Tripoli Cannot Impose Unity on Libya

Libyan pro-government forces pose for a photo as they patrol a rural area on the outskirts of the eastern coastal city of Benghazi.


Tripoli Cannot Impose Unity on Libya

Nate Mason and Jason Pack

21 Apr 2016

With pressure from militias and a growing ISIS presence, can Libya's Government of National Accord really exert control?

Central to enthusiasm over Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) arriving in the capital at the end of March is the notion that a central authority can control the country. The new government in Tripoli is the culmination of 18 months of top-down UN-mediated negotiations. Its leaders were handpicked by Western ambassadors and the UN's special envoys to Libya. They are meant to take control of Libya's institutions, lead reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, and unify the Western and Libyan fight against ISIS, including lodging requests for foreign military assistance. However, observers should not overestimate the likelihood of central control.

The new government is the fruit of long negotiations.

While the Central Bank may be able to turn salaries to militias on and off like a " tap," almost every militia has its own leverage over the government. For example, Khoms, a coastal town in central Libya, can turn off the electricity for much of Tripoli if the militias there feel shortchanged. Several militias south of Tripoli can turn off the water supply to the capital, while others can shutdown its major highways. The eastern coastal cities of Ajdabiya, Brega, Tobruk, and even far-away Kufra can shut off oil production at a moment's notice if they so choose. In the West, the Amazigh, or Berber, militias have periodically closed the Greenstream pipeline to Italy.

Even casual observers know that Libya's post-Gaddafi governments have lacked a monopoly on violence. It is important to remember that, just because a UN-mediated government has landed in Tripoli, does not mean it wields power.

Consensus or the barrel of a gun?

Libya is a consensus-driven society. It requires bottom-up conflict resolution to end the hostilities and refocus attention on rebuilding the country. The greatest obstacle to consensus, however, is fear among militias that they and their hometowns will not get a fair share of the spoils when the conflict ends. This, rather than religious or ideological concerns, is what motivates most militias. Major groups like those from Misrata and Zintan in the west, Ibrahim al-Jathran, leader of the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) in the oil crescent, and Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army militia in the east routinely accuse each other of being either Islamists or Gaddafi loyalists.

To the extent that these militias have objectives beyond money and power, the main difference between them is whether they want to preserve any elements of the old regime or start from scratch.

For this reason, the GNA must start talking about oil revenue now. It needs to make clear how municipalities will get their share, rather than insisting they buy into a national government that will make those decisions in the future.

ISIS is focusing on eastern Libya at present.

ISIS continues to expand its influence, mostly focusing on the east at present. The group reportedly brought in more foreign fighters recently in an effort to target oil facilities that it probed previously. The threat of attack on oil ports, wells and pipelines from the ISIS-controlled towns of Bin Jawad and Nawfaliyah remains extreme. After the ISIS attacks on al-Bayda field on 2 April, three key oil fields were evacuated on 8 and 9 April at the request of the Marada Martyrs brigade, an LNA-affiliated militia, due to the ISIS threat.

The eastern question

While the GNA has yet to cement its coalition of supporters in the west, its position in the east is even more tenuous. Haftar's Libyan National Army is dominant, though by no means unchallenged, there. Haftar presents himself as an anti-Islamist authoritarian.

A deal between Haftar and the new government could be perceived as allowing him dominate eastern Libya. This has the potential to stoke opposition and strain whatever coalition the GNA can build in the west, where there is much opposition to Haftar. This puts the GNA in a bind. Without some kind of accord with Haftar, there is little possibility of establishing even nominal GNA authority in the east.

The arrival in Tripoli of the GNA is a small positive step in addressing these many challenges, but foreign powers put too much confidence in its ability to exert control throughout the country. So far, its "control" is mostly merely the acquiescence of certain regional militias to its presence. It needs to negotiate a deal with Haftar or succeed in replacing him and effect a division of the oil revenue with most militias nationwide in order to cement any real power. This is going to require a national consensus formed from bottom-up negotiations on the tough issues, not fiats from Tripoli or the GNA's foreign backers.

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