Libya’s precarious state

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A 7th Brigade's tank in Tripoli

While most Libya observers focused on the endless debate about whether to hold elections in December, the situation in Tripoli precipitated into a state of emergency after violent clashes erupted between militias at the end of August.

In a meeting sponsored by French President Emanuel Macron back in May, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar had agreed that they would hold legislative elections on December 10, 2018. Both men, nevertheless, soon diminished the value of this accord by stating that nothing was put in writing.

The pros and cons of holding such elections without an approved Constitution, and in such a precarious security situation in most parts of the country, have been thoroughly discussed in Libya and abroad. However, no real decision has been made - also because Italy has proposed an alternative plan that envisages postponing the elections while empowering a technocratic government. In Italy’s plan, such a government would result from an agreement among the conflicting parties, bringing a modicum of stability and restarting the economy, with a view to giving order to the administration of the state.

In the midst of this debate came the attack by the Kanyat militia from Tarhuna, a city located about fifty miles south of Tripoli. Its target was the cartel of militias that controls the Libyan capital. The reason for the attack, according to the leaders of the militia, also known as the “7th Brigade”, was to expel the militias of Tripoli that, through a system of corruption and bribery, are exploiting Libya’s resources while keeping the population in misery.

A more nuanced explanation sees the 7th Brigade as wanting a share of those resources and a chance at becoming a main player in the capital’s security and political establishment. The 7th Brigade’s offensive was successful at first because of the surprise effect. But once the defending militias regrouped and reorganized, they were able to stop its advance, especially with the help of reinforcements from Misurata and Zintan, which succeeded in pushing it back.

However, the situation on the ground has become even more complex now that actors expelled in 2014, such as the militias from Misurata and Zintan, are now back in town. Notably, one of the militias from Misurata, led by Salah Badi, sided with the Tarhuna brigade, exposing a fracture within the armed forces of Misurata. It is difficult to say what consequences this will bring, or if the 7th Brigade attack itself will have an effect on the fragile equilibrium between the different forces inside the capital. Add to this the fact that Libya is also plagued by terrorist organizations. The latest terror attack against the office of the National Oil Corporation in Tripoli, which created havoc in one of the few functioning institutions in Libya, was likely carried out by an Islamic State cell in Tripoli.

For the time being, the truce between the militias brokered by the UN on September 4, 2018 seems to be holding. However, there are simultaneous reports that the various militias are moving more equipment and weapons into the city, leading many to think that the truce is only a tool allowing the contenders to regroup and rearm.

The violence of the 7th Brigade attack and the response of the militias shattered the relatively calm situation in Tripoli. It was yet another sign of the irrelevance of the political and economic elites when faced with the militia leaders who hold a powerful grip on the country. It is apparent to Libyans and foreigners alike that no step forward will be made as long as the security situation remains fragile and power rests in the hands of the militias and in their external supporters. The role of the latter should not be underestimated.

Libya has indeed become the theater of a proxy war between international and regional actors. The situation will only be resolved through an agreement among those external actors who are intermingling in the country’s internal affairs. The domestic actors will reach an agreement based on their interests and aspirations only if they are shielded from their foreign backers’ interference.

The UN can try to lead the diplomatic effort to push back the foreign influence in the country. To do this, it would need the clear and decisive support of the United States, which unfortunately does not have a vital interest in dispensing resources and energy in Libya. Yet, the US is the only country with sufficient power to make militias on the ground listen.

American involvement may change in the future, but for the moment, the path to a solution must operate on the assumption of a light presence of the US. Whether the UN mediators can rebuild their credibility (lost during the many years of unsuccessful attempts at resolving the crisis in Libya), exert enough pressure to convince the countries involved to stop their interference, and rally behind them in the effort to reach a permanent agreement between the various militias, remains to be seen.