In a conversation with TRT World, GNA leader Feyaz al Sarraj shone a light on some critical aspects of the Libyan conflict, including the militias that control large parts of the country.
Adnan Sweithi fled from his home in al Sawani, a small town south of the Libyan capital Tripoli, in autumn this year and ever since he and his family have been squatting in an eight-storey, semi-constructed apartment building in the centre of the city.
“We are dreaming of having electricity. We don’t know how long we will stay here. Honestly it’s a miserable situation…we are fed up," said 45-year-old Sweithi, as he walked up the stairs to the sixth floor of an abandoned apartment complex.
His story resonates with 60,000 Libyans who left their homes from April after the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to retake Tripoli from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the militias that had been in control of the capital since late 2015.
The conflict is causing a massive humanitarian fallout. From deaths to disease to displacement, the country stands divided amongst several militias and one of its last hopes--a UN-backed government led by Feyaz al Sarraj — is facing a constant threat from Haftar, exposing the entire region to a great suffering.
Sarraj, the head of UN-backed Government of National Accord, says there's an urgent need to reconcile with pro-GNA militias, calling them the country's "reality".
“Libya’s militias are a reality. Ours is not a normal situation where you can establish a military in a professional manner that works according to a specific criterion. Our situation requires us to include these militias and to eventually work towards dismantling them in a way that they will get absorbed into the state institutions” he told TRT World in an exclusive interview with TRT World in Tripoli.
Sarraj is an architect by training. He had once consulted for slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s ministry of development on construction in Tripoli. He then found himself in an unlikely position as head of a transitional council, constituted by Libya’s warring factions to end years of civil strife following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
“I was born in Tripoli in 1960, I was an architect and I have a Masters degree in business management. I have also been a former member of the Libyan parliament. I lived in Libya for the last 59 years with all its tragedies, with all its joy, with all its sadness. I lived with the sons of my country. I grew up in this country. I was educated in this country and my destiny brought me to head the Presidential Council of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) by late 2015," remembered Sarraj.
The consensus that elevated Sarraj to head the presidential council would soon fall apart after differences emerged between factions in Benghazi and Tobruk, where Libya’s parliament is based and Tripoli and Misrata, where most of the militias supporting the GNA came from.
Organising militias into a professional army proved to be the least of the challenges that would beset Sarraj and his GNA. He soon faced a much more potent threat--Khalifa Haftar.
To say that 75-year-old Haftar has led many lives would be an understatement. Haftar was once Libya’s most decorated soldier after Gaddafi. He had trained in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and had led Libya’s army to many a victory in neighbouring countries, including Niger. But the rising star’s fortunes would soon wane after a disastrous campaign in Chad, where rebels would rout Libyan forces fighting under Haftar’s command.
The defeat led to Haftar falling out of favour with Gaddafi. Years of exile followed. But not everyone abandoned Haftar. The commander found new friends in exile with US intelligence taking a particular interest in his future.
Haftar wound up settling in the US state of Virginia, not far from his patrons in Langley. Despite no official source of income, Haftar’s neighbours would often see him and his sons driving in fancy new cars. He would be found in the elite clubs in Fairfax County, rubbing shoulders with senators and congressmen. But it was still a life of exile and the temptation of what could have been was never far from Haftar’s mind. A moment would arrive, years later, where the general would find his star on the rise again.
“We need to take your readers back a few years. We need to understand how things transpired in Libya after 2011”, Sarraj said. Wearing a black turtleneck over a black suit, Sarraj can be an imposing personality. But once the architect-turned-politician starts to speak Arabic, in his dulcet tones, he soon disarms his audience. There is a certain humility in his demeanor, more akin to an uncle next door.
The uprising that led to the fall of the Gaddafi regime began as bits and pieces of smuggled out information, some fact, some fiction, which started to trickle in on the alleged abuses of his regime. The so-called Arab Spring had started to sweep through the Middle East and North Africa. From Tunisia, where Ben Ali had ruled with an iron fist, to Egypt where Hosni Mubarak’s regime was shaking, to Syria and beyond, March 2011 proved to be the undoing of the once-mighty Gaddafi who led a group of young Libyan military officers against King Idris I in a bloodless coup d'état on September 1 1969.
“Gaddafi soon became what might have been called the boogeyman of the century,’’ writes Andrey Chuprygin in his essay The MENA Region: A Great Power Competition. “The main reason was…his ambitions, populist approach and theatrical disregard of the established rules of conduct in the international milieu."
The Libyan leader, a populist not just in his own country, but as far as Pakistan, where the country’s main cricket stadium in the city of Lahore was named after him, “was accused of everything from aiding the Palestinian Jihad group” fighting Israeli occupation “to financing and arming and financing the Irish Republican Army IRA, to the Lockerbie disaster” wrote Chuprygin.
The ghost of Pan Am Flight 103, bombed over the Scottish town of Lockerbie by two of Gaddafi’s agents, would haunt the strongman until the very end of his life.
“Much of the analysis of Libya, post-2011 has relied extensively on the dominant narrative of the Arab Spring, so much so that there is a dearth of out-of-the-box thinking on these issues. Thus it became a given that the revolution in Libya was a direct extension of the movements in Tunisia and Egypt," wrote Chuprygin. For the writer, this theory while factually correct is an oversimplification to describe the populist revolt against Gaddafi.
Chuprygin cites sources in the Kremlin as now believing that the revolt was in fact a military coup that went wrong. The sources cite Gaddafi's increasing influence in Africa and the Mediterranean in his “newly acquired image as a dove in the region”.
“Some people had conspiracy theories that there are some countries working to destabilise Libya by creating wars and strife, as time passed it appeared that this is true” said Sarraj recounting the events that led to the overthrow of Gaddafi, whom the head of the GNA considers a tyrant.
“A large number of weapons ended up in the hands of Libya’s youth due to the events in 2011, which led to the formation of armed militias that are now present all over Libya. Now these military formations aren’t only present in the west, they are everywhere. They evolved differently depending on the resistance they put up against the previous regime," said Sarraj.