Between Tobruk and Tripoli: Divide grows deeper as Libyan talks fail

Lobna Monieb , Friday 19 Sep 2014

With rival governments in the east and west of the country, experts say Libya could face a divided future

A fighter from Zintan brigade watches as smoke rises after rockets fired by one of Libya's militias struck and ignited a fuel tank in Tripoli August 2, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Three years have passed since the February 17 revolution brought down the Gaddafi regime, yet turbulence remains the main feature of the Libyan scene.

The Islamist armed groups that conduct the Libya Dawn operation are still in control of the capital Tripoli and its airport in the west.

Opposing those groups, the forces of retired army commander General Khalifa Haftar are in control of parts of eastern Libya, including the city of Tobruk, which is currently host to the newly elected House of Representatives.

Haftar launched his Karama operation from Benghazi in February this year, to counter what he describes as the threat of "the Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies."

Six months later, Benghazi is still witnessing severe unrest due to the continuous fighting between Ansar Al-Sharia – an Al Qaeda affiliate- and Haftar’s forces.

Anas Qamati, director of the Sadeq Institute, Libya's first thinktank, thinks that Haftar is "definitely weaker than he was when he started his operations."

"He is losing territories to his rivals and is keeping only loose control over eastern Libya," Qamati said. 

Three hundred miles away from Benghazi, Libya's most disturbed city, lies the coastal city of Tobruk.

The city is now hosting the House of Representatives. At the same time, the outgoing General National Congress (GNC) is convened in the capital of Tripoli, currently under the control of Islamist militias. 

Tripoli moves against Tobruk

"The General National Congress confirms that since the official procedure of power, transition had not been accomplished, therefore the GNC still holds legislative legitimacy," read a statement issued by the GNC in Tripoli on 3 September.

"The National Congress ascertains that the government of (prime minister) Abdullah Al-Thinni is merely a caretaker government; moreover it could not face up to the challenges posed by the country's current situation."

The statement also mentioned that the government has "disappeared from all Libyan lands" except for one city -- Tobruk. The GNC decided to form a national salvation cabinet to spare the country the consequences of that "irresponsible vacuum and deliberate escape."

Omar Al-Hassi, the designate prime minister assigned by the GNC, proposed his cabinet and took the oath of office three days later. Al-Hassi is a former lawyer and a current political science professor at Benghazi University, known for his relations with the Justice and Construction Party, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

One day after the GNC issued its statement in Tripoli, the House of Representatives in Tobruk issued a harsh spoken statement warning all Libyan citizens and state institutions against recognising the National Congress convened in Tripoli.

The statement warned that the parliament "will hold whoever violates its warnings accountable before the Libyan and international judiciary in accordance with the Libya-related Security Council decisions that address punishment for jeopardising Libya's stability and security or obscuring the democratic transition."

Two states or no state?

The appointment of Al-Hassi in Tripoli came only a couple of days after Tobruk's parliament had re-designated Abdullh Al-Thinni as prime minister. Al-Thinni has been Libya's premier since April this year, when the GNC assigned him to the post.

It was only on Monday that Al-Thinni put forward the names of his cabinet in Tobruk, after talks that lasted for two weeks, including some that took place in the UAE.

According to Libyan parliamentarians cited by Reuters, Al-Thinni has reserved the position of defence minister for himself in the new cabinet.

Recent media reports quoted a parliamentary spokesman as saying that Tobruk parliament had rejected al-Thinni's cabinet of 16 ministers. Lawmakers called on the premiere to submit a new government consisting of no more than ten ministers.

"Abu Bakr Mustafa, a Benghazi representative at the Libyan parliament in Tobruk, told Ahram Online that the GNC convening in Tripoli is "clinging to power and (is) a valueless political frivolity," holding the "Islamic militias, which are backed by the GNC" responsible for the Libyan crisis.

The lawmaker thinks that the ongoing chain of events will end with Libya having two separate states ruled by two separate governments. Nevertheless, he remained hopeful that the Libyan national army will eventually bring the country back together.

Anas Qamati, however, thinks the outcome could be a no-state rather than a two-state phase. "Both governments will lose influence and authority with time. Moreover, the country will have two armies and two police apparatuses," he said. "In theory, it might seem that there are two states in Libya, but in the long term there will be no state at all."

Musa Faraj, a member of the outgoing GNC, told Ahram Online that he refrained from participating in the sessions taking place lately in Tripoli, yet he blames the Libyan government for the political crisis.

"It is a weak government that lacks political vision; it took a side against the other in the Libyan conflict. It is not impartial," he said.

According to Kamel Abdullah, a researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the Tripoli government is nothing but "leverage" used by the Islamists of the outgoing GNC against the Tobruk parliament, after the latter declared the Libya Dawn group a terrorist organisation.

"This also explains the restless activity of Islamist groups in Tripoli and Benghazi; they're trying to gain land after having lost the parliament. They need to stand on something solid to negotiate," said Abdullah.

"All parts are equally weak," he added. "There is no strong bloc for the international community to rely on. Libya is a reflection of the regional conflict; each side is backed by a regional power. This will only keep the crisis going without a solution."

As for the US’s position, Abdullah believes Washington is waiting to see if the ongoing dispute will bring about a new kind of force in the Libyan scene that could be worth supporting.

Qamati highlighted two problems of the Tobruk-based authorities; first, the parliament was elected with a much lower turnout out than the GNC.

Second, Qamati deems Tobruk not to be "willing to communicate with the Islamists." Qamati insists that negotiation is the only option for Libya to overcome its crisis.

"Without negotiations Libyans will not get anywhere. They have to believe in civil participation."

Negotiations postponed

Both Qamati and Abdullah believe that political dialogue is the only solution to the complex crisis in Libya.

But according to Abdullah, the dialogue and political process have to start before any demands of disarmament. He asserted that "no party will give up weapons before guaranteeing political and economic gains."

Algeria was supposed to host a dialogue between disputing Libyan factions on 15 September, but as some parties held on to their reservations against sitting at the negotiation table with certain rivals, the talks were postponed until the end of September.

A spokesman for Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, former chief commander of Tripoli's military council, told Algerian newspaper Al-Fajr that the talks have been postponed to gain time to convince all Libyan factions of the necessity of negotiations. Belhaj said that what he called the "Tobruk group" has some reservations about the Algerian invitation, and that it seems to lean towards an Egyptian initiative. 

Other informed sources claim that the Algeria talks have been postponed indefinitely.

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