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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 20 New Delhi May 7, 2016

Libya’s Four Governments

Saturday 7 May 2016, by Harish Chandola

The Western governments and NATO members are now regretting the war they had launched on oil-rich Libya, where the situation is becoming uncontrollable, because its warring governments are not willing to come together and Islamic State elements controlling its coastline are able to infiltrate from there into African countries, including Niger and Chad, to enlarge the conflict.

Libya’s fourth government took office in Tripoli on March 30. Called the Government of National Accord, it was created in Skhirat in Morocco on December 17. Its members had to arrive from next-door Tunisia by boat because of the fear of the plane being shot down if they came by air. In it was the new Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and six of its nine Ministers. It took up residence in a heavily-fortified naval base. Though called the Government of National Accord, it did not have the support of other governments already in the country. Those controlling parts of the country are in Tripoli, the capital in the west, and Beida in the east. These have been fighting for two years over a disputed election. That fight enabled the Islamic State, the third contender, to take over 290 kilometres of the country’s coastline around Sirte, between the two. This fourth government was formed as a result of a UN-sponsored deal.

It is yet uncertain if the two old governments in Tripoli and Beida will stand down in favour of the new one. It is also uncertain if the members of the old Islamist-tinged parliament in Tripoli will join a new advisory body in Tripoli called the State Council, set up under the new agreement. Some in Libya think the deal made in Morocco to create the new government has legitimacy. That view is shared in the east, where the internationally recognised House of Representatives, slated to become Libya’s legislature, is located. None of its two governments in Tripoli and Beida have yet accepted the new Government of National Accord set up with Western efforts.

European sanctions on Libya are meant to speed up the process of the country’s east-west unity. The sanctions, however, do not cover the Libyan Army General in the east, Khalifa Haffar, who is waging a brutal campaign against his oppo-nents, many of whom he calls “terrorists”. He is supported by foreign powers like Egypt and United Arab Emirates. Article 8 of the Skhirat Agreement brings the Army under the control of the new government. There are suggestions that eastern Libya will be given a measure of autonomy and will be allowed to have its own regional army, led by General Haffar, under a central command. The General harbours national ambitions. One of his commanders has promised to “clear out Sirte and then Tripoli and Misrata”, home of dozens of militias.

The Prime Minister of the new government was a businessman, with hardly any political experience. He has received pledges of support from some militias and municipalities. He manages to control the state’s only functioning institutions: the national oil firm, the country’s sovereign wealth fund and the central bank. The economic situation meanwhile has worsened. Most banks are closed and those open allow limited withdrawals. They are all short of cash. The new Prime Minister has frozen bank accounts and Libyans have now to rely on the black market to trade currency. Militia commanders however have funds and they drive around with cash to pay their fighters. Inflation is very high and the country has to import staples. Not much cash is available. The country is likely to run out of money by 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Once an oil rich country, its oil output has fallen from 1.6 million barrels a day in 2011, the beginning of its strife, to less than a quarter of that. Besides, the price of oil has crashed. The new government that has moved in has received support from Ibrahim al-Jathran, leader of the semi-official Petroleum Facilities Guard, aligned to the eastern government. Jathran has promised to reopen installations that his forces had blockaded because of disputes.

Militias from Zintan in the west are blockading the main oil pipeline. Islamic State fighters continue to attack oilfields.

NATO countries, including Americans, are now saying that they had committed a mistake by declaring a war on Libya. The situation there is getting out of their control, with the Islamic State fighters from there infiltrating into other African countries. The Western countries, which brought about the Skhirat Agreement, are worried about the working of the government they had helped to set up.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments.