On October 14, militia forces under the political command of Khalifa al-Ghawil seized the Rixos Hotel complex, where the United Nations-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA) Presidential Council maintained offices and residence, and declared that they had ousted the GNA and installed a Government of National Salvation. Al-Ghawil, who served briefly as Prime Minister under a previous government, told reporters on the day he declared the coup that he had the backing of the Grand Mufti, Sadiq al-Ghariani, who heads the Libyan Fatwa Council. Some elements of the recently-formed President Guard reportedly have defected to the Government of National Salvation, although the significance of that shift is unclear.
The situation, nearly two weeks after the coup attempt, remains anything but certain. At least four leading Tripoli area militia leaders have aligned with al-Ghawil, but their support is, at best, opportunistic and unreliable. The militia leaders are Haitham Altajuri, Ghenew Alkikki, Salah Badi, and Mustafa Kara. Badi is from Misurata and is opposed by the most powerful political figure in Misurata, Ahmed Maiteeq, and two important militias, Katibat Haibous and Liwa al-Mahjoub, all of which are backing the GNA.
The Misurata militias are highly respected, thanks to their pivotal role in the ongoing battle to oust the Islamic State (ISIL) from the port city of Sirte. Because they aligned with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord, the Misurata militias have also enjoyed the backing of US military forces, which have provided close air support in the battle to unseat ISIL from Sirte.
Ultimately, the Government of National Salvation “coup” is limited to the immediate geography around the Rixos Hotel complex. No more than 500 fighters in 80 trucks carried out the takeover of the hotel complex. It remains to be seen whether the seven major militias and the 25 smaller militias, which previously made up the Libyan Dawn coalition that took over and ran Tripoli until the December 2015 UN-brokered National Accord, will come together and back Khalifa al-Ghawil and his GNS. For the time being, al-Ghawil is maintaining his fragile grip on Tripoli via an infusion of foreign cash, which he used to temporarily secure the loyalty of enough of the Libyan Dawn fighters to pull off the hotel takeover. The Libyan Dawn coalition includes some leading Muslim Brotherhood figures and veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), the original Libyan fighters who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s and fought as part of the Arab/Afghan Mujahedeen.
The coup has had no impact, so far, on the actions of General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, which continues to dominate the eastern one-third of Libya, where the three major oil ports are located. The flow of funds to the former Libyan Dawn forces – loosely grouped, for the moment, around the former prime minister al-Ghawil – have served to prevent General Haftar and his eastern Libya-based Army from marching into Tripoli. But that can also change quickly.
Underlying recent developments are factors that will only change gradually, if ever. Firstly, there is no genuine Libyan national identity, and the role of tribes is still powerful. Before the Qaddafi coup, the country was really a loose confederation of three regions under a monarchy—eastern (Benghazi), western (Tripoli), and southern Libya. Qaddafi exploited those fault lines and ruled through pragmatic deals with the three regional entities and ruthless periodic crackdowns. Qaddafi never trusted the tribes, and as a result, he relied on foreign mercenaries from neighboring African states to form his Praetorian Guard, which he armed heavily.
Even at the height of Qaddafi’s power, Libya was never able to exploit its full potential as a major oil producer and exporter. According to one industry expert, if Libya were able to establish a genuine national governing structure and secure significant investments in the petroleum sector, the country could produce as much as nine million barrels of oil per day, putting it in the same category as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States.
But such an undertaking cannot be carried out by a foreign force, even the United Nations, with the backing of the United States, France, and Britain. Strong Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, are debating which factions in Libya they are backing, and those fault lines further complicate the process. On October 7-8, talks took place in Geneva, Switzerland involving all the major internal Libyan factions. The two days of talks were hosted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss NGO. The fact that the talks even took place was heralded as a breakthrough, but within a week of the meeting, al-Ghawil and his forces staged their action, and the United Nations effort is now in shambles.