(Written by Dr. Sasha Toperich for USMilitary.com) Now that the disastrous crusade in Libya by warmongering and power-hungry Khalifa Haftar is defeated, it is time to address pressing issues shaking up the central government in Tripoli while the politicians and the international community struggle to stop further conflicts and return this war-torn country to political dialogue. Haftar’s war exacerbated an already bad political and social situation in Libya, further deepening political, regional and tribal divisions that tore apart the country’s social fabric with animosity and revenge, turning tribes one against another. Serious reconciliation efforts must take place now. Three questions are now central to all Libyans: why did their sons have to die on a battlefield? For whom? And for what?
This article is long overdue. However, criticism of Tripoli’s behavior during Haftar’s brutal “mission impossible” to take control of the country by force would have only sent the wrong message, and impeded solidarity in defending the internationally recognized Libyan government.
On December 17, 2015, following the Libyan political accord agreement reached in Skhirat (Morocco), Fayez al-Sarraj became both Chairman of the Presidential Council and the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord(GNA) of Libya. He inherited two divided political blocs: one, a government in Tripoli led by the defunct General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012, overstaying its term; two, a government in the east in Al Baida by the competing House of Representatives (HoR), elected in 2014 but forced to move east to Tobruk when the GNC refused to concede the election, and overstayed its term. Both blocs contain scores of various militias vying for power. No sane person could envy Sarraj for the task he faced – a task he pursued for four years with relatively unchecked power.
Sarraj is viewed by Libyans as a decent man, a prominent and wealthy businessman who may have good intentions but has failed in managing the affairs of State, including Haftar’s war on Tripoli. In fairness to Sarraj, his first two years in office were challenged by both the government in Tripoli (which relinquished power only several months after the Skhirat accord), and the HoR, which refused to approve Sarraj’s selected cabinet, forcing Sarraj to fudge the cabinet ministers as Acting Ministers until they could proceed with full authority in their ministerial appointments later on. Furthermore, Sarraj’s own nine-member Presidential Council attempted to undermine his authority. During Sarraj’s frequent official travels abroad, councilmembers rotated as acting Chairs. Some used these opportunities to make appointments or decisions that Sarraj would not approve of in his absence. This further deepened rifts within the Council. Two members suspended their membership because their loyalty was to the HoR in the east, and ultimately to renegade army colonel Khalifa Haftar. One more resigned after two years due to disapproval of Sarraj’s policy. The fourth resigned over a year ago, pledging loyalty to Haftar. This left only two Vice Presidents and two so-called state ministers in what is now a reduced Presidential Council of five members.
In addition to his post as Chairman of the Presidential Council, Sarraj designated to himself authority of the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and later also as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the General Electricity Company (GECOL). GECOL has been an abysmal failure in providing electric power, with blackouts up to 20 hours a day despite a large enough budget to nearly double electric capacity. Its record has been glaring in mismanagement and corruption. Lack of gasoline, cooking gas, liquidity at the banks, and an ever-widening garbage problem in Tripoli are but a few problems ordinary Libyans endure day by day under Sarraj’s leadership.
He stripped the remaining Presidential Council members of decision-making power and authority. More importantly, he deprived them of any executive authority, and only selectively consulted with them on important issues of appointments and policy matters. Presidential Council or cabinet meetings were rare, often called on short notice; few had clear agendas or produced minutes of meetings. In a recent and unlawful attempt to further consolidate his own power, Sarraj also fired the Minister of Economy.
A major criticism of Sarraj’s performance is his essential lack of institutional development, coherent policies and planning, and arbitrary and often unilateral decision making. Though the National Accord gave equal power to members of the Presidential Council, their challenge to his authority fell short due to Libyan administrative laws limiting decision-making and power of authorization solely to the President. Much criticism was heard in Libya about limited access to Sarraj by his political advisors with questionable qualifications or experience, except for cronyism. Reminiscent of the Gaddafi era, Sarraj’s closest advisors became more powerful than any minister in the cabinet or members of the Presidential Council. Sarraj’s credibility began to erode. Numerous projects, initiatives, ideas, and requests piled up on his desk, or were buried by his advisors; most never received an answer.
One of Sarraj’s most striking failures was the lack of a built army or security force. His own protection came not from a government security force but from a militia group. He failed to appoint regional military commanders in over 70% of Libya’s military regions, particularly in the East and South. This kept the door open for Haftar to solidify his power and build a huge military arsenal, with the help of foreign powers such as the UAE, Egypt and later France and Russia. Though there were at least ten thousand former military officers in the South on government payroll, they stayed at home. In 2017, Sarraj refused to approve reparations to be paid to the Tebu and Awlad Suleiman tribes as part of an important reconciliation agreement reached with Italy’s help. As a result, Haftar’s forces gain stronger footing in the South that facilitated presence of Russian Wagner military group members.
The future of Libya is most certainly not in Sarraj’s hands. If rumors are to be acknowledged, he may not even desire it. However, Sarraj can still play a positive and important role as Chairman of the Presidential Council. Sarraj should promptly divest himself from the position of Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Chair of GECOL. He should refrain from any nepotistic attempts to appoint “his people” to such positions. Rather, Sarraj must open and transparent discussions with other political leaders in the country who should have a voice in these and other important government appointments.
Sarraj’s legacy will gain positive momentum with these interim solutions, especially now that Haftar poses no military threat to the capital. Such action will help reverse the trend of deeply rooted mistrust and antagonism amongst Libya’s political elite. Power-sharing in Tripoli will be a significant step forward in bringing the country together and will certainly be welcomed by Libyan citizens whose day-to-day suffering is caused by erratic and autocratic behavior on the part of their political elites. Here is a chance Sarraj should not miss.
Dr. Sasha Toperich is senior executive vice president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network. From 2013 to 2018, he was a senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.