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Vol 56 No 5

Published 6th March 2015


More war, more talks

The impact of jihadists claiming allegiance to IS has increased and General Haftar seems set on a military solution

The escalation of violence by 'Islamic State' in Libya over the past month has contributed fresh horror to an already bloody conflict. However, the prospect of IS succeeding in establishing a new branch of its 'caliphate' in North Africa is far from certain. The Geneva talks process led by the United Nations in Morocco is in tatters, against a background of trademark spectacular murders of captives by IS. Yet further talks could take place.

More moderate voices are still looking for compromise and at least one new proposal, whose details are yet unknown, may come before the warring parties in the next fortnight. Influential political figures in Tripoli, Misurata and Cyrenaica who all fear the destructive influence of their more belligerent Islamist allies, might welcome it, we hear. The alternative is for Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and his Egyptian backers to go for a pure military victory over their enemies in the Islamist-Misurata alliance of Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) and IS (aka Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant: ISIS/ISIL). On 2 March, Parliament in Tobruk confirmed Haftar, who supported the late Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi until 1987, as Army Commander and he was promoted Lieutenant General (AC Vol 55 No 11, Enter the General).

Meanwhile, the fighting is seriously affecting foreign currency reserves, currently the fractured state's only means of supporting the population. They could soon run out and precipitate a humanitarian crisis. The UN Special Representative for Libya, Spanish diplomat Bernardino León, had hoped to convene a fourth round of negotiations in Morocco during the last week of February between representatives from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which backs Haftar, and its Islamist-dominated rival, the Tripoli-based rump General National Congress. But following a spate of IS suicide bombings against HoR-related targets in the eastern town of El Qubbah, HoR members voted not to attend the talks. The IS attacks were a response to Egyptian air force strikes – the country's first foreign military action since the 1973 war with Israel – which were themselves retaliation for IS's beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic captives in mid-February.

Splits of convenience
'The talks are quite stuck at the moment,' European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Mattia Toaldo told Africa Confidential, noting that, 'The HoR have no incentive to strike any deal because they have all they need.' The HoR's current advantages include international legitimacy and military superiority. Even the emergence of IS, with all its dangers, can be interpreted as a potential strategic advantage for the Tobruk government of Abdullah al Thinni and Haftar's Libyan National Army because it reflects a split within the ranks of Fajr Libya.

Sooner or later the militias from Misurata, which are now targeting HoR's control of oil export terminals in the oil crescent of the Sirte Basin, will have to turn and fight IS. Businessmen in Misurata presently backing the militia are desperate to find a way out of a conflict which they look like losing and which is ruining them commercially. 

Banking independence
Whether the social and economic fabric of the country can hold together while the various elements of the conflict are militarily resolved is unclear. March could be the month when the Central Bank of Libya (CBL)'s access to ready cash will run out. Libya will, of course, be far from bankrupt. Its sovereign wealth funds may hold at least US$60 billion and it may yet have the same amount again in illiquid foreign reserves. Yet the shortage of cash has been worsening since the beginning of the year and all parts of the country are experiencing increasingly severe shortages of electricity, fuel and staple foods, all of which are imported and paid for in hard currency.

In a vain attempt to impose independent control over the nation's dwindling assets, the CBL is insisting on its institutional and operational independence. While that may have prevented the rival governments from using the control of financial assets as a weapon, it funds both of them.

The bank has institutionalised the payment of vast sums to militia leaders, which funds wages for their fighters and an equally lucrative business in the cross-border smuggling of subsidised commodities. According to a recent local television interview with the Tripoli-based Oil Minister, Mashallah Zwei, the smuggling of fuel out of the country costs his government about 400 million Libyan dinars ($300 mn.) per month (AC Vol 55 No 24, A tale of two cities). Many young people are loyal to the militias because they pay them wages and there are no viable economic alternatives. In this respect, Libya's political problems are a product of its economic dysfunction.

Oil workers flee
The other 'independently' functioning state institution, the National Oil Corporation, has also found it increasingly hard to operate. Production has fallen to a little above the level necessary to supply those domestic refineries that are still working. In mid-February, following a number of attacks on its facilities, NOC warned that 'the recurrence of such incidents is causing the migration of technical manpower away from oil fields'; staff are leaving over fears for their safety. 'If these incidents continue, NOC will have to stop all operations in all oil fields', it said in a separate statement. This is almost unthinkable and unprecedented. Indeed, it has since brought two terminals back into production, indicating that the trends are not entirely negative.

Other vital parts of the infrastructure are also under severe pressure. As Africa Confidential went to press reports were coming in that the Bahi and Mabruk oilfields, about 300 miles east of Tripoli, had fallen under the control of forces loyal to Fajr Libya. Islamist groups attacked these same fields in mid-February. In terms of output, they are less important than fields in the eastern part of the Sirte basin. So, although these are among the largest of Libya's oilfields, no strategic change in the balance of power is evident. The two fields have not been operating since their export terminal at Sidra was put out of action last December. Libya Fajr, however, seems to be pursuing a campaign of occupying as many oilfields as they can, especially those, like Bahi and Mabruk, which are close to the front line with Haftar's forces.

In mid-February, the state electricity utility, the General Electric Company of Libya, said that failures in the national power grid had caused it to collapse into four isolated networks. Combined with shortages of both diesel oil and natural gas, GECOL estimated that it had lost two-fifths of installed generating capacity. Tripoli residents complain of power cuts lasting more than six hours a day.

Interruptions to the water supply are also common: 80% of the population depends on the Great Man-Made River, a pipeline network which brings water from prehistoric aquifers under the Sahara to the coast. Once at the surface, water in the eastern branch from Sarir and Kufra runs by gravity to Ajdabiya on the coast. However, the western branch, which has already suffered some vandalism, requires pumping to cross the Jebel Nafousa to Tripoli and is therefore dependent on electric power.

There is international division over how to deal with a conflict which threatens the security of neighbouring states, the Sahel, southern Europe and beyond. An alliance of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates with backing from Saudi Arabia, has long supported Haftar's Operation Karama (Dignity). This has generally been interpreted as part of a wider campaign based on the desire of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el Sisi and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahayan, to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force (AC Vol 54 No 17, High stakes in the Sinai fight).

Egypt may support Haftar but it will not hesitate to drop him if it feels that he is not adequately protecting its western border against jihadist infiltration or military action. So far, there is no other plan for Egypt to stabilise that border, so it will persist with Haftar, though the UN Security Council opposes Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry's proposal to lift the arms embargo against the Tobruk government and to impose a naval blockade on ports controlled by Fajr Libya. The murder of its citizens by IS and the belief that an IS caliphate in Libya would directly threaten Egypt, which is already fighting an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, means Cairo 'feels no restraint any more because it has been declared a matter of national security', says Toaldo (AC Vol 55 No 17).

Russia also supports lifting the arms embargo. Prime Minister Al Thinni went to Moscow to discuss counter-terrorism on 27 February, stopping in Cairo en route to offer his condolences for the murder of the Copts. Within Europe, France also supports the Egypt-UAE axis, although its Sahel deployments mean it is overstretched, while Italy, the nearest mainland European country to Libya and its former colonial power, has also said it would support a military response.

The United States and Britain remain determined not to take sides in the conflict and they back the UN. This policy may be partly dictated by their domestic political cycles. In neither country is there much appetite for involvement in more Middle East conflicts in the lead-up to elections in November and May respectively. This view also appears motivated by a deep reluctance to line up behind Haftar and Egypt, whose rhetoric on counter-terrorism reflects a broader anti-Islamist political agenda. At a joint press conference on 19 February in Algiers with his counterpart, Ramtane Lamamra, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, argued, 'We don't believe that military action can solve the problem in Libya,' adding 'the Algerian position and the British position are identical... we believe in an inclusive political solution in Libya'.

A recent paper by the International Crisis Group argued that 'Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal'. Its recommendations included the notion that the UN should attempt to 'de-emphasise' the legitimacy of the Tobruk government, 'be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support', should keep the arms embargo in place and 'protect the neutrality and independence' of the CBL and NOC. In every case, though, the trends are running strongly in the opposite direction.

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