Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Escalation in Tripoli

While successes are being scored against the Islamic State group in Sirte, Libya’s post-Skhirat political balance edges towards collapse, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

As the forces taking part in Operation Bunyan Marsus (Solid Structure) are nearing their goal of wresting the coastal city of Sirte from the grip of Daeah (the Islamic State group) and securing full control over that area, another political and military crisis erupted in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. At the centre of this crisis is the Supreme Council of State, one of the institutions created in accordance with the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that was signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015. The development appears to throw yet another spanner into the works of efforts to promote the fragile 10-month-old agreement.

The source of the trouble this time comes from the prime minister of the so-called National Salvation Government (NSG), Khalifa Al-Ghweil, and the speaker and members of the General National Congress (GNC). The NSG and GNC are not internationally recognised as Libya’s official governmental and parliamentary institutions. Last Friday afternoon, Al-Ghweil and his GNC supporters stormed their former headquarters in the Rixos Hotel complex in Tripoli and proclaimed their comeback. The NSG and GNC had returned to secure the capital and save it from chaos since the Presidency Council had failed to achieve any progress towards these ends since it took up headquarters in the capital 30 March, they declared.

Al-Ghweil then announced that he had held communications with the prime minister of the temporary government in eastern Libya, Abdullah Al-Thanni, which was formed by the internationally recognised House of Representatives in Tobruk, and that they had agreed on the need to form a new national unity government to replace that created by the internationally sponsored LPA. Declaring that the only legitimate government institutions in the country were his administration, the GNC, the temporary government of Al-Thanni and the House of Representatives, Al-Ghweil vowed to sanction the members of the Presidency Council and the ministers of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Apart from the spectre of the descent into violence again, the crisis in Tripoli threatens to further complicate and already difficult situation. For one, Al-Ghweil and the GNC in the west and Al-Thanni and the House of Representatives in the east stand on totally opposite sides of the political spectrum, even if they have temporarily struck up common cause in the interest of undermining the LPA. It is also important to note that Al-Ghweil, GNC speaker Nouri Abu Sahmein and House of Representatives speaker Aqila Saleh are all being sanctioned by the US and the EU for obstructing the implementation of the LPA and the prospects of peace in Libya.

The Presidency Council and GNA headed by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj condemned Al-Ghweil’s bid to force his way back into power and directed the Interior Ministry to have the people who stormed the Rixos building arrested and prosecuted. Acting accordingly, Al-Sadiq Al-Sur, chief of investigations in the office of the public prosecutor, ordered the director of the criminal investigations office in Tripoli to arrest all involved in the storming of the building, including former officials. Although the names were not disclosed, sources in Tripoli told Al-Ahram Weekly that former head of the National Salvation Government Al-Ghweil and GNC speaker Awad Abdel-Sadek were on the wanted list.

According to a letter from chief of investigations in the public prosecutor’s office to the director of the criminal investigations bureau in Tripoli, a copy of which has been made available to the Weekly, Al-Sur was instructed to arrest all persons mentioned in the police report and turn them over to the office of the public prosecutor to issue their statements in response to the charges levelled against them. The instructions also ordered the police to clear the hotel meeting and events rooms of all persons wrongfully and illegally occupying them. The director of criminal investigations was also given permission to conduct rushed inquiries and investigations into the complaints listed in the report regarding financial wrongdoings and violations on the part of the accused.

Abul-Qasem Qazit, a member of the Supreme Council of State, maintained that the reason why the GNC and Al-Ghweil’s NSG were able to storm and take control over the Rixos was that the head of the presidential guard at those locations, Ali Al-Rimali, and his staff had not received their salaries for many months. In a statement broadcast on local Libyan TV, Qazit noted that the prime minister had promised to solve the problem but failed. But he also suggested that Colonel Al-Rimali was among the camp opposed to the LNA. On the other hand, Qazit refrained from referring to the storming incident as a “coup”.

According to other Libyan sources, a week before the storming incident, members of the presidential guard had blocked members of the Council of State from entering those premises in protest against the non-payment of their salaries. However, the sources did not rule out the possibility that this was part of the brinksmanship against supporters of the LPA.

Some Libyan political activists believe that the communications that Al-Ghweil claimed he held with officials in the east could pave the way to a new Libyan-Libyan dialogue and the possibility of a merger between Al-Thanni’s government in the east and Al-Ghweil’s government in the west. The two sides’ adverse ideological outlooks seem only one of the many impediments that would obstruct such a scenario on the ground.

On the other hand, some observers believe that recent developments in Tripoli strengthen the hand of the parties that refuse to negotiate with the political and militia forces in Tripoli and may bolster calls for a military campaign to free the Libyan capital of those forces.

International relations were more flexible, confining themselves to an appeal to the stormers to vacate the buildings they had occupied and restore them to the control of the Council of State and Presidency Council.

The Presidency Council, for its part, is continuing consultations over a slate of ministers from the GNA to be presented to the House of Representatives. However, in a letter circulated through the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the council asked the parties that had taken part in the UN sponsored Libyan National Dialogue that resulted in the Skhirat accord to furnish guarantees that the House of Representatives would not reject the proposed cabinet line up for a third time. The letter is a clear indication of how delicate a position the council is in, especially given the political escalation by opponents to the LPA in Tripoli and Tobruk. The concerns of the members are such that in a recent meeting, held in Tunisia the weekend before last, the council voted unanimously to hold its meetings on the formation of the cabinet in another Libyan city, other than Tripoli. In addition, Presidency Council member Omar Al-Aswad visited Ghadames, near the border with Algeria, and met with the municipal council there to discuss the possibility of that town hosting the Presidency Council meetings. Ghadames, a prominent tourist destination in Libya, has the advantage of being well-removed from the centres of political and military polarisation in Libya.

In the opinion of Abdel Razek Al-Nazouri, chief of general staffs under the command of General Khalifa Hiftar, Al-Sarraj’s efforts to form a government will fail. He added that it would only take two days for his forces to enter the capital, a threat that heightened tensions and raised the military stakes over the capital. It simultaneously appears that, regardless of their claims to the contrary, the opponents to the LPA are doing little but exacerbating the situation as well. Although House of Representatives speaker Aqila Saleh and GNC speaker Nouri Abu Sahmein have met twice, once in Malta and once in Oman, their meetings produced nothing but further obstruction to the implementation of the LPA.

If there is an encouraging development this week, it is to be found in the new advances scored by Operation Bunyan Marsus against Daesh forces in Sirte. Bunyan Marsus units have succeeded in securing control over the Cambo neighbourhood in the third residential district, which is located east of the centre of the city. The operation command also announced that it had seized control of the main operations room and a field hospital that had been controlled by Daesh. Bunyan Marsus spokesman General Mohamed Al-Ghasri announced that the operation will succeed in gaining control over the whole of the city within a few days.

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