Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Two Governments in Libya

Two Governments in Libya
A Libyan coastguard vessel carries migrants rescued off the coast of al-Khums, about 120 kilometres east of the capital, as it approaches the pier in Tripoli’s naval base on February 10, 2021. Migrants intercepted off the Libyan coast object to being returned to the country, preferring to wait for humanitarian rescue ships. Photo AFP


Eventually, in January 2015, Libyan Dawn and Operation Dignity forces agreed on a cease-fire. Libya now had two governments, one in Tripoli and the other in Cyrenaica which was underpinned by Khalifa Haftar and his army. It was based in Tobruk in the easternmost region. At the same time, Haftar and Islamist forces fought each other to control Benghazi.

These two governments were not very effective. Libya’s infrastructure was wrecked and the administration had collapsed. At the end of March 2015 the prime minister in Tripoli, Omar al-Hassi, resigned facing charges of financial mismanagement. He was replaced by Khalifa al-Ghawil. At about the same time the prime minister in Tobruk, Abdullah al-Thani, complained of corruption there.

The Economy

Neither government had enough money, so much of the fighting was driven by the struggle to control and manage the hydrocarbon resources, and the revenues derived from them. It was an insoluble problem because the authority that controlled the ‘oil crescent’, the coastal region that exported the oil of eastern Libya, did not control the state institutions that sold it and received the revenues, i.e. the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation based in Tripoli. Therefore, oil and gas facilities faced frequent shutdowns and oil exports shrank.

In early 2013, Libyan oil production amounted to 1.4 million barrels per day (bdp). It was slightly over 200,000 bpd in April 2014 and picked up to less than 400,000 bpd by early 2016. Still, it was only a quarter of pre-2011 capacity.

Revenues quickly declined – from USD27 billion in the first half of 2013 to USD13 billion in the second half, when the Central Bank of Libya reportedly lost USD7 billion per month of its foreign-exchange reserves. The fiscal deficit grew from 44 per cent of GDP in 2014, to 77 per cent in 2015 and 63 per cent in 2016.

The collapse of the economy and the political structure led to fears of a complete disintegration of Libya. Islamic State was able to occupy the no-man’s-land of Sirte, between eastern and western Libya, and the Fezzan dropped away in the south, opening the way to waves of desperate migrants. Both were seen as strategic threats to the neighbouring European Union (EU).

Incursion of Islamic State

Two Governments in Libya
In January 2016, Islamic State forces set fire to oil installations on the coast of the Gulf of Sirte. The resulting plumes of smoke show up clearly in NASA photographs taken from space. Source: NASA

The civil war between the two governments gave Islamic State (IS), based in Syria and Iraq, the opportunity to expand into Libya. It recruited supporters from local tribes and Islamist militias. Ansar al-Sharia pledged loyalty to IS in exchange for funds. Then, in October 2014, IS sent its own fighters from outside and Derna became the first IS province in Libya. But IS could not hold the city because other militias opposed it and it had little support among the local population. In June 2015 a revolt began against IS and expelled it from Derna in July.

IS was more successful in Sirte where it arrived in February 2015. It took control not only of the city but of a long stretch of the coastline, an airbase, the Great Man-Made River irrigation scheme and the power plant. They also attacked the neighbouring militia centre of Misrata. They set fire to oil installations on the coast of the Gulf of Sirte. IS imposed detailed social control with its own police and sharia courts, executed those it decided were criminals and imposed tight control of communications. IS militants destroyed Sufi shrines and began a campaign against enemies they defined as apostates. Any uprisings against them were put down.

Two Governments in Libya
The structure of Islamic State was very bureaucratic and formal. This is a sheet of exam questions on Islamic law for officials. It is headed “Wilayat Barqa” – i.e. the Province of Cyrenaica and includes questions about the rules on ‘A man who has prostrated to a tomb and has called on one besides God,’ A Muslim who has sought from a man a need he is capable of fulfilling for him (i.e. homosexuality),’ and ‘A person recruited into Haftar’s army or Libya Dawn or installations guard.’ Source: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

The Fezzan

After Qaddafi’s state collapsed in 2011, the major economic underpinnings of the southern region of Fezzan collapsed. State-owned agricultural projects fell into disrepair without capital or expertise.

Most oil production stopped until 2017. Even when the oil production was in full swing, the revenues benefited the north rather than the Fezzan. The region’s oil and gas resources were a prize for whichever government had power on the coast. With no central authority to impose control, Fezzanis turned to smuggling: drugs and weapons and, more openly, people, fuel and gold.

People traffickers brought huge numbers of migrants from Niger, Chad or Sudan to Europe, via Sebha. Over 90 per cent of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa passed through Libya. The Italian interior ministry estimated that in 2016, 181,000 people attempted the central Mediterranean route, according to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). Not all reached Italy, but at the peak, in the first half of June 2017, almost 80,000 people did arrive there, often in very precarious boats via the tiny island of Lampedusa in the middle of the Sicilian channel. In 2017 it was estimated that the trade in migrants produced annual revenues of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion for the traffickers. There has been no way of stopping the traffic since then.

In the other direction, smugglers carried fuel. The price difference (in 2017) between the coast – $0.12 a litre at the official exchange rate – and Niger and Chad – approximately $1 per litre- made smuggling extremely profitable – worth perhaps $2 billion in 2017.

The discovery of gold deposits on the border with Chad in 2013 led to the development of a large, but informal gold-mining industry that at times extracted as much as 15kg of gold a day (worth about $400,000). The trade centred on Murzuq where in 2017 it was estimated that 70 per cent of the population of Murzuq was employed either in mining or transporting gold, according to the ICG report.

The rivalries between the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east played out in the south. Each side exploited Fezzani ethnic and tribal factions but there were local conflicts as well -between the Awlad Suleiman and the Toubou, between the Awlad Suleiman and the Qadhadhfa (Qaddafi’s tribe) and between the Toubou and Tuareg. These were frequently very violent.

Skhirat Agreement

The power vacuum in Sirte and Fezzan worried western governments. The European Union (EU) tried to stop the people smugglers with the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFORMED) which it set up in 2014. However, it failed to stop people smuggling.

The Libyan Coastguard, trained by the EU, was not a single organisation but was loosely organized and linked to various militia factions and divided between two arms, one under the aegis of the interior ministry and the other under the control of the navy.

It was not feasible to intervene directly. The focus had to be on the political division between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.

Between January and December 2015, the UN Special Representatives in Libya, Bernardino León, and his successor Martin Kobler, who took over in November, began negotiations with both Libyan governments, hoping for a power-sharing deal by the end of the year: a united, legitimate government to oversee a new constitution and elections, restart oil production and exports, improve the economy, demobilise the militias and expel Islamic State from Sirte.

On 17 December 2015, the UN reached an agreement at a conference at Skhirat in Morocco. The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) (or the ‘Skhirat Agreement’ as it is usually called) set up a ‘Presidency Council of the Council of Ministers’, with a president and five deputies.

Then a Government of National Accord (GNA) was formed to bridge the gap between the two rival administrations. The first president was Faiz al-Serraj, from Tripoli, who became prime minister once the House of Representatives (HoR) ratified the accord. Many members of the General National Congress (GNC) joined the High Council of State and the GNC was dissolved. The Council was supposed to oversee a cease-fire and disarm the militias. The GNA government had an initial mandate of a year, after which the HoR could extend its term.

The Skhirat Agreement won support in western Libya, where many ordinary people wanted a government to put a stop to the violence. Some militia leaders supported it, particularly from Misrata, as did the business community and officials of the Central Bank and National Oil Corporation. The GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and developed out of the Agreement, was now the only government that had wide international recognition.

With US support, the government set about expelling the IS fighters from Sirte. The campaign began in May 2016. Although the GNA’s forces quickly took the port and airport, it was much harder to force the way into the city itself. It was only after the US provided air support that the GNA could completely liberate Sirte on 7 December.

However, the GNA was not universally popular. Islamists claimed that foreigners had chosen the Presidency Council. Abdelhakim Belhaj, leader of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, opposed the accord too. There was also opposition from former members of the GNC who continued to claim that the GNC was the legitimate parliament of Libya. They were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Justice and Construction Party and some Islamist militias. They rallied around Khalifa al-Ghawil, who had briefly been prime minister on the eve of the accord. When Sarraj arrived in Tripoli in March 2016, al-Ghawil fled to Misrata but later that year he twice (in October and December) attempted to organise coups against the new government.

Khalifa Haftar

The most concerted opposition came from eastern Libya, where the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) refused to recognise the LPA and instead claimed the legitimacy of a rival government with its own parallel Central Bank and National Oil Company (NOC). It had the support of Haftar’s army. But it too was contested by the movement led by Ibrahim Jedran, a former commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard in Cyrenaica who had led a movement for the autonomy of eastern Libya.

Haftar was an independent actor rather than a puppet of the HoR. His base had been in eastern Libya since Qaddafi fell, but his vision has always been of a united country, with himself as its ruler. Indeed, he had better relations with the NOC in Tripoli than with the Benghazi version. He was also pleased to accept the support of Madhkali Salafi fighters: “As long as they respect military law and do not carry out religious preaching while in the army, they can join,” as one of his political advisors put it in 2018.

Haftar’s relations with Tripoli were similarly opportunistic. When the Libyan National Army (LNA) seized the oil crescent in 2016, the Tripoli NOC insisted on working with Haftar. That allowed the NOC control over oil operations in the entire country. Exports rose from 300,000 barrels per day in September 2016 to over 1.1 million barrels per day in early 2018 and foreign currency flowed into the Central Bank in Tripoli as a result. Yet the LNA did not receive its pay from the Bank of Libya in Tripoli but from the Benghazi-based Bank of Libya.

In September 2016, Ibrahim Jedran, who was aligned with Tripoli, tried to seize autonomous control of the ‘oil crescent’ of eastern Libya. Haftar opposed this and pushed him out. The same thing happened in 2018. But after defeating Jedran this second time, Haftar handed control of the eastern terminals to the Benghazi-based NOC. It was an impractical gesture: the Benghazi-based NOC had neither the managers nor the personnel to run oil exports, and international traders would not deal with a company controlled by an unrecognised regime. Haftar realised this and was simply using control of the oil terminals to force the Serraj government in Tripoli to audit and take control of how the Central Bank managed funds.

Then, in April 2019, Haftar went on the offensive and attempted to take Tripoli by force. He launched a lightning attack across Libya that took his army close to Tripoli. As part of his plan, Haftar sought foreign support. The UAE and Saudi Arabia provided large supplies of weapons, as did Egypt – plus an open border too. From their side, those three countries saw Haftar as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood, which partly explains why the Madkhali Salafis were welcomed into Haftar’s coalition. In Europe, the French government also saw Haftar as a protector against extremism, but also as a guarantor of French oil interests in the east.

Other European governments were just as anxious to protect their national interests by lining up with the other, Sarraj-led government of the GNA in Tripoli. In 2019 the GNA agreed to control migration and secure the position of the Italian oil firm ENI as the largest foreign oil producer in Libya. Rivalries with the other Gulf States led the Qatari government to back Serraj. But the most engaged foreign supporter of Serraj was Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s Turkey. Like the Qataris, Erdogan disliked the policies of the UAE and Egypt, but there was an economic motivation too. In November 2019, Turkey and Tripoli signed a maritime boundary agreement giving Turkey access to huge gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.

Haftar initially had the upper hand in the fighting. His troops quickly advanced close to Tripoli and by the end of April they were fighting to take control of the airport. Haftar’s forces (the LNA) however, never penetrated the city. The GNA’s troops expelled Haftar’s men from Gharyan in June even though the LNA went on to take Sirte in January 2020.

Proposed ceasefires

In January 2020, the UN, aiming to end the fighting, backed a conference of eleven countries including France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the US and the UK. On 11 January 2020, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar, agreed to a ceasefire proposed by Russia and Turkey.

The ceasefire did not hold and in March 2020 another brief one broke down within 24 hours. The fighting got worse as neither side was willing to risk defeat. In fact, advantages began shifting towards the GNA which, in May, retook Haftar’s forward position at al-Watiya air base on the edge of Tripoli. At the beginning of June, GNA finally lifted the siege of Tripoli and the LNA began to retreat. At the end of the month, Haftar started talking about lifting his blockade of the oil fields. A de facto cease-fire came into being.

In October 2020, that de facto ceasefire became a formal one, at least on paper, along a frontline between Sirte and Al Jufrah, far to the south in central Libya. Foreign fighters and mercenaries would leave, the armed forces would reintegrate into a single body, police and security forces would join a joint operations centre. Land and air routes would reopen, and there would be an exchange of prisoners.

Most importantly, the negotiators wanted to restart the oil flow. They planned to reopen the Ra’s Lanuf refinery and Es Sider oil terminal in the east. On 11 October, El Sharara oilfield in the southwest began pumping oil. El Sharara was the biggest field in the country. All this laid the ground for dealing with the most difficult problem of all: how to share national institutions like the Central Bank of Libya and distribute oil revenues between the western and eastern parts of the country.