That the head of Libya’s optimistically named government of national accord (GNA) could only arrive in the country on March 30 via a military operation – and remains holed up in Tripoli’s naval dockyard – obviously did not look like a good omen.
For Fayez al-Sarraj bore on his stout soldiers the hopes of the international community – and of most Libyans – for welding the country’s warring factions into one government for the first time since strongman Muammar Gaddafi was toppled almost five years ago.
The mammoth agenda of this architect and businessperson, Libya’s prime minister designate, includes uniting Libya’s two rival governments – one based in the capital of Tripoli and the other in the coastal city of Tobruk – under the GNA. That government must then be made powerful enough to co-opt or suppress the countless lawless militias controlling various parts of the fragmented country.
And, not least, certainly in the eyes of the West and other foreign actors, it must suppress the growing threat posed by the Islamic State, which controls a 200km length of coast stretching from Gaddafi’s old birthplace of Sirte towards the east.
Many suspect that it is this growing Islamic State army – its ranks swollen by operatives retreating from its military defeats in Iraq and Syria – that has at last got the international community to focus properly on Libya again, for the first time since the Nato-led air bombardment helped defeat Gaddafi in 2011, leaving a power vacuum in his wake.
Sarraj seemed like little more than an anti-Islamic State security project headed by Martin Kobler, the German diplomat who had headed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo before UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon appointed him as his special envoy in Libya.
Unable to persuade the General National Congress government in Tripoli and the House of Representatives government in Tobruk to settle their differences and form one government, Kobler, the UN and the international community effectively formed a third, the GNA, overarching them both.
Though some elements of both the Tripoli and Tobruk governments, and some militias, supported the GNA, others didn’t. The Tobruk government has still not adopted a resolution formally accepting the GNA.
And so in March, the impatient – and perhaps desperate – United States and several European countries recognised the GNA as the only legitimate government without waiting any longer for Tobruk’s seal of approval. Meanwhile, the Tripoli government’s prime minister, Khalifa al-Ghweil, closed Tripoli airport to prevent Sarraj returning. But Sarraj, undaunted, surprised many by entering his country by sea with a naval escort, landing at the heavily guarded Tripoli naval base that continues to be his seat of government.
The suspicion of many countries – including South Africa and probably most other African countries – remains that Sarraj and the GNA are just a front for military intervention against the Islamic State.
Western intelligence agencies are being reported as saying that the Islamic State in Libya has linked up with Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar – the ruthless leader of al-Mourabitoun, the Sahelian group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – and that they fear this concentration of malignant elements is becoming a potent force for launching terror operations into sub-Saharan Africa and into Europe.
Al-Mourabitoun is believed to have been involved in recent attacks directed at Western interests in Bamako, Ouagadougou and Grand-Bassam, a beach town near Côte d’Ivoire’s main city, Abidjan.
Libya has been regarded as a problem country for some time, given its role as a launchpad for many of the Middle Eastern and African migrants pouring into Europe. But it took the Islamic State presence to really grab the attention of Western and other capitals, it seemed.
Most observers suspected that their strategy was to establish a Libyan government just plausible enough to legitimately request foreign military assistance for a military campaign to wipe out the Islamic State. The Western military presence was already growing fast in preparation. US aircraft operating from Italian and British bases had conducted an air raid on an Islamic State training camp at Sabratha, west of Tripoli, in February, which reportedly killed Tunisian jihadist Noureddine Chouchane and about 50 other operatives.
The Libyan International Assistance Mission and the UN Support Mission in Libya were already researching military intervention last month, according to the journal Africa Confidential. And Italy, the former colonial power that has taken the lead in tackling the crisis, was openly talking up possible military intervention, according to Silvia Colombo from the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.
And so a foreign attack seemed imminent. But Colombo said the situation had changed substantially over the past few weeks. She credited Sarraj and his bold move in returning to Libya uninvited for much of the change.
Colombo said that whatever the international community might have expected of him, Sarraj had made it clear he would not invite foreign military intervention and would oppose it, acutely conscious of the consequences of the last foreign military intervention in 2011 and the damage another one would do to his domestic political legitimacy.
Sarraj was making some headway in uniting Libyans behind the GNA, she said, with increasing numbers of militias surrendering and pledging support. Critical financial institutions like the Central Bank have also pledged allegiance.
This week the European Union also backed the GNA and had offered it €100?million to build its own security. It also offered indirect military support, such as training. This was a clear sign that the international community was no longer bracing for military intervention, but was instead focusing on using political and diplomatic tools to strengthen the capacity of the GNA to tackle its own problems, Colombo said. She saw in this growing support for the GNA, both domestically and internationally, a real glimmer of hope for a better future for Libya.
As for the Islamic State, Colombo suggested it was not as great a threat as had been painted. She said Libya had never really been fertile ground for the extremist group, which had gained a foothold in Sirte because of the absence of a Libyan government.
As the GNA gained support, she believed that militias aligned to the Islamic State might switch allegiance. It was still too early to safely predict, she said, and the GNA certainly remained very fragile. But Sarraj had – in less than three weeks – at least created “the possibility of a different future for Libya”. – issafrica.org