Militias back in driver’s seat in Tripoli
TUNIS - September was a month of extraordinary political ferment and turmoil in Libya, even by the chaotic standards of the past four years.
Following three weeks of the worst clashes in Tripoli since the 2011 revolution in which forces from Tarhouna and their allies appeared to be gaining the upper hand in their bid to smash the capital’s dominant militias, the tables were unexpectedly turned. The attackers found themselves suddenly being hit hard and had to pull out.
There was an equally unexpected development 1,000km to the east, in the House of Representatives (HoR), Libya’s parliament in Tobruk. After months of key members blocking a referendum on the document drawn up by the Constitution Drafting Assembly, the HoR announced on September 24 that it had approved it.
The violence in Tripoli where militias are back in power has ended, the security threat to the UN-backed Presidency Council has been removed and the referendum can go ahead.
The latter is in line with the agreement among French President Emmanuel Macron and Libya’s four key players — HoR President Ageela Saleh; Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the HoR-appointed head of the Libyan armed forces; Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the UN-backed Presidency Council; and President of the State Council Khalid al-Mishri — for elections by the end of the year.
Under the agreement, a legal framework for elections was to be in place by September 16. That deadline has slipped but, theoretically, elections could still happen.
As a result, Libyan officials at a Libya-Tunisia economic forum in Tunis on September 27 were claiming the situation is improving and the country will see stability and normality by next year. Few Libyans believe that to be the case.
While the militias are supposedly back in the driver’s seat in the capital, the reasons for the 7th Battalion’s offensive have not gone away: the militias’ domination over the Presidency Council and the hundreds of millions of dollars they are said to be leaching from Libya’s oil revenues. UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame has said this has to end.
If the situation continues as is, however, a fresh onslaught against the militias or some of them is thought extremely likely.
As for the political developments in Tobruk, there is little expectation they will change anything.
The vote by the HoR in favour of a referendum on the proposed constitution and an amendment to the 2011 Constitutional Declaration divide the country into three separate constituencies — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan — for the vote in which the constitution must be approved in all three to take effect, almost certainly ensures that a referendum, if it happens, will fail. A majority of Cyrenaicans are believed to be opposed. Most Libyans are probably opposed.
The likelihood of a referendum in the near future appears remote. For a start, the boundaries between the three regions need to be settled. Cyrenaican federalists, who are opposed to the constitution, demand that the Jufra region south of Sirte and the oil terminal towns of Sidra and Ras Lanuf, historically part of Tripolitania, be part of the eastern area.
The way the law and the amendment to the constitutional declaration were approved makes it highly likely that the matter will be taken to court. Although it is being said that 135 HoR members voted for it, only 39 were in the chamber at the time. There was no vote in the normal sense. Some members expressed support by phone, a change in HoR rules so far unapproved. Others were deemed to have voted in favour because they had previously supported the motion splitting the country into three constituencies.
It is being suggested that this was done deliberately, to ensure that the referendum becomes bogged down in the courts.
The HoR also authorised the head of its dialogue committee to continue discussions with the State Council on replacing the Presidency Council with a three-member panel consisting of a president and two deputies and the appointment of a separate prime minister. The decision cuts across any moves for a referendum. There would be no need for a new presidency and government if there is to be a referendum, which, if successful, would be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
Away from the political manoeuvring, no sooner had the clashes stopped than the skies opened, not just over Tripoli but across much of the north of the country, bringing flash flooding and chaos. Further floods, the result of decades of insufficient infrastructural investment and mismanagement, are expected.
Ironically, as cars disappeared below the waters in Tripoli’s streets, there was no water in the taps. Local militiamen in southern Libya, demanding an end to power cuts in their area, stopped the pumps on the Great Man-Made River feeding the capital.
For ordinary Tripoli residents, the nightmare is never-ending.