Sarraj and postcolonialism in Libya

Fayez al-Sarraj and his new UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA) sailed into Tripoli at the end of last month faced with the daunting task of uniting a fractured country.

Despite warnings from rival factions that the new administration was not welcome in the Libyan capital, and the closing down of the city’s airport in an attempt to stop him flying in, Sarraj returned from self-imposed exile in Tunisia with the immediate task of asserting his new government’s authority on a country divided since the last years of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. The new national unity government, which has set up home at the heavily guarded Tripoli Naval Base, was formed with the unanimous support of the United Nations and is designed to replace two existing rival administrations based in Tripoli and Tobruk.

As well as the need to win the backing of these two rival governments, Sarraj also needs to win the support of the multitude of militias operating across the country. The job at hand is not one to be underestimated as the security of the North African country becomes a priority for EU ministers. With now three separate governments operating in the country, the situation becomes increasingly complex. In a televised address, the Head of the General National Congress, Nouri Abusahmain, warned that the new government was illegal and that Sarraj should leave Tripoli or hand himself in. Despite the protestations, the arrival of Sarraj has so far proved to be relatively trouble free.

Libya descended into chaos after the NATO-backed overthrowing of Gaddafi, and the country has since been blighted by civil war, floods of desperate migrants attempting to flee across the Mediterranean for safety to Europe, and the ominous threat from Daesh, whose numbers have grown in the country since suffering major setbacks in Iraq and Syria.

Ministers from a number of European Union states have flown into Tripoli to show support for the GNA over the last few weeks, and Western governments have promised financial aid and military training to help Sarraj consolidate power. The first senior Western official to arrive in the country was Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and no one will be keener to see stability in Libya than the administration in Rome.

Sarraj has himself spoken of the importance of fostering good relations with Italy as the two Mediterranean neighbours seek to find solutions to a number of bilateral concerns, none perhaps more pressing for Italy than the migration crisis and the operations of oil giant ENI. Italy’s historic colonial relationship with Libya nonetheless means that Sarraj’s courting of Italian support may undermine his quest for nation-wide backing.

Italian Colonisation

Italy, for over three decades from 1911 to 1947, occupied and subsequently colonised Libya after defeating the Ottoman Empire in the Italo-Turkish war ending in 1912. This period of often brutal Italian rule resulted in the deaths of thousands of Libyans and gave rise to an anti-colonial struggle headed by Omar Mukhtar, a national hero among Libyans ever since.

For two decades, until his capture and execution in 1931, Mukhtar, the Quranic-teacher-turned-freedom-fighter, managed to exact a number of humiliating defeats on Italian forces despite the latter’s technological advantage. He was able to rely on widespread support among the Libyan populace and from abroad. So effective a leader of the Libyan resistance was Mukhtar that some Italian generals are said to have viewed him with respect.

The reverence for Mukhtar, held by the Libyan people, has been evident ever since. Gaddafi himself invoked the memory of Mukhtar in an attempt to legitimise his own rule. On a visit to Rome in 2009 the controversial and flamboyant leader symbolically wore a picture of Mukhtar on his chest. Years before that he funded the making of the film about Mukhtar Lion of the Desert. Mukhtar became an icon for anti-colonial struggles across the Arab world and further afield.

In the battle to depose Gaddafi in 2011, rebel forces themselves appropriated the image and memory of Mukhtar, showing again that Libyans of all backgrounds hold him in the highest regard. Mukhtar’s son stated during the campaign to depose Gaddafi that his father would have been on the side of the rebels.

This anti-colonial narrative that has since developed and had been promulgated by Gaddafi during his confrontations with Western powers and with his support for Pan-Africanism and Arabism has been the overarching theme of recent Libyan history. This theme has embedded itself deep in the psyche of many Libyans.

Domestic and International Support

This then causes Sarraj some difficulty. He needs to tread carefully and will no doubt have these sensitivities in mind when dealing with other foreign powers and with Italy in particular if he is to garner and hold onto the support of the powerful Libyan factions. These faction are crucial to how the future of the Libyan state plays out.

As important as domestic support is to the success of the GNA, Sarraj also needs to foment continued international backing in order to confront some of the major challenges facing the country. Italy has already sent medical supplies to Tripoli and this kind of help is surely welcome. What would not be welcome by many Libyan’s is the Italian government’s offer to lead any future NATO military campaign in the country despite stressing its desire for diplomatic solutions to the many issues needing to be addressed.

Despite the fact that some Libyan rebels welcomed NATO assistance in the campaign against Gaddafi, deeper Western military involvement would be extremely unpalatable for many Libyans. Airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq and Syria have weakened the organisation to some extent and Western policymakers may have been encouraged by this to such an extent that increased intervention in Libya to combat their growing presence becomes ever more appealing.

Other Western states, such as France and Germany, have offered to train Libyan security forces to help enable them to combat the series of problems that Sarraj’s government will be forced to confront and EU foreign and defence ministers have recently met to discuss and pledge future support for the GNA.

Sarraj then has plenty to consider while trying to win support at home and abroad. He has spoken of the need to strengthen ties with Italy and of a “very deep rooted relationship” between Libya and Italy. The historical aspect of this relationship, however, may prove to be a hindrance, and the talk of needing to develop closer relations with Italy may backfire.

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