What is driving unrest in Tripoli, Libya

On 23 August, large protests erupted in the Libyan capital Tripoli, which until recently had been under military attack by rival forces for more than a year. The protests began by decrying endemic corruption and deteriorating living conditions in the capital, controlled by the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA). They started shortly after a long-awaited ceasefire agreement announced days earlier to end the conflict between the rival administrations in the country’s east and west. But soon enough – and after violence against the demonstrators purportedly at the hands of GNA-linked forces – their anger shifted to focus on the GNA itself and its leader, Fayez Sarraj.

The GNA has scrambled to contain protesters’ anger. It appointed a defence minister to replace Sarraj, who had held the post in addition to serving as GNA prime minister, suspended the interior minister, urgently allocated no less than 1.4bn dollars to local municipalities and announced a campaign to end unemployment. However, groups claiming to represent the protesters continue to call for the resignation of all officials, in the east and west, and have vowed to continue demonstrating until their demands are met.

Though the protests have calmed for now, they have served to shed light on major issues of corruption facing the GNA. They also raise the question of whether the UN-recognised government stands on solid popular ground in its conflict with the east-based Libyan National Army (LNA).


Why are people protesting?

Early chants during protests were focused on Tripoli’s worsening socio-economic conditions, calling for basic services such as fuel and electricity. Protesters also chanted against Sarraj and later even gathered outside his house, calling on him and his government to resign. Tripoli has increasingly suffered recurring power cuts, which came as Libyans faced scorching summer heat. Tripoli residents have in fact been protesting power cuts since at least June, largely placing the blame on the General Electric Company of Libya (GECOL), which the country’s Audit Bureau has accused of corruption. The company responded by saying it was not receiving adequate state funding, adding that the fighting around the capital – which began when LNA commander Khalifa Haftar launched a campaign to seize Tripoli in April 2019 and continued until the GNA announced full control over the city last June – halted foreign investment projects. The Tripoli campaign has also been blamed for destroying much of the city’s infrastructure.

Meanwhile, most key oil installations have been blockaded by local groups affiliated to the LNA since January, halting crucial exports. This has further exacerbated the fuel and electricity shortages.


Why the focus on corruption?

Protesters directed their anger on the GNA, accusing it of corruption which has led to their suffering. In 2019, Transparency International ranked Libya 168 out of 180 on its corruption list. The US State Department’s 2019 Libya report also highlighted corruption issues such as graft, bribery and nepotism, noting that they often occur with impunity. In June, the country’s Audit Bureau said it was investigating corruption and bribery within the bureau itself, the English-Language Libya Observer website reported, following news circulating regarding the disappearance of a senior bureau official after receiving millions of dollars’ worth of bribes.

The GNA’s outspoken Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha himself has repeatedly complained of corruption within his ministry as well as by militia groups on which the GNA relies. After his suspension in the backdrop of the protests, Bashagha linked the decision to his criticism of state corruption, Libyan news website Al-Wasat reported. Libyan journalist Ezz al-Din Aguil has told the UAE-based Sky News Arabia TV that the conflicts between Tripoli’s militias and the issue of corruption mean that funds are “stolen” as soon as they come out of the Central Bank. And a comprehensive report by the Small Arms Survey on Tripoli militias has said the armed groups there routinely carry out extortion of institutions including the Central Bank, operating as a cartel. When protesters were fired at, both Sarraj and the interior ministry blamed “infiltrators” for the violence. But a harshly worded statement by Bashagha blaming an armed group has been interpreted to be directed at the Nawasi Battalion, one of the four most powerful Tripoli militias that nominally answer to his ministry, which others including Human Rights Watch have said was responsible for firing on protesters. The Nawasi Battalion merged in December 2018 into the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), charged with maintaining security in the city and has previously been criticised by Bashagha.


Are protesters united?

Despite the protests’ impact, questions have emerged whether the movement is and will remain unified. Shortly after the protests broke out, Libya’s deeply polarised media landscape tackled them very differently. While privately owned outlets such as Al-Wasat and 218 TV highlighted the focus of protesters’ anger against Sarraj and his government, the pro-GNA Libya al-Ahrar left out this detail in its reporting. Instead, it suggested the protests were against “military rule”, a clear allusion to the LNA. However, even when spelling out their demands, protesters have themselves appeared divided. Two statements claiming to represent the Tripoli protesters were issued on 31 August, one giving the current authorities 180 days to cede power, and the other calling for the authorities’ immediate replacement. Each statement presented a different proposed roadmap, contradicting the other statement’s representation of the protest movement.


Have protests uncovered a rift within the GNA?

In January 2019, both Sarraj and the UN Libya Mission UNSMIL voiced support for Bashagha in his role as interior minister. Sarraj told Turkish channel TRT he backed Bashagha because he was “taking positive action in his work”. The Tripoli protests, however, appear to have revealed growing tensions between the two. When Sarraj suspended and called for an investigation into Bashagha, the latter was meeting key Turkish officials, on one of many visits to Ankara. Demonstrations erupted in Bashagha’s hometown of Misrata against his suspension. Both Misrata – a crucial source of powerful militias which have come to back Sarraj’s government – and Turkey are key brokers in GNA-controlled western Libya. When Bashagha returned home, footage emerged of him being received by a crowd. Libyan privately owned 218 TV said the move was a “show of force” by Bashagha to challenge Sarraj. Saudi-funded Al Arabiya TV – which opposes the GNA – meanwhile highlighted “growing disputes” between the two men.

Libya analyst Wolfram Lacher believes Sarraj is trying to appease certain western Libya constituencies, in particular Misrata, with his latest new appointments. Lacher has tweeted that the moves therefore only make sense if Sarraj’s aim is to “prepare the scene for Bashagha’s dismissal”. Meanwhile, Turkish pundits have suggested that the timing of Bashagha’s suspension, during his trip to Ankara, was a message by Sarraj to his interior minister to stay there and not to return.  Ardan Zenturk, writing in the Turkish pro-government Star newspaper, suggested that Sarraj was attempting a break from his Turkish allies, and was ready to dispose of Bashagha to do so.


Could the Tripoli tensions spark renewed conflict?

Addressing the Security Council on 2 September, UN Libya envoy Stephanie Williams warned that the unrest, and the poor socio-economic conditions sparking the protests, adds to Libya’s instability and threaten the country’s “fragile calm”. Much of the focus on the capital and indeed all of Libya for more than a year has been on the LNA offensive on GNA-held Tripoli. The conflict eventually stalled and has ended in a fragile ceasefire. But throughout the campaign, the LNA and affiliated eastern-based administration repeatedly said they were seeking to “liberate” the capital and come to the aid of its residents against those controlling Tripoli.

The renewed grievances in Tripoli could now provide the LNA with a justification for a new offensive. However, this is unlikely to materialise, as it was in fact the increasing Turkish backing to the GNA which stalled the LNA’s advance and ultimately thwarted its mission. Rather, the protests could strengthen the hand of the LNA’s political allies in eastern Libya. House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh has been pursuing his own roadmap for political transition in Libya, which has secured backing from key allies internationally, and has recently reiterated eastern accusations that the GNA is not fairly distributing oil revenues.

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