Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba cabinet has received on March 10th the parliament vote of confidence with a significant majority. The political process sponsored by the United Nations has thus endowed Libya with a new government of unity followings weeks of negotiations. The country is now officially administered by one government. Few months ago Libya was not only divided territorially but also politically with Fayez Sarraj’s government ruling in the west and Abdullah Al-Thinni and Aguila Saleh’s one in the east. Dabaiba’s election comes after violent combat operations (April 2019 - June 2020) between the Libyan national army (LNA) siding with eastern authorities and Sarraj’s government. Further escalation were prevented when the United States, Germany and Egypt pressured Libyan rival parties to relaunch talks, eventually leading to a ceasefire in October 2020.
This newly elected body faces numerous domestic challenges before hoping to organise elections in December 2021. It will have among other things to set up the legal and constitutional framework for elections, to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic and the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries etc. On top of that, Dabaiba’s government might have to tackle a persistent challenge that is transitional justice and security.
Following the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011 a vicious circle of insecurity and violence irrupted all over the country. Armed and criminal groups have proliferated taking advantage of the security vacuum and political turmoil. Political, governmental and security apparatus division in the east and west, have weakened authorities’ ability - and sometimes willingness - to investigate and prosecute those suspected of criminal activity. Indeed, in exchange for armed groups’ military support, authorities have tolerated and even facilitated the former’s expansion in the political, economic and security sector at the cost of transparency, justice and paradoxically security.
Over the years armed groups committed countless violent acts among which looting, kidnapping, torture and murder, targeting indiscriminately migrants, civilians, and activists. Among these under the radar crimes were the assassination and enforced disappearance of several Libyan women activists. The latest incident dates back to 10 November 2020 when Hanan Al-Barassi a well-known lawyer and human right advocate was gunned down in broad day light in the city of Benghazi. According to available sources, a group of unidentified gunmen attempted to kidnap Al-Barassi but eventually shot her when she resisted. Few days before she had announced the upcoming release on social media of a video exposing corruption within Haftar’s family. More to the brutality of the act itself is that family members were also targeted because they were calling for justice. Hanan Al-Barassi’s daughter was recently shot at and kidnapped by unidentified gunmen while her son was reportedly arrested few days later, both in Benghazi. These incidents have recalled attention on previous unsolved enforced disappearance and murder cases of MPs Siham Sergiwa and Fariha Barkawi, journalist Naseeb Karnafa, lawyer Salwa Bugaighis and activist Intissar Al-Hassari. As of today these crimes remain unaccountable.
At the other end of the spectrum, Benghazi witnessed on 24 March another significant incident when International Criminal Court’s wanted Mahmoud Al-Werfalli was shot and killed along with his cousin in the city streets. Al-Werfalli was a major of Al-Saiqa Brigade (a special unit under the LNA) and was suspected “to have directly committed and to have ordered the commission of murder” in the context of several incidents. His violent crimes have been recorded on video and published on social media, which led to a strong international community reaction at the time. However, he never faced trial as the LNA seemingly refused to hand him over to the ICC. Two weeks before his assassination, a video was recorded showing Al-Werfalli and his men storming and vandalizing a Toyota franchise office in Benghazi. Earlier in March, more than a dozen of bodies – bearing signs of execution - were also discovered in the city. These crimes highlight the growing insecurity in eastern Libya and the shifting dynamics resulting from the new government election. More to that, it reflects on the LNA’s internal rivalry and its difficulty to assert control in Cyrenaica following Tripoli’s offensive failure. In addition, the LNA’s finance are seemingly dried out by the reduce support of its foreign backers. Thus, Khalifa Haftar’s recent meetings with eastern tribes and support declaration to Egypt in the Ethiopian Al-Nahda dam crisis marks an attempt to preserve its legitimacy in a shifting context.
Western Libya is not exempt of security deterioration. Infighting between local armed groups are usually increasing following a political transition or a change in security apparatuses. Over the past months, Tripoli has registered a surge in assassination and kidnapping incidents. In March, the Stability Support Apparatus was targeted by rival groups when the brother of one of its main commander was kidnapped in Tripoli. The group was established by former Prime Minister/Council President Fayez Sarraj in January 2021. The apparatus is composed of Ghneiwa Brigade headed by Abdulghani Al-Kikli, Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and an armed group from Zawiya. Later on, Mohamed Damouna a misrati armed group leader was killed in Tripoli. He previously headed the Presidential Guard under the General National Congress and was reportedly close to Salah Badi.
These incidents testify to the political and security reconfiguration in progress following the election of the new government. More to that, they highlight the deep fragmentation in eastern and western Libya as well as the fragility of tribal/local alliance on which rely conflicting parties. More than ever the need for in-depth security institutions reform and justice appears a priority. Undeniably, the rule of law and freedom of speech are fundamental to organise free and fair elections. Political elite’s absence of response to crimes and sometimes acquaintance with armed groups could further alienate civilians and erode hope of change brought by the newly elected government. The targeting of political activist – especially women – is a threat to democracy and change. According to The Guardian, “only 12% of Libya’s councillors are women, and many women in the past who have put themselves forward have been abducted or assassinated”. Women and the new generation are Libya’s best hope to knock down a male-dominated and corrupt political class. The government main challenge will be to confront civilian expectations on the matter. Thus, Presidential Council’s announcement of the creation of a High Commission for Reconciliation constitute a positive step to move forward. The fight against impunity will be key to reconcile the country after 10 years of conflict and to prevent additional destabilisation until elections are held in December 2021.
Written by Aude Thomas
12 April 2021
Aude Thomas is a Research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research.