Fighting broke out again last week in the southern outskirts of Tripoli. At least 39 died and 90 were injured, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire between attacking forces from the so called “Kanyat” militia from Tarhuna, (a city 90 miles southeast of Tripoli), and defending Tripoli militias led by Abdul Ghani Kikli, Haitham Al Tajouri and Abd al-Raouf Kara who control of a good part of the city.
A tense ceasefire was reached Wednesday but indications are that it might not hold, especially since Salah Badi (from Misrata) is threatening to return to Tripoli. Badi, a former member of the General National Congress (GNC), was the military leader in the 2014 attack that destroyed Tripoli International Airport along with about 20 aircrafts from the national airlines. The airport remains closed until now.
That attack forced foreign embassies, including the US embassy, to evacuate and move to neighboring Tunisia where they continue to operate from today. Only a handful of embassies have returned to Tripoli since. The 2014 airport attack has become a turning point in post-Gaddafi Libya, albeit for the worse. It forced the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR) to move east to Tobruk, some 800 miles away, where it fell under the control of eastern tribes and more recently, under General Haftar who leads a national army he assembled.
The HoR has failed to convene over the past three years except for a few times, effectively blocking the implementation of the December 17, 2015 National Accord, mediated by the UN special mission in Libya and signed in Skhirat, Morocco.
Libya – A Country with The Largest Oil Reserves in Africa
With the largest oil reserves in Africa, Libya, a country of only six million, could be one of the most prosperous nations in the world. Once a donor to major multilateral funds, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, now Libya is in danger of becoming a failed state.
The majority of Libyans have difficulty fulfilling basic needs. Long queues in front of banks are a daily routine. People often stay outside the banks overnight in order to save their place in line in hope that they will get in the next day to receive between 200 and 400 Libyan dinars, a cash limit set by the banks. This is hardly enough to feed a family.
Prices have risen quickly, eroding the buying power of already-low incomes along with access to their own funds in banks. Bread, a basic commodity, has increased in price eightfold over the past few years. Gasoline lines can take an hour or longer. City streets are full of garbage due to poor collection service. Power outages can last 6 – 12 hours a day. Citizens are fed up with all practically every politician who still cannot find a way out and start elevating the country from this misery.
On the other hand, there are those few who have become quite rich by exploiting the political gridlock that hampered government institutions and stalled serious work on much needed reforms. The Central Bank and National Oil Company are divided with parallel ones, set up in the eastern part, although only the western ones are recognized internationally. Corruption is rampant and there are no checks and balances in place to confront it. Currency manipulation with issued letters of credit by the central bank give immense fortunes to a select few who are aligned with various political power blocs, enabling them to multiply their gains five times, taking advantage of the high level of discretion between the official central bank rate at which letters of credit are issued and the parallel market rate.
Officially, the Libyan dinar stands at 1.32 against the dollar. However, in the black market, this exchange is 6 dinars to the dollar, at a minimum. Many unscrupulous merchants and militia bigwigs with clout can have letters of credit issued at the official rate but cash it in at the black-market rate, often either importing nothing or “importing” shady merchandise, including rocks and salt stuffed in containers.
The phenomenon of Libyan militias is a long story of its own, but it suffices here to say there are young men in militias—just teenagers, perhaps 19 years old—who now have ten million euros in their bank accounts. Most have bank accounts in Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Malta or other countries. Money flows there through letters of credits or smuggled across borders.
Libya has essentially become divided into two main camps – one in the west (Tripoli) and the other in the east (Tobruk). To label the east as “secular” and to label the west as “Islamist” would be to oversimplify a significantly more complex reality. Public relations battles are raging, fueled by a multitude of foreign-based, heavily-funded satellite TV stations and by social media. Each camp is trying to paint their activities in the best light possible, knowing there are not many international media groups on the ground to verify the reality.
Why Libya’s South Region is Neglected the Most
Abdulsalam Kajman, Libyan Vice President and member of the Presidential Council representing the South, shared his frustration at our recent meeting in Tripoli. He worked hard to bring two major tribes in the South, Awlad Suleiman and Tebu, to reconcile and at the end, he succeeded. The two tribes had fought bloody battles with casualties in the hundreds. These fights were fueled by outside players seeking control of this oil and mineral-rich region.
To solidify the tribal reconciliation, he also moved to bring in Tuareg leaders, a third major tribe in the South. The two tribes signed a breakthrough reconciliation agreement in Rome on April 28, 2017. The agreement called for reparations for the loss of both lives and property from the long running dispute. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, the Presidential Council failed to act on reparations despite pressure including from the tribal leaders involved. Hostilities broke out again between the two tribes earlier this year.
Reparations could cost up to 100 million Libyan dinars which is about 75 million USD at the official rate and about 20 million USD at the parallel market rate. That is a relatively low price to pay to bring peace to the conflict-ridden region where illegal immigration, terrorists, arms, and drugs trafficking go through. The situation remains tense with President Sarraj still not allocating funds for the required compensation.
“It is mind boggling how President Sarraj could miss such a great opportunity to support reconciliation so badly needed in the turbulent South region, a home to major oil fields and even critical water sources feeding the coastal region through the man-made river, while reparations have been paid in other disputes or civil unrest all over the country. One can speculate that Mr. Sarraj is careful not to antagonize General Haftar by not providing compensation that would bring peace to the South, while General Haftar continues his effort to gain control over the South region. Haftar established military posts but has not been able to get people to join his army. Divisions between tribes helps in his efforts to gain footing there” Kajman told me at our recent meeting in Tripoli.
Support (or not) for the Reconciliation Based on Complex Political Interest
National reconciliation efforts have been sporadic in the absence of transitional justice. In 2013, The General National Congress passed the Law (No. 29) on Transitional Justice that would have provided a solid basis for reconciliation. However, the law has never been applied in the absence of effective implementation tools and means by the judicial and security systems.
Most reconciliation efforts were made by well-meaning, ad-hoc community, tribal leaders and civil society organization. The High Council of Reconciliation, formed from many such organizations, has been successful in arranging cease-fires and peace agreements in many conflict areas.
For reconciliation efforts to have lasting effects, reparations should be paid to those affected for damage or loss of property, or to families of those killed in conflicts.
There have been only few and limited cases where reparations were paid. The Misrata-Tawergha conflict has been amongst the most severe, long running and emotionally-charged conflicts in Libya. After long negotiations and oppositions by many groups in Misrata, an agreement was reached earlier this year, supported by the Presidential Council and personally by President Sarraj, calling for the return of the people of Tawergha to their city.
In 2012, Tawergha was ransacked and turned into a ghost town by groups from Misrata. It was collective punishment for the role some Tawerghans (loyal to Gaddafi) played in the months-long, bloody and brutal siege of Misrata. This particular conflict has racial overtones given the Tawerghans’ darker skin. The entire population was forced out as refugees to other cities, mainly to Tripoli and Benghazi. Besides militant opposition to the Tawergans’ return to their hometown, there is need to build infrastructure. In the reached agreement, reparations have been called for, but payments are yet to be applied, and while prisoners have been released from Misrata jails, there are still people from Tawergha unaccounted for.
In Libya, it is hard to trace the true political reality and reasons behind various political and military moves. In a severely divided country, every faction is trying to position itself as strongly as possible. In such a political environment it is indeed hard to bring about much-needed reconciliation to break the gridlock and start moving the country forward to social cohesion and economic development.
The city of Misrata, known for its entrepreneurial spirit, may well serve as a role model for bringing reconciliation and development to Libya. Misrata supports the new government in Tripoli (established as the outcome of the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement), but also supports General Haftar’s military in the East. Support of both is not unconditional. Rather, it is a balanced and logical approach to Libya’s complex political climate.
What’s Next for Libya?
Since last September, the 5th special UN representative for Libya has been trying to rescue the Skhirat Accord, to no avail. Deep disagreement between the HoR and Higher State Council (a body created in the Accord from remnants of the GNC) failed to agree on reforming the Presidential Council (PC) and its Government of National Accord (GNA). They failed to agree on a roadmap for holding a referendum on a draft constitution and national elections as well.
These two tasks need action by the HoR but it has failed miserably to even convene to debate the issues. I tend to agree with those of the opinion that the new elections in Libya should come after the security situation has improved significantly. The current procrastination by the HoR in Tobruk on announcing national referendum on the draft constitution (presented to them nearly two years ago) and issuing a new election law for parliamentary and presidential elections have little to do with “political differences” and much to do with the myriad of benefits that MPs enjoy.
If elections are called for, a new HoR representatives would be elected, most certainly not to include majority of current ones, knowing how widely unpopular they have become, throughout the country. They live either in Egypt or Tunisia and spend little time in Libya to tend to the matters they were elected for. Little wonder why often there has been no quorum. The international community needs to step in to help break this gridlock. It should threaten to freeze private bank accounts and properties outside Libya.
The recent bold statement by Khalid Meshri, the President of the High State Council of Libya based in Tripoli who offered to come to Tobruk without any preconditions in an effort to break the political gridlock, is worthy of support. Encouraging Libyans to engage in economic reforms will help the reconciliation process as well. New elections are the best hope for bringing in new (and popular) leadership that would have a mandate for uniting the divided institutions, army, security forces, to control corruption and start serious reconciliation efforts, economic reforms and development.
Political and ideological differences and different special (economic) interests are splitting apart leaders in Libya now. Nonetheless, they need to keep sitting at the table, together, until compromised solution to benefit the entire country and all Libyans is reached. I will be returning to Libya, visiting both East and West, with the same message, again.
Author: Dr. Sasha Toperich
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