaty: France somehow is leaning towards Haftar and the east under the excuse that France is worried that terrorism in Libya is a real threat that its going to effect France to the extent that some politicians tried to use what happened in Charlie Hebdo affair and  link it to Libya to justify an intervention in Libya.

That’s why we think France has not played a neutral role and has vetoed a lot of positions to settle the conflict that UK and US proposed, so in a way it’s not helping.

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Al Jazeera: Do you think federalism is a good option for Libya?

Gamaty: Historically Libya became independent as a country for the first time in December 24, 1951. It became independent as a federal monarchy under the late King Idris. It lasted for 12 years and in 1963 it was abolished by the late king and Libya became one country with one central government and one central parliament.

After the Gaddafi coup no one talked about federalism until now after the revolution. People are expressing all sorts of political sentiment and expression.

The composition of demography of Libya is that 25 percent are in the east of what used to be called Seranikah, 65 percent are in the west and 10 percent in the south.

The main federalist voices came from the east, but not everybody is with federalism and so when Benghazi did the survey, only 7 percent support federalism. But in the east, there were about 12 percent.

But when you explain to people there is a decentralised local government, a lot of people will say, yes, this is a better government.   

Al Jazeera: What are the main possible scenarios to end the conflict in Libya?                 

Gamaty: One solution would be a National Unity government that would bring in both sides. Another solution is that we come up with a temporary body that acts as a legislative or supreme body to oversee the rest of the transition process until we have a final constitution and final elections.

These are the areas of compromise that are needed; security situations. Who is going to look after security in Benghazi? There have been assassinations. Who is going to take charge of Tripoli; the key government buildings and ministries for people to work in and not be at the mercy of various militias and various military groups who sometimes go as far as to blackmail these officials?

So the security arrangements, weapons, government legislative body are the key issues that need to be hammered out.

Source: Al Jazeera