Tim Eaton
Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
The internationally recognized government wields little power and international support is fading. If nothing changes, further armed escalation is inevitable.
26 March: The Libyan National Army (LNA) moves against jihadists in Benghazi. Photo: Getty Images.26 March: The Libyan National Army (LNA) moves against jihadists in Benghazi. Photo: Getty Images.

A year ago, Fayez al-Serraj, prime minister of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), along with seven members of the Presidential Council, entered Tripoli on a naval frigate. That it was perceived as a victory for Serraj to simply enter the city that is the nominal seat of his government underlined the challenges he faced. 

Twelve months on, little has changed. The GNA has little authority and limited legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans, and is dependent on a group of Tripolitanian militias for its protection. A corresponding void in international engagement has contributed to a rise in conflict between armed groups, provided an opportunity for Russia to step in and emboldened the competing Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar in the east.

While the GNA may persevere in the interim, it is clear that, in its current form, it is doing little more than papering over the cracks. The longer the international vacuum persists, the greater the danger of further military escalation.

Few successes

The GNA has few achievements to which it can point. In international circles, the removal of ISIS from Sirte certainly received good press. Yet, locally, such successes are far outweighed by the GNA’s failure to provide services to an increasingly frustrated and weary public.

A key reason for this has been the strained relationship between the GNA and key state institutions: the GNA has struggled to agree budgets and spending plans with Libya’s Central Bank, while the National Oil Company has continued to deal with both the GNA and the eastern-based House of Representatives in order to avoid taking sides. Last week, the company’s chairman, Mustafa Sanalla, admonished the GNA for seeking to close the oil ministry and to take over some of the National Oil Company’s role. That battle is ongoing.

The GNA’s attempts to deliver results have also been impacted by its contested legal status. Despite being recognized by the international community, the GNA has not been recognized by the House of Representatives, meaning that the GNA has not technically been ratified as Libya’s executive body.  An agreement that Serraj signed with the EU to stem the flow of migrants to Europe was rejected by a Tripoli court, which held that the GNA has no legal standing. Libya currently finds itself with no representative body that has a clear legal status, as the mandate of the House of Representatives has expired.

The above failings, along with the continuing conflict across the country, have deeply impacted Libya’s economy. Inflation is rampant, estimated at between 30-40 per cent. Government subsidies on basic goods such as bread, rice, sugar and flour have collapsed. Amid a deepening liquidity crisis, many Libyans are struggling in a way that they are not accustomed to in the oil-rich state. Crime is rampant, and militia tit-for-tat battles are making the situation worse. In January, as a result of militia politicking, an electricity blackout extended for 900 kilometres, from the Tunisian border in the west to Ajdabiya in the east. It was the largest such blackout in living memory.   

Military escalation

Conflicts between armed groups have escalated in 2017. In the east, Khalifa Haftar and the LNA continue to press forward following the recapture of the ports of Es-Sider and Ras Lanuf, after briefly losing them to an Islamist militia. The ports are a major asset: 60 per cent of Libya’s oil and gas transits through them. Brutal LNA campaigns in Benghazi and Derna also continue – videos have emerged of the LNA exhuming the bodies of Islamist leaders to parade them through the streets. 

In March, Misratan militias aligned with Khalifa Ghwell – who seeks a government of his own – were ousted from Tripoli by local militias after days of heavy fighting. This has contributed towards a power struggle within Misrata itself between hardliners who, among other things, advocate returning to Tripoli in force to reinstate Ghwell, and others who are broadly supportive of the GNA.  A Misratan offensive on Tripoli could make life for the GNA untenable.

Void in the international community

These worrying developments are taking place as a void has emerged within the international community. The mandate of the UN special representative to Libya, Martin Kobler, will soon expire.    No official announcement has been made regarding his replacement, and there are rumours that Russia has vetoed the latest candidate, Richard Wilcox, leaving Kobler as a lame duck.

There has also been a retrenchment in US policy towards Libya since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, whose administration’s views on Libya are unclear. The Obama administration’s special envoy has not been replaced, nor have many other senior positions within the State Department. The absence of a clear lead from Washington has led the US to step back from its role as a coordinator of the international response in Libya.

The EU and European states appear to have little desire to pick up the mantle left by US and UN disengagement. Meanwhile, the apparent failure of an initiative by the neighbouring states of Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia means that there is currently no official open political dialogue between eastern and western Libya.

This vacuum has provided an opportunity for Russia to increase its engagement. Moscow thus far appears to be pursuing a broad spectrum of engagement, promising political and military support to Haftar’s forces in the east, while also pursuing investment opportunities with state institutions in Tripoli.

What this means for the GNA’s future

Haftar, who was excluded from the UN-led process, will no doubt believe that the prevailing tide of international opinion is breaking in his favour, as he anticipates a convergence in US and Russian policy over the support of strongmen who hold anti-Islamist credentials. Haftar’s refusal to meet with Serraj in February is perhaps indicative of his increasing confidence and does not bode well for the restart of a political process.

Without strong international engagement and commitment, other powerful actors may also conclude that they are better served trying to improve their position on the ground than making a deal. This is a path to further violence and instability.

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