The rise of violent Islamist movements in Syria and Iraq – in the form of Islamic State (IS) – is covered in detail by numerous news media across the world. In Libya a similar struggle between government forces and Islamist rebels has severely fragmented the country but this conflict has to date received only limited attention. Today, the Libyan Parliament rejected the new cabinet that was presented by acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, further aggravating the political crisis in this North African country.
Rejection of new cabinet
Yesterday, on 17 September, acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni presented a cabinet with 16 ministers. Today, the Libyan Parliament rejected his list of ministers, which includes prominent human rights activist Farida Allaghi as Foreign Minister. Thinni, himself a former career soldier, has been acting Prime Minister since March of this year. He stood down after the elections in June but was reappointed by the new Parliament early in September.
The names on the list were not publicly announced. Parliamentarians told the media that Thinni had dubiously decided to appoint himself as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Furthermore, the list supposedly included some figures from the previous government. Yesterday, after Thinni’s announcement, prominent lawmaker Issam Al-Uraibi immediately predicted that the list was - for the abovementioned reasons - likely going to be rejected by the Libyan Parliament.
On the road to a civil war?
After dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 the armed Islamist rebels who backed the insurgency against Gaddafi kept their weapons, staking claims to territory, oil and other resources. Last month an Islamist group from the western city Misrata was able to conquer Libya’s capital city Tripoli, forcing the government to seek refuge in Tobruk, a city in the far east of the country. This Misrata group has since then set up its own (internationally unrecognised) parliament and government.
Acting Prime Minister Thinni has so far proved unable to impose order on the increasingly fragmented country. Due to its weak central government and the lack of a functional army, the Libyan government has traditionally relied on a large number of militia groups to guarantee national security. Prominent Libya expert George Joffe estimates that there are at present around 350 militia groups operating in Libya.
Since the ousting of dictator Gaddafi, the Libyan government has increasingly lost control of these armed groups, which now receive salaries from the government but act independently. The Zintan militias, for example, were tasked by the government with guarding Tripoli's international airport since taking control of it in 2011. However, they refused to leave. The Misrata fighters that forced the current Libyan government into exile in August are similarly on the Ministry of Defence’s payroll. To complicate matters further, both groups have come under attack from the Libya Revolutionary Operations Room, another group on the state's payroll that until October 2013 was tasked by the government with protecting the capital.
El Sharara oil field closed down after rocket attack
In a major blow to the government, a highly important oil field in El Sharara was closed down today after an armed group hit a crucial storage tank with a rocket. This is the first time since July that Libya’s thriving oil industry is affected by the fighting. Libya’s oil production is predicted to drop as a result of the closure.
These worrying developments lead many observers to conclude that Libya is heading for a civil war. Libya expert Joffe believes the civil war will be fought on two fronts. “One [will be] a struggle between nationalists and Islamists, and the Islamists were worsted in the [June] elections but are determined to maintain power,” Joffe says. “The other will be between east and west - whether the country remains as a single unit and whether it is controlled from Tripoli or whether the east in Cyrenaica breaks away and is controlled from Benghazi.”
At a conference in Madrid yesterday, western powers and Arab countries called for an immediate cease-fire in Libya. “There is a humanitarian drama unfolding which needs to be urgently addressed,” said the conference's final communiqué. In the same meeting, Libya's struggling Tobruk government and representatives of 15 neighbouring nations have unanimously rejected the idea of military intervention as a way to restore stability in the oil-rich North African nation.
Meanwhile, various neighbouring countries have become involved in the conflict. A United States (US) official anonymously proclaimed on August 25 that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have launched air strikes on Misrata forces in support of the Libyan government. Both deny their involvement. Similarly, Thinni’s administration has accused Sudan of sending a transport plane loaded with munitions to the Islamist militias who now control Tripoli.
At the same time, Libya's western neighbours Algeria and Tunisia are reinforcing their borders after Tunisia's army captured a jeep loaded with weapons smuggled across the Libyan border last week. Both states fear that Libya's war will spill over their borders, with Algeria concerned about a possible repeat of the Islamist attack launched from Libya last year on a gas plant which cost 50 people their lives.
Sources: European Forum, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The Guardian (1), (2), Al Jazeera (1), (2), Reuters (1), (2)