Fayez al-Sarraj’s heat level: A frozen standstill post-resignation

Fayez al-Sarraj

Brigitte N. Brantley Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)
  • + Fayez al-Sarraj will step down as head of Libya’s GNA
  • + His resignation comes as a surprise after he successes in the civil war. 
  • + This decision might determine the outcome of the Geneva talks in October.

Why is al-Sarraj’s level freezing?

Answer: He’s resigning as the UN-recognized leader of Libya.  

After days of having his closest advisors presage his plans, Fayez al-Sarraj confirmed in mid-September his desires to resign as the head of the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accords (GNA). He intends to do this before the end of October when there will be talks in Geneva with this rival, Khalifa Haftar, and his Tobruk-based government to create a new presidential council. Until then, al-Sarraj plans to maintain a caretaker position. 

Even though he has swiftly justified his decisions with “internal and external conspiracies” against his leadership, this announcement has left the international community perplexed. Throughout the past few months, al-Sarraj has won the upper hand in Libya’s decade-long civil war thanks to committed Turkish support. The Turks’ efforts are embodied in an agreement that has granted Erdogan drilling rights across a corridor of the Eastern Mediterranean- a maritime territory also claimed by Greece. Thus, watching the GNA leader resign at a moment of apparent success can only be understood by taking a closer look at the issues he faces within his own ranks.

In late August, demonstrators took the streets in the western cities of Tripoli and Misurata to denounce corruption and bad governance, and to demand a constitutional referendum and new elections. However, as protests got out of hand, the demonstrators were met with a violent crackdown and live ammunition by military groups. As a response, al-Sarraj announced a 24-hour curfew and temporarily suspended the interior minister Fathi Bashagha as he accused him of mishandling the response to the protests.

Nonetheless, it is an unspoken truth that al-Sarraj also blames him for encouraging these anti-corruption demonstrations as he is extremely weary of Bashagha’s strong international support, especially due to the proximity of the Geneva talks, where there will need to be transnational consensus on Libya’s next leader. Bashagha has been internationally recognized for tackling lawless militias, and is actively seen by the West as a powerful regional ally. 

Hence, regardless of al-Sarraj’s recent apparent success in the Libyan conflict, he steps down amidst turmoil within his own party and an extremely upset population who is tired of the declining social and economic conditions in the country. And although his resignation might come as a peaceful rendition to global preferences, it leaves the GNA leaderless and fully exposed to Haftar’s pressure.

What is changing al-Sarraj’s temperature?

Answer: He is giving up after a long streak of successes. 

After several years of fighting Libya’s second civil war, Khalifa Haftar ordered the Libyan National Army (LNA) to capture the city of Tripoli on April 4th 2019. This year-long offensive granted the Eastern leader with numerous territorial gains and it unveiled the intricate web of foreign supporters that were dictating the outcomes of each battle. On the one hand, Haftar’s forces are supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and -clandestinely- France. On the other, al-Sarraj’s GNA is backed by the UN, Qatar, and -most recently- Turkey

And so, propelled by his allies, Haftar’s Tripoli offensive advanced in his favor for the first few months, but as al-Sarraj signed a mutual defense agreement with Erdogan in November of 2019, the tables turned. This agreement granted the GNA military training and weapons for the war while allowing Turkey to claim controversial maritime drilling zones and to keep an eye on Egypt’s moves. 

Thus, throughout the past few months, al-Sarraj had achieved a fiery comeback in the developments of the civil war, mostly thanks to Turkey’s financial and military support. By late May 2020, Haftar’s major western supply town of Tarhouna had been taken by the GNA, which resulted in the discovery of 11 mass graves containing bodies of children and of people buried alive by Haftar’s forces. 

At the sight of defeat, Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi proposed -on behalf of Haftar- a ceasefire on the 6th of June. As a response -and on behalf of al-Sarraj- Turkey rejected the proposal alleging that it was done on bad faith. However, as the GNA continued to push East, on June 20th al-Sisi announced potential aggressive Egyptian intervention if al-Sarraj’s forces (and most importantly, Turkey) advanced toward Sirte. This town, currently controlled by Haftar, is strategically significant as it lies 800km from Egypt’s borders and is next to Libya’s oil crescent.

Tired of persistent and inefficient foreign intervention, the GNA and the eastern House of Representatives announced a ceasefire in late August and have since pushed forward bilateral talks to reach a legitimate consensus and an end to the conflict. After his ardent come-back and such optimistic prospect, al-Sarraj’s cold-hearted resignation will leave his political opportunities frozen at a standstill. 

What is driving al-Sarraj?

 Answer: His desires to give Libya the peace it deserves.

Libya has been suffering the horrors of civil war for the past decade. When Muammar Gaddafi was assassinated in 2011, elections were called and the Government of National Congress was elected to ease the country into a democratic regime. Nonetheless, the constant threat of violence and skirmishes by militias made it impossible for the GNC to exert its authority, and in 2014 Libya held elections once again. With only 18% turnout and after several violent incidents, the House of Representatives elections was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Thus, in 2015, a Presidency Council was established after the signature of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement in order to manage cooperation between the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the newly-created GNA. However, as the two parties do not recognize each other and as each side is supported by a different international coalition, Libya has had to endure almost 6 years of a second civil war. 

Throughout this conflict, al-Sarraj has led the GNA in the war efforts, but he has also made numerous attempts to bring the war to an end. He has visibly portrayed greater determination to sign ceasefires than his opponent, who has walked away from several peace talks and has broken promises to halt violence. In the end, al-Sarraj seems to be truly motivated by the possibility of peace and stability. 

After years of unsuccessful negotiation with national and international actors, the GNA leader has observed how foreign intervention is the most effective way to dictate the outcome of the war. Hence, al-Sarraj knows that after the talks in Bouznika and the August ceasefire, the Geneva talks in October will be essential in determining Libya’s future. Ideally, the constituents of this conflict will establish a new presidential council and will solidify the March 2021 elections.

Thus, due to al-Sarraj’s declining public image and lack of internal support, he has decided to abruptly step aside as a sign of good faith and in order to put sufficient pressure on the international community to elect a suitable candidate as soon as possible. It is left to be seen if his years-long efforts will bear their fruits. 

What does it mean for you?

Answer: Libya’s stability has crucial consequences even beyond its borders.

Al-Sarraj’s resignation will leave the UN-backed GNA weakened and vulnerable to internal discussion between senior figures, but it could also give leeway for more consensus within the international community regarding his replacement. Either way, al-Sarraj’s decision will affect the outcome of a war that will ultimately have global repercussions. 

Firstly, the country holds the biggest oil reserves in the continent, and the conflict has led to Haftar’s prolonged blockade of the crude. Since January, the country’s output has been reduced from one million to 100,000 bpd, which has also deepened Libya’s economic struggle.  

 Besides oil, Libya is a key player in migrants trying to reach Europe, and the EU has been willing to cooperate with Libyan authorities to tackle the issue. Regardless, since 2016 more than 60,000 migrants have been captured at sea and disembarked in Libya, 9,000 of them in 2020 alone. Moreover, once they arrive in Libya, they face appalling treatment, disappearances and even murder. Libya is also a significant source of these migrants, as throughout this conflict it has left more than 400,000 internally displaced persons and 645,000 asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. 

Finally, Libya’s strategic geographical position makes it a focal point in the region’s geopolitics. As Turkey got actively involved in the conflict through the 2019 maritime agreement with al-Sarraj, it sparked volatile tensions with Greece in the Mediterranean region, which has -in turn- has highly involved other countries. For instance, the EU is supposed to meet to discuss sanctions against Turkey, which must be unanimously approved.

This has mobilized countries to influence other European nations to vote in their favor. For instance, France has vigorously called for a Pax Mediterranea; a Franco-Italian partnership to police the region. Nonetheless, Italy also wants to play in her own favor as 9% of its total oil imports come from GNA-held territory and as one of her largest oil and gas companies, Eni, controls 45% of Libya’s oil and energy production. 

Not only has Libya’s struggle been fully influenced by foreign actors and their priorities, but it reciprocally affects the global order. Knowing the ultimate futility of his actions, and regardless of his past victories, al-Sarraj has decided to step aside in order to ease the transition into a new way of governance.