The Sun Sets on Libya Dawn

7 MINS READApr 2, 2016 | 13:20 GMT
Libyan rebels are silhouetted at sunset on March 7, 2011. Three years later, an Islamist coalition would mount another revolt meant to topple the country's newly elected government.
Libyan rebels are silhouetted at sunset on March 7, 2011. Three years later, an Islamist coalition would mount another revolt meant to topple the country's newly elected government.

For the Islamist government in Tripoli, the arrival of a new unity government in the Libyan capital spells the beginning of the end of its hold on power. The General National Congress, or GNC, has controlled Tripoli since the violent Libya Dawn uprising in 2014. Now a newly formed unity government is ready to take over the country, and the GNC is more or less powerless to oppose it. After months of organizing in Tunis, the unity Government of National Accord (GNA) entered Libya's capital March 30. Less than 48 hours later, the prime minister of the GNC, Khalifa Ghweil, finally rescinded his threats to violently force the new government out and fled to his hometown, the coastal city of Misrata.

The announcement from the prime minister that the two governments should come to a peaceful agreement highlights the GNC's rapidly deteriorating position. Plagued by internal divisions and threats from the Islamic State, the coalition has watched its partner militias revoke their support one by one, some defecting to the new GNA and others declaring themselves neutral. Meanwhile the GNA, which enjoys international recognition, is beginning to consolidate power, first over the capital, then over the rest of the country, particularly the resistant east. But the GNA's greatest challenge is not its opposition but rather the shaky foundation upon which it is built. At its heart, it is not one government so much as a collection of parties temporarily putting aside their deeply diverging interests. For now, they share a common enemy in the Islamic State, but that may not be enough to hold them together for long.

The GNC has had a tumultuous two years. It came to power after the 2014 parliamentary elections, when an Islamist political bloc based out of the northwestern city of Misrata launched a rebellion to overthrow the newly elected government. The uprising resulted in a country divided between two competing governments: the GNC in Tripoli and the internationally recognized government in the northeastern city of Tobruk.

But the GNC's inefficacy and internal squabbling in Tripoli helped contribute to the rise of the Islamic State in the city of Sirte. Militias such as Battalion 166, all almost entirely composed of the GNC's Misratan supporters, struggled to keep the terrorist group out of Sirte and accused Tripoli of providing insufficient support. Many of the militias signed cease-fire agreements with anti-Islamist groups so they could focus on fighting the Islamic State. Finally in May 2015, Misrata's most powerful brigades — the Halbous, Mahjoub, Hittin and Battalion 166 — all pledged their support to the U.N. negotiations for a unity government. None have wavered since.

The GNC's dwindling support base was reduced to the Tripoli-based brigades and a few Misratan holdouts collectively known as the Steadfast Front. Then the Steadfast Front itself started falling apart. Many of its members are small militias operating within their communities, such as the Knights of Janzour, based in Tripoli's Janzour suburb. These small groups are better suited to policing and defending their own communities than mounting a broader offensive. Many of them, too, began to throw their support to the new GNA, or at least to declare themselves neutral in the struggle between it and the Islamist government in Tripoli.

Only the most hard-line militias, such as those directly loyal to Salah al-Badi, still support the GNC. Even parties within the GNC have withdrawn their support for its prime minister: The second-largest party within the GNC, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, has backed the GNA. Ghweil has been a blustery opponent of the GNA, threatening to keep the new government out of Tripoli with police and military action. But in the end, his threats were a bluff made from a position of profound weakness. In all likelihood, he is already planning his exit strategy.

A Push for Unity

As the GNC weakens, the international community has been pouring its efforts into forming a unity government strong enough to be a reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State. The country's fracturing has given the group room to carve out footholds in some regions and in cities such as Sirte. And as willing as they are to supply weapons, air power and, in some cases, special forces support, Libya's international partners want Libyan government forces to bear the brunt of the fighting.

To that end, the United Nations brokered negotiations to form a successor government to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives that could potentially garner enough support in the west to rule the country as a whole. With the formation of the GNA, and now its triumphant entry into Tripoli, they seem to have succeeded.

However, the GNA still has an enormous amount of work to do before it can consolidate power over all of Libya. In particular, it will have to firm up its control over national institutions. This presents a host of problems concerning Libya's complex relationship with the international community. Though in past years the world officially recognized the Tobruk-based government in the east, it refused to recognize the institutions that the House of Representatives created, namely the National Oil Corp., Central Bank of Libya and Libyan Investment Authority. Instead, international actors have continued to support the parallel institutions that existed before the war, even as they opposed the Tripoli-based administration.

Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord delivers a speech in Tripoli on March 30.

Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord delivers a speech in Tripoli on March 30.

(STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, the GNA will have to bring Libya's Tripoli-based institutions under its authority. Prime Minister-designate Fayez Sarraj has already entered negotiations with some of the eastern-based institutions to begin to formally integrate the two sets of oil and financial organizations. The GNA must find a way to control the older, internationally recognized institutions because the U.N. Security Council has made that a prerequisite for removing its sanctions on Libya. And those sanctions have hamstrung the country's economy: Roughly 85 percent of the Libyan Investment Authority's $67 billion of assets are frozen, hampering the government's ability to provide social services.

The Need for Military Support

Even more than integrating institutions like the bank and the state oil company, the GNA urgently needs to gain broad military support to ensure its rule over the country. But while the new government has won over much of the western part of the country, it faces mounting opposition in the east. This has put the House of Representatives in a tough position. It was supposed to endorse the new government but has failed to reach the sufficient quorum to do so formally, although a majority of its members did sign an informal declaration of support Feb. 22.

Much of the opposition in the east has come from supporters of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who leads the anti-Islamist Libya National Army and has protected the Tobruk-based government for the past two years. The general sees his power threatened by the new U.N.-brokered arrangement, and his allies have blocked its approval in the House of Representatives. The sheer weight of Hifter's influence in Libya means the GNA needs his support, but he is a divisive figure whose nationalist credentials earn him backing in the east and rejection among the Islamists in the west.

A militant fighting for Libya's Tobruk-based government searches a damaged house in Benghazi.

A militant fighting for Libya's Tobruk-based government searches a damaged house in Benghazi.


Sarraj's authority over the eastern military branch of the Libya National Army will likely remain weak. The Hifter-led offensive has made progress in clearing out pockets of Al Qaeda-, GNC- and Islamic State-affiliated groups in Benghazi and has pushed southward into Ajdabiya.

Meanwhile, the most the GNA can do is ask for more Western funding to divvy out to the defense ministry and the Misratan brigades it now commands. There are already reports that those troops are planning an offensive to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, but to do so the GNA would need Hifter to participate in a coordinated, complementary assault from the east.

Hifter's opposition — and the problem it poses for the GNA — highlights the fundamental weakness at the heart of the new government. For now, it appears to have relatively broad support. But that support hinges on one common interest: countering the Islamic State. The government's support base includes nationalists, federalists, Islamists and anti-Islamists; many of the deeply held grievances that these groups hold against one another have been masked only temporarily. Eventually, the momentum that has allowed Sarraj and the GNA to form their alliances will begin to slow. Although this may not happen until after they have made strong advances against the Islamic State, the fact remains: The unity government is unified in name alone. At some point, just as Libya Dawn did, this coalition, too, will break down. 

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