Sarraj struggles to gain traction in Tripoli
TUNIS - Libya’s UN-backed government has rallied support of the main militias and tribes in western Libya, drawing enough momentum to silence the guns of his rivals in Tripoli.
The value of the Libyan currency on the black market strengthened from 4 dinars to 2.74 dinars to the US dollar in one day after Prime Minister-designate Faiez al- Sarraj and the Presidency Council reached Tripoli abroad a Libyan Navy ship on March 30th.
Threats by rivals in Tripoli to jail Sarraj and his aides as “infiltrators” evaporated and Presidential Council members sipped coffee at a café on Tripoli’s Algeria Street while Sarraj hugged and shook hands with Libyans as he walked in Martyrs’ Square nearby.
According to a senior diplomat from a Maghreb country, reports by Libyan military and intelligence officials indicated that backing for Sarraj’s government was broadening even though he was working out of a naval base on the edge of the city.
He noted that the militia tasked with protecting the Tripoli-based, self-proclaimed National Salvation government headed by Khalifa Ghwell shifted loyalty to Sarraj. Ghwell had displayed strong opposition to any transfer of power, threatening to close the capital’s airspace.
In a statement posted after Sarraj’s arrival, the National Salvation government struck a milder tone, saying any opposition would be “by peaceful and legal means without use of force or incitement to violence”.
“We will not cling to power,” the statement said. “We demand that the revolutionaries, civil society and the senior clerics be given the opportunity to take the necessary decisions to avoid bloodshed and find a solution to the Libyan crisis.”
“The brigade could have handily arrested Ghwell but they did not want escalation,” said the unidentified diplomat.
However, on March 6th Ghwell ordered his ministers not to step down citing “requirements of public interest “.
A statement by his government announced a day earlier that Ghwell was resigning to spare Libyan lives and prevent further upheaval. No official explanation for the U-turn was immediately available but Libya’s politics have been buffeted by abrupt changes because of ideological and regional divisions fanned by outside influences.
The European Union has frozen assets and imposed travel bans on Ghwell and the heads of the parliaments in Tripoli and the east, citing their role in obstructing the unity government.
“I guess I should start by commending you on entering Tripoli as peacefully as possible. In a country where any political move can set off a chain reaction of violence acts, this is a promising achievement,” Nada Abdulgader, an architect from Benghazi, wrote in an open letter to Sarraj.
Hussein Dawwadi, head of Sabratha municipality, one of the radical Islamists’ strongholds, said: “The situation of the country is very bad. The cost of living is becoming very expensive and there is no cash in the banks.
“We see that it is time to back Sarraj’s government.”
Sabratha is one of ten western Libyan towns that expressed support for Sarraj.
Libya has missed out on more than $68 billion in potential oil revenues since 2013 amid the power struggle that brought the oil industry to near collapse.
Mohamed el-Qorchi, the International Monetary Fund’s mission chief for Libya, said the country posted a fiscal deficit in 2015 of 54% of gross domestic product — “one of the highest in the world”.
“The groundswell of popular anger and desperation has caused militias and political groups to lose support in the street. They have become in the eyes of the population the symbols of the country’s problems. People cannot take it anymore,” said Ismail Alghwol Alsharif, a member of the internationally recognised House of Representatives.
Dialogue over months among the various factions helped isolate radical politicians and warlords.
Lobbying governments in North Africa and the Middle East helped cement support for Sarraj’s government and deterred radicals from stepping outside their boundaries in western Libya.
The security team of Sarraj prepared the ground to silence armed opposition as they have good relations with militias and factions within Tripoli government,” Alsharif said.
Libyan political sources and diplomats in the Maghreb said all Arab states pulled in the same direction to back Sarraj by playing their influence with Libyan factions in western Libya, either out of fear of Islamic State (ISIS) expansion or to accommodate Western powers for whom Sarraj’s government is the only alternative to Libya’s chaos.
But analysts said a scrutiny of the quality of political support Sarraj is enjoying showed the country is still divided, with most of the backing coming from moderate Islamists while extremists, such as Ansar al-Sharia, were watching for a change in the winds.
“If you put together the boycott of Sarraj’s government by Zintane’s region representative (Said) Lassoued and representative of the eastern region (Ali Faraj) al Qatrani you get that Sarraj is backed by moderate Islamists factions from Fajr (Dawn) Libya in Misrata and Tripoli,” said Libyan analyst Ezzedine Aguil.
He and other analysts said that many are backing Sarraj out of fear of ISIS in Libya but there are divergent views among neihgbouring Arab states about Sarraj.
“Egypt backs General [Khalifa] Haftar as they consider Islamists a threat to the state stability,” said Aguil, who argues that Algeria and other neighbouring states differentiate between Islamist factions and would like to focus on more extreme groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Haftar and his political backers, including Aguila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the House of Representatives, have voiced opposition to Sarraj’s government. They branded it as illegitimate.
A source close to Sarraj fell short of blaming Cairo’s government saying: “Egypt’s Foreign Ministry backs Sarraj’s government but Egypt’s Mukhabarat (intelligence services) are taking a different path in eastern Libya.”