Confusion over false resignation of Tripoli government
Last week in Libya Focus, we reported that Khalifa Ghwell and his western government had immediately agreed to comply with State Council’s order to step down in favour of the Presidency Council and the GNA.
Ghwell’s decision seemed surprising because, only days earlier, he had called on local militias to rise up against the Presidency Council in Tripoli and expel them back to Tunis.
Yet a statement was quickly posted on Ghwell’s justice ministry’s website stating that the government had ceased all operations and would no longer bear responsibility for any future decision-making.
Hours later, as if to confirm the handover, it appeared as though the Presidency Council had taken over the official Prime Minister’s website, which Ghwell had previously controlled.
These moves raised domestic and international hopes that the number of competing governments in Libya was gradually diminishing as momentum behind the GNA grows. There was even hope that eastern premier, Abdullah Al-Thani, would also soon step down.
Within 24 hours, however, Ghwell contradicted all reports that his government had resigned. His justice ministry has been much more amenable to the GNA than other ministries, which could explain its eagerness to resign after the 5 April State Council meeting.
Instead, Ghwell instructed all his ministers to stay in their positions and to refrain from working with the Presidency Council.
Ghwell’s about-face illustrates yet another challenge that the Presidency Council and the UN will face in their efforts to re-unify the country. These divisions — even within each of the competing governing authorities — will make it even more difficult to aggregate sufficient political acceptance of the GNA to give it undisputed authority.
If Ghwell’s government appears to be gaining enough momentum, it could also reverse some of the militia loyalty to the Presidency Council in Tripoli. On 10 April there were reports the Presidency Council was unable to leave its Abu Sitta naval base headquarters because it was surrounded by hostile militias.
At the same time, however, Libyans are eager for Ghwell to step down. For the first time ever, on 8 April there were pro- House and GNA demonstrations in Tripoli.
Opposition from the east threatens to split the country
In addition to confusing and unhelpful actions within its own structures, and continuing resistance from Ghwell’s rival government in Tripoli, the new GNA also faces challenges from rival factions that still receive symbolic and material support from external actors.
This is particularly problematic in the east, which has historically seen strong support for provincial autonomy or even independence.
Despite Presidency Council member Fathi Majberi’s meetings with eastern mayors on 9 April, there has been inadequate support for the GNA in the east. Although Ibrahim Jedhran — the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) which is protecting the major oil installations in the Sirte Basin — announced his support for the GNA in early April, one week later PFG Brigade 152 announced that it would be following orders from Jedhran’s rival Haftar, who opposes the Presidency Council until the House approves it.
The recent competition between eastern power centres and the Presidency Council have accentuated the federalist, and at times, separatist dynamic in Libyan politics. Kobler has been very focused on co-opting Islamists — by meeting again with Abdelhakim Belhadj and, possibly, Ali Sallabi, in Istanbul last week — instead of meeting with eastern federalists.
The international neglect of sceptical easterners is extremely risky. A great deal is at stake for Libya and the IOCs that have traditionally worked in Libya if the east should break away. Over 60% of Libya’s oil reserves and production is in the east and, if it breaks away from the rest of Libya, the IOCs would have to decide whether to recognise the new country and, if they do, how to secure a new headquarters in Benghazi, where a parallel National Oil Corporation would be based.