The on-going war of attrition in Tripoli continues and, unless political dynamics change, it will continue for the foreseeable future. There is likely to be increased momentum behind a third way forward that can compete with Prime Minister Fayez Serraj’s June peace initiative and Khalifa Haftar’s attempted military takeover which are both unlikely to succeed.
This third option could come in the form of: a politician promising unity; a focus on counter-terrorism and coping with the migrant crisis; or a better relationship with Libya’s international partners. For nearly a decade the former Libyan ambassador to the UAE Aref Nayed has claimed to be able to implement this third option.
As an adherent to moderate Sufi Islam — with a reputation as a religious scholar focusing on interfaith dialogue — Nayed made a reputation for himself leading a post-2011 stabilisation team under the first transitional government and served in the UAE. He also shuttled tirelessly between Western capitals educating unfamiliar officials about Libya and the need for assistance in managing a rocky faltering democratic transition. States like France, the UAE, Egypt, and the US may still see him as an attractive candidate to lead Libya who is not as militant and de-stabilising as Haftar but still prioritises counter-terrorism.
Nayed’s public rhetoric subsequently evolved after he resigned in 2015 and poured his energies into publishing analyses which described all of Haftar’s political opponents as ‘terrorists’. With Emirati financial support — including over US$2.5 million on lobbying efforts in the US — he has led the Libyan Institute for Advanced Studies (LIAS) think tank as a mouthpiece for his political views. In mid-2018 he then declared his candidacy for president. He has sought to demonstrate to the international community that, unlike other Libyan leaders, he has clearly organised well-researched policies that use language which is familiar and attractive to foreign partners.
At heart, however, Nayed is — despite invoking religion, ideology, and Libyan national unity in his rhetoric — a politician with an enormous appetite for personal power. Last week it became clearer than ever that he was willing to align himself with Khalifa Haftar and far-right Western leaders to obtain it. Pandering to Donald Trump he blamed the failure to implement the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015 not on any Libyan stakeholder — despite the fact that Haftar’s eastern allies have blatantly obstructed the deal — but on the ‘deep state’ of Obama Administration holdovers in the US State Department. Trump himself has repeatedly railed against this so-called ‘deep state’ for undermining his foreign policy goals.
Nayed also expressed full-throated support for the continuation of Haftar’s campaign in Tripoli. He insisted that Haftar’s forces merely intended to serve as custodians for a democratic transition which, in reality, Haftar has deliberately sabotaged. He falsely claimed that Haftar had nearly won the battle and simultaneously called Haftar’s opponents Islamist ‘parasites’. Much of these statements were based on specious evidence and unsubstantiated speculation. Recent field research in the conflict zone indicates that most of the militias fighting Haftar do not have Islamist leanings. He has even accused the highly respected NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but has provided no evidence.
Nayed’s is unlikely to succeed. He has made formidable enemies with his rhetoric since 2014. His increasing dependence on Haftar and the far-right in both Europe and the US would undermine his ability to execute non-partisan and effective policies even if he wanted to do so.