A Country Divided

Libya is on a rapid descent to becoming a failed state embroiled in an all-out civil war. On the one side is the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, which is based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which claims the backing of secular and liberal political parties, federalists demanding political autonomy for Libya’s eastern regions, and sections of the national army and police. Khalifa Al-Haftar, a retired general who earlier this year launched an independent military campaign against Islamist militias, has also formally submitted to Thinni’s authority, but the strength of his loyalty remains unclear. In Tripoli, a self-proclaimed “national salvation government” headed by Omar Al-Hassi is backed by the powerful Misrata militias and Islamist political forces.

Both sides claim to have constitutional and moral legitimacy, and a recent ruling by the Tripoli-based Constitutional Court brought no clarity to the situation. In early November, the court invalidated the June elections that resulted in a House of Representatives dominated by secular parties aligned with the Tobruk administration on procedural grounds. The Tobruk faction’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a legal ruling issued by a court located in territory controlled by its rival points to the very real possibility of the establishment of competing state institutions and a de facto partition of the country between warring camps.

UN efforts at facilitating dialogue were based on the assumption that the House of Representatives was the legitimate legislative body, but that view has been upended by Libya’s own Constitutional Court. Eastern federalist leader Ibrahim Jathran threatened to declare independence if the international community recognizes the legitimacy of the restored (and Islamist-controlled) GNC. What is clear is that the US and its NATO allies in Europe have no appetite for direct engagement in the Libyan conflict, and are satisfied for the time being to issue warnings to regional governments against interfering (with debatable success) and urging the Libyan factions to sit down at the negotiating table.

The Tobruk faction claims that the Islamists in Tripoli are receiving support from Qatar and Turkey, giving the conflict a regional dimension. Although the threat posed by ISIL appears to be softening Qatar’s advocacy on behalf of Islamist political movements in the region, Turkey’s deepening falling out with Egypt and the Persian Gulf monarchies poses a potential obstacle to regional cooperation in pursuit of a peaceful settlement of the Libyan conflict.

The Tripoli government appointed its own oil minister, Mashallah al-Zawi, and took over the official website of the National Oil Corporation, which warned in November that international customers should not purchase Libyan crude from any other entities. For its part, the UN warned that anti-smuggling sanction would be enforced in cases involving exports of Libyan oil where the source cannot be established. Against that backdrop, a growing portion of Libya’s oil sales could be relegated to the black market if the Tobruk government continues to lose ground.

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