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Thrust into the limelight on 17 December 2015 by the United Nations’ brokered power-sharing agreement that resulted in the creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is nevertheless no newcomer to politics. Yet he has struggled to assert his authority and is failing to unite a deeply divided country.
Born on 20 February 1960 in the capital Tripoli, he is the son of Moustafa al-Sarraj, a government minister during the Libyan monarchy (1951-1969) and one of the founders of modern Libya. He is married and has three daughters. Trained as an architect, he worked for the social security administration and the public works department and as a commissioner supervising public projects before entering politics in his 50s.
His first official position after the 2011 fall of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi was as the minister of housing and utilities at the General National Congress (GNC). The GNC was dissolved two years later and replaced by the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR), following parliamentary elections on 25 June 2014. Al-Sarraj was elected to the HoR, which was established in the eastern city of Tobruk after the military arm of the Islamist-dominated new General National Congress seized Tripoli and established a rival administration.
In late 2015, the United Nations designated al-Sarraj as prime minister of the GNA, a position he officially assumed in March 2016, after surviving an assassination attempt two months earlier. The issues he continues to face first emerged as he was trying to form a unity government in 2016. The HoR rejected the initial line-up of ministers, which pushed al-Sarraj to meet with General Khalifa Haftar. He finally formed a government without a vote of confidence from the HoR but with the backing of France, the United States, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. With no vote of confidence, no unity and no real legitimacy, al-Sarraj’s GNA was never in a strong position to gain authority, even though the new GNC in Tripoli, led by Khalifa al-Ghwell, conceded power to him on 5 April 2016.
This vague appearance of authority was short lived, however. On 14 October 2016, the Presidential Guard in Tripoli proclaimed allegiance to the new GNC, seized control of the High Council of State, an advisory body formed under the terms of the UN-brokered agreement, and announced the comeback of al-Ghwell’s cabinet. Since then, regular fighting has broken out between al-Sarraj loyalists and al-Ghwell’s forces. Neither side had claimed a decisive victory until 16 March 2017, when armed groups aligned with the GNA took over the Rixos hotel complex occupied by al-Ghwell.
Al-Sarraj’s main rival for the country’s top job remains Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, among others, and who has refused to meet al-Sarraj on several occasions. In an interview with Fanack, Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that although the GNA leader appears weak and unable to unify the country, “paradoxically this makes him a candidate to remain in his current place in different scenarios because he doesn’t antagonize anyone”. A strong relationship with the United States could be a turning point for his position in Libya, although the Trump administration has yet to voice any official support. At the same time, al-Sarraj is negotiating a deal with the European Union to stop large numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in return for a series of aid payments.
In the face of ongoing chaos, will a former architect be able to bring about unity and stability? The results of the current power games may provide an answer to this question and determine al-Sarraj’s political future.