Libya’s Fractured Political Landscape: Fraying Alliances and an Uncertain Future

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27 Sep 2022

Over the past few years, parties to Libya’s protracted conflict have aligned themselves into two main camps. They are commonly known as the east and west camps based on the geographies under their control. However, a simmering undercurrent has caused increasing divergence in the interests and visions of the constituents of each camp.

A political project that, in theory, can get past this bitter dichotomy has been taking shape since last February. Fathi Bashagha, who has historically been on the western side of Libya, has been more receptive than ever to eastern Libyan camp factions. This rapprochement demonstrated that the political landscape in Libya was and continues to be fluid, with each faction’s actions determined by their self-interest. Bashagha attempted to lead a new government to position himself as the architect of a genuine national unity project. His bid contrasted the fictitious one achieved with Abdel Hamid Dabaiba’s March 2021 inauguration as prime minister.

With Bashagha’s repeated failure to enable his government to function by seizing control of the capital and Dabaiba’s success in tightening his security grip over Tripoli on August 27, 2022, the “genuine unity” project has collapsed, and its prospects have become more limited than ever before. Aftershocks from this pivotal moment in Libya’s more than a decade-long conflict are the most consequential effect. The failure to impose a government with the support of the country’s east and west has led to the resurgence of long-standing tensions between the two regions and stoked fear of greater insecurity. It has also revealed that the perceived alliance between Bashagha and the eastern Libyan camp has been shaky and that the constituents of this camp are significantly at odds.

In this report, we look at how Bashagha’s failure to enter and control Tripoli has affected the Libyan conflict’s overall trajectory and the current and potential alliances between the various parties.

Breakdown of Domestic Coalitions

Fathi Bashaga’s failure to seize Tripoli was a catalyst for a chain of events that eventually brought down the alliances on which the two parties now in power in the country’s east and west relied.

1. Abdel Hamid Dabaiba: Through a proactive operation that prioritized speed, narrow scope, and pin-point accuracy, Dabaiba could seize complete control of the capital. Militias loyal to him successfully expelled Bashagha’s forces from Tripoli and took control of all their command centers in and around the city. [i] Dabaiba’s resounding victory was ensured by using drones, which was crucial in stopping Bashagha’s militias from advancing on the capital. [ii] The use of drones shows how influential foreign actors have been in deciding the outcome of the recent chapter of the Libyan conflict in favor of Dabaiba. This time, it could be attributed to American approval and Turkish execution via Bayraktar drones.

However, after this episode, the western region’s more powerful cities have grown hostile toward Dabaiba. The city of Misrata, where Fathi Bashagha and his loyalist militias still hold sway, is now more fractured than ever. Major General Osama Juwaili, a Bashaga loyalist, commands most of Bashagha’s forces in Zintan. Nevertheless, following drone strikes on August 27, Juwaili was forced to evacuate all of his Tripoli headquarters.

The same holds for the city of Zawiya, where militias are affiliated with the Bashagha government, particularly given that Issam Abu Zreibeh, the government’s Minister of Interior, is a native of this city. This comes on top of the political tensions building up between the Dabaiba government and Khaled Mashri, the head of the Supreme Council of State, who also hails from  Zawiya.

Warshafana, a city historically linked to the Gaddafi movement, and the most active militias, led by Muammar Dhawi, had recently allied with Fathi Bashagha, turned into a ground for skirmishes in the two weeks that followed the Tripoli blitz. Moreover, had it not been for mediation that resulted in an agreement to avoid escalation in the city, these clashes would likely escalate. [iii]

Therefore, Dabaiba and his supporters are more concerned with consolidating power in Tripoli and its environs than building social and military alliances with parties in the western region. Bashagha’s recent gamble may provide an easy interpretation of the current chapter of the Libyan conflict. However, the larger trajectory of events may require a closer look. Dabaiba’s immediate priority appears to be retaining power rather than contesting elections, which would typically necessitate him to form alliances with large voting blocs in Libya’s most populous western cities.

2. Khalifa Haftar: As alliances in Dabaiba’s camp disintegrate, there is an unmistakable retreat in his adversaries’ camp. One might sum up the rising tensions and brewing animosity within this camp as follows:

  • Bashagha has witnessed a decline in public support from the General Command of the Armed Forces in eastern Libya. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s spokesman, Major General Ahmed Mesmari, said the General Command would not participate in the anticipated battles to take control of Tripoli [iv] before August 27. After Bashagha’s army was routed, Mesmari made new statements that essentially said the same thing. [v] Additionally, except for Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh’s continued political support for the Bashagha government, there is no evidence of contact between Bashagha and the actors in eastern Libya.
  • Hostility has recently flared between Field Marshal Haftar’s forces and those still loyal to Gaddafi’s regime. For instance, during a recent anniversary celebration of the Al-Fateh Revolution in Qasr Buhadi, south of Sirte, Haftar’s forces besieged the town. It attacked residents who had flown the green Gaddafi flag. The standoff has become particularly dangerous, to the point where the UN mission has had to issue a statement condemning the incident. [vi]
  • When Haftar curtailed his support for Bashagha and the latter’s militias in western Libya, and when tensions flared with Gaddafi’s supporters, Haftar made statements suggesting that his forces may intervene to end the ongoing power struggle. Two days after the clashes in Tripoli, he said, “We did not build the national army to stand by and watch as our dear Libya was dragged into the abyss by abusers.” [vii] Days later, Haftar’s forces staged war games with live ammunition in the city of Benghazi. [viii]

Haftar’s current alliances do not seem to support his threats to intervene in the conflict in the capital city. He withdrew his support for Bashagha and consequently lost the military power provided by Bashagha’s militias in western Libya (the largest military bloc outside of Dabaiba’s control). On the other hand, despite the large number of Gaddafi regime loyalists living in the western region, Haftar’s hostility against them only grew. It is also ironic that Haftar made these threats while visiting Kufra, the most remote city in the country’s extreme southeast. The city is farthest from the capital, and its inhabitants are not likely to sway the outcome of any military operation aimed at seizing Tripoli on his side.

Political Uncertainty

Given the breakdown of most coalitions and the impossibility of resolving Libya’s conflict through force, the country’s political process is currently shrouded in unprecedented uncertainty, as explained below:

1. UN Role: The United Nations mission in Libya is struggling because of the lack of a coherent plan to settle the conflict. When former envoy Jan Kubis resigned in November 2021, the Security Council could not agree on a replacement due to internal disagreements. As a result, American diplomat Stephanie Williams was appointed an advisor to the Secretary-General on Libyan affairs. However, despite her best efforts, she could not lead the settlement process due to growing animosity between the various parties involved in the conflict. Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily was sworn in as a new envoy on September 1, 2022, after a contentious process that began over nine months earlier.

Bathily has been in his position for more than two weeks, and we are yet to hear a word on his plans to steer the settlement process in the right direction. Despite skepticism regarding cooperation from some actors who did not welcome Bathily’s nomination, the new envoy could disclose his vision for Libya during the annual meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. The Dabaiba government, for instance, had earlier voiced formal opposition to the appointment of the Senegalese diplomat because he lacked the necessary qualifications. [ix] Algeria’s position is also noteworthy in this context after Algiers relentlessly sought to install Sabri Boukadoum, a former Algerian foreign minister, in this role.

2. Conflicting Paths: Recent developments in Libya have heightened concerns that the situation will only become more heated and complicated. On the one hand, the constitutional chamber of the country’s Supreme Court is back up and running, [x] which threatens to open the door to contesting the constitutionality of a wide range of laws and rulings made by the two ruling factions. The Supreme Court is also at odds between the Tripoli-based current members led by Muhammad Hafi and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who appointed new members to the Court under an amendment endorsed by Parliament to the Law of the Supreme Court. [xi]

Meanwhile, Imad Seih, the head of the High National Elections Commission, declared that the force majeure that had previously prevented elections had been lifted. He said that the delay in passing laws was the primary cause of the force majeure[xii] This remark, delivered in the second week of September, increases the already high level of uncertainty around the fate of the elections. More effort needs to be made to clarify the facts behind the end of force majeure. Conflicts between the Libyan parties about electoral regulations will likely be contested in the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.

Media outlets have recently pushed for talks on the potential formation of a third government to end the current power struggle between Dabaiba and Bashagha. Although Aguila Saleh, while on a visit to Turkey in early August, rejected the “third administration” proposal as an endgame to the conflict, [xiii] a UN Security Council’s statement on September 1 thrust the idea back into the spotlight. The Council stressed the importance of a national dialogue and reconciliation process that can unite all of Libya under one legitimate government that can speak for all of its citizens. [xiv]

3. Foreign Roles: External influence raises concerns about the future of the Libyan peace process. Most Libyan leaders’ overseas visits result in vague and repeated pronouncements about elections being the only way out of the crisis, without disclosing any information or advancements about the future of the peace process. A Berlin meeting, held on September 8-9, [xv] had the same results, highlighting the importance of the elections. [xvi] This insistence on elections raises concerns about the short-term priorities of the settlement agenda in light of the Security Council’s call for the formation of an all-encompassing government.

Uncertainty continues to surround the roles of regional actors in the settlement process in Libya. Although Turkey managed to push Bashaga to proclaim a withdrawal from using force to settle the dispute over the government, the latter has continued to cling to his government, indicating that there is no sign of consensus on a definitive solution to the crisis.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s confrontational statements against the Dabaiba government during recent Arab League meetings have made it more difficult for Egypt to play an active role in resolving the current crisis over Libya’s government. It leaves Egypt only a sponsor of the constitutional process between the House of Representatives and the State Council. In contrast to Egypt’s hard line against Dabaiba, Algeria continues to back the Tripoli government. Finally, and somewhat unexpectedly, Qatar returned to the Libyan issue by hosting Dabaiba and Saleh back-to-back in the second week of September. Qatar’s role at this stage is unknown.

Scenarios

Implications for the future of the current crisis in Libya are contingent on the interplay of the following dynamics:

  1. The UN envoy’s vision and agenda for the settlement process;
  2. The potential for protecting foreign actors’ interests through formal channels;
  3. The attempt of those left-out to profit from the frustration on the Libyan streets.

Considering these, the following are the most likely scenarios for the course of the Libyan crisis:

First Scenario: An all-encompassing government: This scenario presupposes that existing divisions can be bridged by naming a compromise figure to lead a new government. Given the previous years’ experience, the move to establish a government supported by the international community would usually materialize through the installation of political leadership from the country’s second or third political tiers rather than the parties directly vying for power. Despite proposals for compromise solutions such as reshuffling the Dabaiba government and onboarding figures loyal to rival factions, the crisis has deepened in recent months, making the conflict appear to be a personal dispute between Dabaiba and his adversaries.

The likelihood that this scenario comes to pass rests on the foreign parties’ continued disagreements over the settlement’s ultimate status and their difficulty coming to an election-related agreement that prioritizes establishing stability in the near term. If the constitutional question proves challenging to overcome, the incoming UN envoy will play a pivotal role in pushing for this outcome.

Second Scenario: No change in status quo: This scenario is premised on the assumption that the country will remain as divided as it is now. It assumes that the coalitions will continue to fracture among the parties that share political and military power and among the marginalized groups. As a result, neither side will be able to strengthen its local coalitions, rendering it more difficult to either compel a shift in the status quo or negotiate a new peace agreement.

The likelihood of this happening increases as different factions in Libya come to terms with how tough it will be to achieve gains that transcend the profits they currently derive from their standing in the conflict. Those in charge in the country’s eastern and western regions will continue to reap benefits from the current situation compared to those cut out of power, like Bashagha and his militia allies.

The continuation of disagreements among regional actors, and the need for a stable flow of Libyan crude, which is the United States’ top priority in the north African Arab nation, lend additional credence to the likelihood of this scenario playing out.

Third Scenario: A radical shift in Libya’s political landscape through the ballot box: This is the best-case scenario for removing the majority of the current political class, restoring the people’s will, and ensuring the peaceful resolution of the political conflict. However, for this scenario to play out, institutional safeguards going beyond elected posts must be put in place to protect the interest of powerful foreign actors, particularly in the oil, banking, and military institutions, where the top positions are shared in a balanced manner. A successful example is the negotiation process between Haftar and Dabaiba in Abu Dhabi to replace the National Oil Corporation’s leadership. Moreover, with its economic and security implications, the oil question served as a point of convergence for both Washington and Moscow’s interests.

If this scenario receives support from abroad, it is anticipated to be brought about by mobilizing the Libyan street against the country’s ruling political class. It can manifest through various protests, such as those that the nation saw in mid-2022, including vigils, protests, and sabotage operations in Tobruk, Tripoli, and Benghazi. Some parties currently shut out of politics would possibly be among those stoking and profiting off public resentment.

Fourth Scenario: Resurrecting wartime alliances: This scenario posits that today’s adversaries will band together to resolve the country’s conflict through military force. Haftar’s forces may ally with Bashagha and his militias against the Dabaiba government. Likewise, Haftar may ally with the pro-Gaddafi cities south of Tripoli, as happened during the 2019-2020 Tripoli War orchestrated by Russia. Bashagha and his allies might stay on the sidelines of the conflict for the time being to position themselves for future success without taking on any further political or military tolls.

However, it is only possible to resort to such a scenario and turn Libya into an arena for settling accounts with an international green light, especially in light of the current confrontation between Russia and the West. A move by Haftar and the National Oil Corporation to obstruct oil flow or one by Dabaiba and the Central Bank to tighten the financial noose on the eastern region may act as the likely catalyst for this scenario.


[i] “Tripoli’s Clashes: Millions of Spoils and Changes in the Militias Map,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 4, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/2M6wr

[ii] “Al-Dabaiba confirms he received Türkiye’s support for a road map,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 4, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/QqMjJ

[iii] “Military and social components meet and agree to spare the southwest of Tripoli the war,” Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, September 10, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/CU6YB

[iv] “Mesmari: The drums of war are beating in Tripoli, and we are not a party to the conflict,” Bawabat Al-Wasat, August 24, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/3WR75

[v] “Mesmari tells Nova: We do not support any party in the Tripoli clashes,” Bawabat Al-Wasat, August 30, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/2arrM

[vi] “The United Nations calls for calm in the Libyan region of Buhadi,” Youm7, August 27, 2022: (Available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/uw7U8

[vii] “Haftar warns the abusers in Libya and calls on the people to support the army to end the suffering,” Al-Arab, August 30, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/XUnwX

[viii] “The Libyan army carries out a military exercise simulating a fight against 1,000 terrorists,” Sky News, September 8, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/2yzTR

[ix] “Dabaiba rejects the appointment of Senegal’s Abdoulaye Bathily as the UN envoy to Libya,” Al-Arabiya, August 15, 2022: (Available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/mKWuR

[x] “Libyan Supreme Court Reactivates Constitutional Chamber,” Al-Ittihad, August 19, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/vhnjH

[xi] “Libya: Supreme Court advisors sworn in,” Sky News, August 23, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/DzqsM

[xii] “Seih: The force majeure that prevented the elections in the past is now over,” Libya Al-Mustaqbal, August 26, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/Pi6nO

[xiii] “Saleh denies accepting a Turkish deal to form a new Libyan government,” Al-Ain, August 4, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/Igwqh

[xiv] “Security Council Press Statement on Libya,” United Nations, September 1, 2022: https://cutt.us/COTe1

[xv] The United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Egypt participated in the meeting. Surprisingly, countries such as Russia and Algeria were no-shows.

[xvi] “Elections are the way to end the crisis: the conclusion of the Berlin meeting on Libya,” Al Ain, September 9, 2022: (available in Arabic) https://cutt.us/rQzPv

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