Following the death of Gaddafi in 2011 Libya has been in turmoil. The country has been a victim of much violence resulting from local power struggles between factions attempting to establish themselves as the legitimate power over people, land, or resources in the vacuum that has haunted Libya for years. Yet, local militias and groupings are increasingly unifying and fighting under two banners – the east and the west. The international community and the UN have been active in trying to assist in solving the crisis, and in May 2018 an agreement was made to hold general elections in Libya in December 2018. The election never took place. However, observers believe the election will take place in the first half of 2019, likely before the end of June. In the current state of Libya, one man might have the power to disregard an election.
The election in 2014 resulted in two competing governments – House of Representatives (HoR) based in eastern city Tobruk and General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli. The GNC had been in power since 2012 and denied accepting the 2014 election loss, hence the power struggle between Tobruk and Tripoli. The UN-led talks eventually led to reconciliation in December 2015, establishing the Government of National Accord (GNA) in January 2016. The agreement never led to a unification of GNC and HoR, rather, tensions increased and HoR withdrew their initial recognition of GNA. Today, GNA is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and is recognised by the UN as the legitimate authority in Libya, a view shared by most of the Western world, including the EU and the US – officially. Sarraj controls Tripoli-loyal troops and exercises most power in Tripoli and its surroundings. Sarraj has worked for economic reforms and attempted to balance power to reduce violence for democratic elections to take place as agreed. Sarraj’s actual power is, however, consolidated in the UN Security Council resolutions made in the establishment of GNA in 2015. The UN Security Council resolutions established that the Tripoli-based Central Bank and the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) were the only institutions with legitimate authority of their nature. This has rendered the eastern-based replica of these institutions powerless, forcing HoR to collaborate with GNA over oil export despite their territorial control, as no one is interested in shopping oil from an illegal actor, while the eastern-based Central Bank lacks authority to process state revenues. Libya’s economy is heavily dependent on the petroleum sector which represents 82% of total export earnings and 60% of its GDP.
Territorial Power & Natural Resources
In 2015, Khalifa Haftar was promoted to the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to HoR. Since then, Haftar has campaigned to acquire territorial control in Libya. In 2017, a three-year-long campaign on Benghazi ended as the LNA seized control. In May 2018, his LNA captured Derna, the last non-LNA controlled area in eastern Libya. Haftar has expressed that his legitimacy is based in the decision of the Tobruk-based HoR and its leader Aguila Saleh to promote him to head of LNA. Strongly indicating that Haftar will support Saleh and Saleh’s candidature for the elections. However, it seems Haftar might have other plans.
In June 2018, the ‘oil crescent’ – Sirte Basin, was claimed by a former Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). Sirte Basin holds an estimated 80% of Libya’s oil reserves, and 4 out of 5 oil terminals, the last one being in Tobruk. Within a week, Haftar’s LNA recaptured the oil crescent and used the power to transfer the oil production from the Tripoli-based NOC to the eastern Benghazi-based NOC. Libya’s eastern oil export shut down immediately as only Tripoli-based NOC had the authority to oil production. Within weeks Haftar had no choice but to reverse his decision and collaborate with the Tripoli-based NOC after the economy had plummeted.
More recently, in January 2019, Haftar began his siege in southern Libya stating that the goal was to purge the south for terrorists and criminals. The south has been a safe haven for militias from AQIM, Boko Haram, and ISIS as well as opposition fighters from Chad, Mali, and Sudan. At the beginning of February, LNA conquered Sabha, south-west Libya’s most strategic and powerful city. Despite earlier opposition to Haftar in the region, the lawlessness and lack of prosperity have led Haftar to assume a role as a liberator in Fezzan acquiring the support of the tribes in the region with the liberation of Sabha. Shortly after the success in Sabha, Haftar moved on to liberate the Sharara oil field with the help of Tuareg tribesmen now loyal to him. In effect, Haftar now controls east and southern Libya with the help of LNA and local tribes and militias loyal to him. Additionally, 80-90% of Libya’s oil production is based in Haftar-controlled territory, most notably the Sharara field and the oil crescent. His only reason not to seize absolute power, for now, is the UN Security Council resolution forcing him to collaborate with GNA.
In his efforts, Haftar has achieved help from abroad – Egypt has reportedly conducted airstrikes in eastern Libya on behalf of LNA and Egyptian arms has been discovered in LNA depots. UAE has funded Haftar’s operations and is undoubtedly backing the Field Marshall. Russia has armed, and reportedly, sent men to assist and train LNA forces. Meanwhile, as Haftar has increasingly established dominance in the oil crescent, France and Italy have allegedly increasingly turned from officially backing GNA to backing Haftar behind the curtains. A change due to the French company Total and Italian company Eni’s petroleum interest and investment in Libya. It is also reported that the US is striking deals with Haftar, one of which allegedly allows a US military base in Libya, believing that Haftar is the best fit for achieving a stable Libya.
With the current control over territory and infrastructure combined with the international backing, one might wonder if Haftar will continue his ‘war on terrorism’ northwards towards Tripoli or if he will pause action to allow elections? If the election ends in an unfavourable result, will he accept it? The future of Libya depends on the success of the election, which is in the hands of the man who currently controls the territory, hence the natural resources, thus the heart of the economy.
Image: Image: Abdullah Doma / AFP / Getty Image / Bloomberg (link)
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