Many challenges ahead for Libya’s new government
Many Libyans cheered when the United Nations-brokered government for Libya headed by Fayez Al Sarraj surprised everyone on March 30 by arriving in Tripoli by sea after its attempt to fly in from Tunis had failed. They saw a glimmer of hope that some order and peace would finally return their lives to normal.
However, Mr Al Sarraj’s government of national accord faces mountains of domestic problems, ranging from the high cost of living to security and the war on terror.
On its first night in the country, the government was effectively under siege in the old naval base west of Tripoli that serves as its headquarters. A local militia took over parts of western Tripoli, threatening to use force to expel the government. A small battle raged on for a couple of hours between those protecting the UN-backed government and the militia opposing it, leaving at least one person dead and an unknown number injured.
It turned out that those responsible for the anti-government attack were the same group that fired on Mr Al Sarraj’s motorcade in January as he visited Zliten to offer his condolences over the deaths of more than 40 trainees when an ISIL car bomb exploded inside a police and coastguard barracks.
As is often the case in Libya, the perpetrators went unpunished. A source told news website Al Monitor that while the militia leader who carried out the attack is known, his arrest could escalate the situation and endanger civilians in Tripoli. However, the source added that “the time for accountability will certainly come”.
One of the biggest problems in Libya is the lack of liquidity in the banking system, meaning that account holders can access only small amounts of their total funds. This has resulted in higher exchange rates and increased prices of everyday essentials such as bread. A loaf of bread that cost about 5 US cents (18 fils) about five years ago now fetches five times as much.
Another serious problem is the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), and Libyans who have sought refuge elsewhere, especially in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. The UN estimates that there are nearly 500,000 IDPs, with another million Libyans abroad. These figures are set to rise, because many residents have been fleeing Sirte since ISIL tightened its grip on that coastal town late last year. At the same time, the entire population of Tawergha is still living in camps scattered around the country.
Returning IDPs will certainly enforce stability and give people hope that their government cares about them. But the question of legitimacy remains a huge political hurdle. For the UN-backed government to be seen as legitimate it has to get a vote of confidence from the internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk, which it has so far failed to do.
The speaker, Aguila Saleh, claims that the entire UN-backed government, including the prime minister, must come to the Tobruk parliament to present itself to elected deputies for approval. However, UN government members refuse to do so due to security concerns and suspicions about the intentions of other key players in eastern Libya, including Gen Khalifa Haftar, the chief of staff of the Libyan army.
The European Union has already applied pressure by imposing travel sanctions and asset freezes on Mr Saleh and two other politicians from western Libya, blaming them for obstructing the implementation of the political deal.
ISIL’s presence in Sirte and others cities in Libya creates not just a domestic security problem but makes these cities targets for international intervention either by air bombardment or, in a less likely scenario, ground invasion.
The main backers of the new government – the United States and EU countries including the United Kingdom and France – are eagerly waiting for the new government to ask for help in defeating ISIL. The US has already bombed at least one Libyan town, Subratha, and targeted what it claimed to be an ISIL training camp. Many Libyans fear that the new government will only make things worse by legitimising such raids in the future.
All of this is against the backdrop that the new government itself is far from safe in Tripoli. This is underscored by the fact that it is still operating from an old naval base rather than the official government building less than 10 kilometres away.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist
Updated: April 12, 2016 04:00 AM