Libya: A tale of two governments
Al Jazeera chronicles Libya’s path from an optimistic transitional government to a deeply divided state.
Tripoli, Libya – More than four years since the start of Libya’s revolution, the country’s two competing governments are entangled in a violent, nationwide power struggle, targeting Libya’s lucrative oil sector, which produces most of the country’s wealth, and other valuable assets, such as airports and borders.
While the fighting continues and the United Nations tries to broker peace, Libya’s infrastructure is in tatters and its funds are running out.
This week, Tripoli-based Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi was forced to resign over charges of financial mismanagement, while Tobruk-based Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni complained publicly about political practises in his own government.
“There are two timeframes,” explained Geoffrey Howard, an analyst with the UK-based consultancy Control Risks. “In the short term there will be a significant spike in violence. But over the longer term, groups seeing their economic interests harmed will force people to solve the situation.”
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Traditionally a conservative Sunni Muslim society, many Libyans believed that after former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s bloody overthrow in 2011 everything in their country needed fixing – except their observance of Islam.
However, the diverse mix of tribal groups fighting for their own interests have coalesced under government and military alliances – either the Tripoli-based “Libya Dawn”, or “Operation Dignity” in Beida and Tobruk in the east – and their local conflicts have been thrust into a larger national context.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have seized opportunity amid the chaos, surfacing in Derna and most recently in Sirte, where they are now facing off against Libya Dawn forces.
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Libya’s road to a prosperous democratic state started off optimistically in 2012 under a National Transitional Government (NTC), with the first national elections held. An influx of foreign funding and businesses, diplomats, civil society organisations and exiled Libyans returning home shared high hopes for what Libya’s future would bring.
But warning bells rang.
First, the revolutionary communities that banded together had divergent interests. For example, in Derna, known for its staunch opposition to Gaddafi, some fighters had joined the revolution in 2011 and gone to the front lines, explained Mary Fitzgerald, a long-time Libya analyst.
“Others were ambivalent about the NTC at the time,” Fitzgerald told Al Jazeera. “They claimed it was dominated by what they considered to be liberal-leaning or secular figures, so they were hesitant about fighting under the NTC banner. Some of the militants there actually sat the revolution out in Derna.”
After the revolution, the NTC was hounded by corruption charges as it paid off militia members for their fighting role, sometimes in duplicate, and inadvertently created and solidified a greater militia presence. Vast government bureaucracies changed their leaders, but all other staffers kept their jobs.
Community elders failed to halt the killings between tribes over land and resources. Benghazi, at the heart of the revolution, demanded a bigger voice. Those communities marginalised by Gaddafi’s “Arabisation” campaign felt ignored once again, as did women, journalists and activists. And very few ordinary Libyans understood who the 2012 electoral candidates were, and what the rushed elections were about.
All those regular Libyans who were stuck in the middle have given in. They are now in a very polarised environment.
Militias airing grievances consistently harassed the elected General National Congress (GNC). In May 2013, the government passed an “Isolation Law”, banning all those who worked during Gaddafi’s 42-year reign from ever taking office again.
“Islamists who backed this law knew they would not perform well in elections,” said Mohammed Eljarh, a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. “So they asked for help from armed militias and besieged the GNC and ministries successfully.”
The crisis heightened when Ibrahim Jadran – the commander of the Petroleum Defence Guards, charged with securing government oil installations – seized control of the eastern oil ports in 2013. Libya’s oil exports, reaching a post-revolutionary peak of 1.6 billion barrels per day, tumbled to a low of fewer than 300,000 barrels per day earlier this year.
In May 2014, the divisive General Khalifa Haftar, a Gaddafi-era defector back from exile as a CIA informer living in the United States, set his Operation Dignity forces in Benghazi against armed groups including the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council, a coalition of fighters including Ansar al-Sharia, accused of killing US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012.
The following month, Islamic candidates were bitterly defeated in Libya’s parliamentary elections. Fighting soon broke out at Tripoli’s international airport between the newly formed Libya Dawn coalition, led by fighters from Misrata and their Islamist-leaning allies on one side, and Haftar and his coalition, including the Zintan forces, who had controlled the lucrative site since 2011.
After a devastating battle, which wrecked Tripoli’s international airport and terrorised the city’s residents, Libya Dawn seized control of the capitol.
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Libya is now juggling two opposing governments.
“All those regular Libyans who were stuck in the middle have given in,” Eljarh told Al Jazeera. “They are now in a very polarised environment.”
First Deputy Premier Khalifa Ghwell, temporarily replacing Hassi, now spearheads the Tripoli-based government. The Libya Dawn coalition, supported by Qatar and Turkey, includes conservative Misratan businessmen, the Muslim Brotherhood, Berbers and other armed groups such as Ansar al-Sharia.
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While Libya Dawn smears its adversaries as “pro-Gaddafi loyalists”, Operation Dignity wrongly brands all its Libya Dawn foes as “Islamic extremists”.
The elected House of Representatives, now in exile, is recognised by the European Union, Egypt and United Arab Emirates. The government fled with Thinni and his cabinet to Tobruk and Beida, and are allied with Haftar’s military campaign.
In November, a ruling by Libya’s Supreme Court in Tripoli declared the Tobruk-based House of Representatives illegal and unconstitutional. This has further confused the legitimacy of the warring sides, and has so far been ignored by the Thinni government and its international backers.
Meanwhile, as political tensions mount and fighters declare their solidarity with ISIL, splits have appeared within the Libya Dawn coalition.
“It is not a surprise given the return of Libyan ISIL veterans from Syria and Iraq over the spring and summer of last year, which was accelerated by the Dawn and Dignity civil war,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The jihadist community in Libya became increasingly fragmented, with more radical youth defecting to the ISIL brand from post-revolutionary jihadi groups like Ansar al-Sharia and the older, ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group generation.”
Growing international and internal dissatisfaction with the two governments – along with continued violence and dwindling resources to finance the country’s economy, jobs and services – have made the short-term outlook for Libya appear increasingly grim.
“I thought our politicians were like angels in 2011,” said Abdul Hadi, a 22-year-old student from Yefran. “We were too optimistic and excited. I didn’t know the politicians wanted assets and power. I didn’t expect the challenges we are facing.”