“Lesser of two evils”: analysing Fayez Al-Sarraj's leadership
Illustration by Nicola March

Fayez Al-Sarraj is the head of the Presidential Council of the provisional Libyan government and the Prime Minister. He was born in 1960 to a political family. His father held political office in the post-independence government under the monarch King Idris. His appointment as head of the provisional government in 2015 was surprising to many, but what has his time in office revealed?

Over 9 years since the beginning of the 17th February Libyan revolution, the country, as a result of both international and domestic factors, has failed to reach any sort of political stability. And the most recent case why: the announcement of Prime Minister, Fayez Al-Sarraj’s resignation- who plans to hand over power by the end of October.

Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj’s time in power has been characterised by his latest years fighting against the warlord who was formerly exiled by Gadaffi: Khalifa Haftar. The civil war between the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Haftar and the Government of National Accord (GNA) was not the GNA’s choice. Al-Sarraj remained adamant that the GNA only acted in self defence and he strongly argued for political solutions over military ones. He had plenty of faith in a series of conferences to solve the Libyan crisis. They were attended by 12 heads of states and the last of the conferences was in Berlin at the beginning of 2020.

Although, Al-Sarraj’s commitment to political solutions and negotiation over military solutions were not exempt from criticism. Many Libyans and those in the international community who are anti-Haftar, as well as the LNA, argued that it was an invitation for the LNA to gain territory. Al-Sarraj stated in an interview with Al-Jazeera that his approach was a result of his commitment to ending the civilian death rate in the civil war. On the contrary, many admired the length of time his insistence on political solutions lasted. But, the militarisation against Haftar stepped up after involvement from the Turkish military.

Al-Sarraj’s time in power hasn’t just been comprised of the latest civil war that began on April 14th 2019. His first major challenge in power was defeating the Islamic State in the areas Daesh has conquered. Al-Sarraj pleaded for international help to defeat IS, his forces were too weak to recapture his territory in Western Libya. This was thematic throughout his leadership; Al-Sarraj has been portrayed and has arguably behaved as a relatively weak and dependent Prime Minister. The criticisms of him being too weak have been echoed from his opposition, Khalifa Haftar. Ironically, despite Haftar criticising Al-Sarraj for international help when fighting ISIS, Haftar’s military operations have been dependent on help and weaponry from the UAE, France and Russia as well as mercenaries from other African nations such as Sudan.

In August 2020 protests erupted in many GNA controlled cities such as the capital Tripoli as well as smaller cities such as Misrata and Al-Zawiyah. The protests were a reaction to poor living standards, such as daily power cuts that last for hours on end, often accompanied by water cuts. Unemployment due to the war and the high Covid-19 numbers were also catalysts for the protests and civilian frustration. Despite the Prime Minister addressing the this with a cabinet reshuffle and suspension of some ministers in a lengthy speech, protests continued. On the 13th September protestors gathered outside the Presidential Council. They demanded elections and overwhelming reform of the clearly failing political system. Three days after this, Al-Sarraj announced his resignation.

The GNA and the Prime Minister were also under fire from human rights groups, including Amnesty International, for their response to the protests this summer. Reports stated that unidentified heavily armed men in military camouflage were used to disperse the protests and that several people were wounded from live ammunition fired onto the crowd. Amnesty International has ordered the GNA uphold the right of civilians to peacefully protest and to conduct a full investigation into the response to protests. The Prime Minister insisted that the protestors did not follow the correct legal procedure in obtaining permission for the protests. 

This certainly is not the first time Al-Sarraj has been under fire from human rights groups, with previous allegations that militia members are being paid and praised by authorities. Militias have committed a plethora of human rights abuses against both Libyan civilians, legal and illegal migrants. Since the formation of the GNA in 2015, it has been argued that they have relied very heavily on militias, despite wanting to be perceived as a political party with integrity that obey the rule of law. Al-Sarraj has desired to expunge the GNA from their militia relations, however he has been unsuccessful.

Overall, Fayez Al-Sarraj’s legacy as Prime Minister will be regarded with neutrality by most Libyans in Libya and in the diaspora. He failed to improve living conditions for his people and bring Libya closer to the end of civil war. The majority of those who gave him any support were motivated to do so by being strongly anti-Haftar, the warlord behind an uncounted death rate. Therefore, while Al-Sarraj does have loyal supporters, the will be seen by the many as simply “the lesser of two evils”.