The crisis in Libya took a new turn for the worse last week as violence erupted across Tripoli. Militias from across north-west Libya have now entered the capital, seeking to replace the infamous cartel of four militias that previously had full control of the city. Since then, a counter-offensive by cartel members has recaptured some ground. But their hegemony over the city is surely over.
One must not underestimate the significance of this event: it constitutes a paradigm shift in the Libyan political and security landscape. The militias’ move totally upends the view in European capitals that security in Tripoli and more generally had been improving, and that Libya could therefore now advance towards a new political process and elections. Now, French-backed polls due later this year appear less likely than ever to take place. But, even more worryingly, the capital could enter a new cycle of yet more destructive conflict if a UNSMIL-backed ceasefire agreed this week is not quickly made secure, including putting in place new security arrangements which include the new arrivals to Tripoli.
The violence is likely to have a lasting effect on how Tripoli is divided, its security arrangements, and the wider Libyan political process. A free and fair vote now appears impossible. And the new violence also further reveals the inadequacy of the dominant binary narrative about Libya, which pits the east of the country starkly against the west. What it should make clear is that those wishing to restore peace to Libya must embrace the country’s complexity and fully get to grips with the multiple lines along which it is fracturing. If they do not, they will not be able to form truly effective policy responses to the country’s many crises.
Politics by other means
This new escalation has been in germination all year, ever since the major power centres in western Libya – Misrata and Zintan – put their previous differences aside and established a wider alliance incorporating local towns and Nafusa mountains militias.
It still remains unclear what triggered last week’s sudden advance of the 7th Brigade from Tarhouna into southern Tripoli. Publicly, the invading militias have justified their move on the basis of the rampant corruption of the cartel’s and the Government of National Accord’s corruption, and the corresponding decline in the quality of life of Tripoli’s citizens.
A statement by the Speaker of the House of Representatives may have provided the political prompt: Aguileh Salah announced that the House plans to proceed with presidential elections ahead of a constitutional referendum. Despite the militia alliance’s altruistic rhetoric, it seems to be aiming to institutionalise itself as the capital’s new security provider. This strengthens its bargaining position ahead of any new political shifts and gains it access to the same fraudulent networks enjoyed by the cartel.
Initially, it appeared that the prime minister himself would fall from power. In the immediate aftermath of the violence, members of the High Council of State and House of Representatives reportedly met and contemplated issuing a formal request to remove from office the current prime minister and head of the Presidency Council, Fayez al-Serraj, in order to leverage the situation to their own advantage. Both hoped to replace Serraj with someone more sympathetic to, or even part of, their faction. They further hoped to redirect the political process away from elections towards negotiating a new Presidency Council instead. Such a move which would spare them the prospect of removal via the ballot box in the scheduled elections. In the end, however, they failed to agree among themselves on how to actually remove the prime minister.
External actors should look on the emerging security arrangements in Tripoli as one of the few entry points through which they can stabilise the situation
Meanwhile, Serraj remains in office and responded to the unfolding events by trying to institute an ad hoc ceasefire between the 7th Brigade and Tripolitanian militias, inviting Zintani and Misrati militias into the capital to guarantee the agreement. Zintani militias duly took up positions in the west of the city, but the Misratan stance remains more complex: many Misratan militias are fighting alongside the 7th Brigade, but Misrata’s main military forces have been more cautious of entering the fray. And the Misratan-led Bunyan al-Marsous alliance that displaced ISIS from Sirte in 2015 was similarly wary. The Counter-Terror Force, which is part of Bunyan al-Marsous, only advanced towards Tripoli following another invitation from Serraj.
Towards wider instability?
The attempts to depose Serraj may lead to a new executive-level agreement. This will most likely take the form of a new membership for the Presidency Council with negotiations over its composition taking place between General Haftar’s camp in eastern Libya and the new power-holders in Tripoli.
Haftar is limited to signalling from the sidelines, attempting to maintain relevance while being unable to intervene militarily or influence developments. He will undoubtedly use the situation to his advantage in bolstering his narrative that Tripoli is mired in militia-based chaos, which facilitates corruption, or what has since been called ‘the Daesh of the public purse’. Ultimately, though, if the situation ends with reinforced Zintani and Misrati positions in the capital, he will find it significantly harder to generate influence there. Such a consolidation would limit his options and make direct negotiations between his camp and Tripoli’s new masters the only credible path to breaking the status quo.
Meanwhile, Serraj’s position looks precarious – but do not write him off. He has proven an adept political survivor and may still succeed in navigating these choppy waters, especially as his opponents have already failed to agree on a replacement. By inviting forces from Zintan and Misrata into the capital, Serraj is attempting to regain the initiative and convince these western Libyan power-brokers to take a stake in his government rather than fight it.
A need for external mediation
Tripoli now faces the prospect of a new – and possibly deeply unstable – security architecture. An informal agreement between all parties to the conflict could materialise, locking in the short-term goals of those involved. But such an agreement is unlikely to be sustainable and there is a real risk of ongoing conflict for local control. Renewed competition and violence could also provide new space for increased migration flows and the Islamic State group to gather its forces.
External actors should look on the emerging security arrangements in Tripoli as one of the few entry points through which they can stabilise the situation and ensure government ministries can maintain continue functioning. On Tuesday UNSMIL convened many of the belligerents, helping secure a ceasefire that opens the door to a more concrete negotiation over a new security arrangement for the capital. But to avoid the risk of a short-term agreement which serves the opportunistic ambitions of the parties involved, UNSMIL should set out the framing of a future agreement, and it should do so with the clear support and expertise of its main backers: the United States, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. This would involve a medium-term progression towards implementing the security provisions of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, or another mechanism that provides a safe space for state institutions to function in.
The new eruption of violence in Libya should serve as sober reminder of the deep challenges facing the country, and of the dangers of rushing an electoral process before it is ready. Moving to a vote in the current climate would only feed further violent competition and dangerous ongoing escalation. Beyond Libya’s borders, a very public Italian-French rivalry is continuing unabated, with a Rome conference in the planning that is positioning itself antithetically to the meeting in Paris held in May. Such divisions will continue to impede an effective European response, distract Europeans from their duty to really understand the dynamics at work inside Libya, and pose a real danger to restoring stability to the country. Now is the time for Europeans to unite and work with renewed common purpose to the mutual benefit of all European parties and of the Libyans suffering under worsening chaos.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.