Tripoli clashes, lack of Libyan support to UN initiative undermine Salame’s standing

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame have apparently been backing Sarraj’s power moves.
Sunday 27/01/2019
UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, last September. (AFP)
UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, last September. (AFP)

TUNIS - The five active members of Libya’s Presidential Council met to discuss pressing issues, including clashes in southern Tripoli, plans for security arrangements in the city, this year’s budget and the chaotic situation in southern Libya.

The January 22 meeting marked the first time in months that the UN-backed council met and only took place because the meeting was forced on its head, Fayez al-Sarraj.

Increasingly Sarraj has been making all the decisions himself, despite the UN-endorsed Libyan Political Agreement saying any decisions taken by the council require unanimity of its members. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame have apparently been backing Sarraj’s power moves.

In December, Ahmed Maetig, previously regarded as Sarraj’s leading deputy, had had enough. He issued a statement that Sarraj’s decision to unilaterally appoint a new health minister was invalid under the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement. He and two other members issued statements warning government officials that if they implemented any decisions by Sarraj not countersigned by other members of the Presidential Council they could be liable to legal proceedings.

They accused Sarraj of dangerous irresponsibility by acting unilaterally. This could result in new divisions in the country, which could lead to fresh violence, they warned.

Sarraj ignored them.

Three days after the warning, clashes broke out in southern Tripoli.  On the one side, there were various Tripoli militias that constitute the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) and, on the other, the 7th Battalion from Tarhouna, south-east of the capital, which regards the militias as little more than mafias that forced the Presidential Council to rely on their security services while milking Libya of its oil income.

The clashes ended a few days later but not before the TPF made a dramatic announcement. Suspecting that the clashes had been engineered by Sarraj and Libya Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to weaken it, the TPF said it would no longer obey Sarraj’s orders unless they were countersigned by the other Presidential Council members.

It was a move that Sarraj could not ignore. He and the Presidential Council’s Government of National Accord (GNA) depended on the militias for security in Tripoli, despite Bashagha’s efforts to create new security forces under the GNA’s direct control.

It might appear the internal Presidential Council power struggle is over, while on the streets of Tripoli the militias remain in full control. However, the clashes and the outcome shifted political undercurrents in Libya and the direction the country may take.

In the September clashes, it was UNSMIL and Salame who mediated the ceasefire between the militias and the 7th Battalion. Salame could not do it this time because the promises made then — new security arrangements in Tripoli — have not materialised and his credibility as a mediator was undermined.

It was senior members of the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s biggest, that mediated the ceasefire and the tribe’s credibility has grown as a result.

Sarraj is not the only one to be increasingly challenged. Salame has been, too. He is in the last stages of preparations for a national conference that is to plan and propose a road map for Libya, although questions linger about the modalities and topics to be discussed.

Many in Libya’s House of Representatives would not mind seeing the national conference fail. They fear it could sideline them.  There are others opposed with a significant and growing number of voices against it, either because they say the conference would be just another talking shop or because they say it is a foreign-controlled process, not a Libyan-owned one, and that Salame and UNSMIL are partisan and part of the problem.

Significantly, Salame’s proposed conference has a potential rival on the near horizon.

For the past couple of years, Warfalla leaders have been planning a national forum of tribes and towns to come up with its own solution to Libya’s crises. There have been meetings with other tribes but no one paid much attention until now.

On January 18, while the clashes continued in southern Tripoli, approximately 70 members of the Warfalla from all over Libya met in Bani Walid, south-east of the capital, and approved a 22-point charter that is to be presented to the planned forum as the way out of the current crisis.

The charter has something for almost everyone and is strong in its aims. These include that the law must not be counter to the principles of the sharia (as opposed to sharia being the law); the government must have the monopoly of the use of arms and force via the military, police and other official security organisations; terrorism and extremism are criminal and must be crushed; there has to be a general amnesty; all the displaced have to be allowed to return home; the country must be decentralised; its varied cultural, linguistic and social heritage is “an asset” for all Libyans — a statement that would appeal to Libya’s ethnic minorities, in particular the Amazigh.

In addition, the charter says that foreign interference in Libya, direct or indirect, or any action that benefits foreigners or foreign powers at the expense of Libya or its citizens are criminal — a proposal likely to find considerable public appeal.

The success in mediating the south Tripoli ceasefire has empowered the Warfalla. It resulted in the Warshefana tribe, based west of Tripoli, stating firm support of the Warfalla taking the lead on the forum.

Although no date or location for the forum has been announced, it is likely to be seen as opening the door for a Libyan solution to Libya’s problems and potentially undermines Salame’s proposed national conference.