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Libyan Bikers, and Everybody Else, Fight for Normalcy in a Devastated Country

Libya has a new, UN-backed government and two others fighting for control. That's making life impossible for Libyans, including a biker club that's got nowhere left to ride.

by Rebecca Murray
May 19 2016, 11:10am

Des membres des forces de l'ordre inspectent un site après un attentat suicide, qui a fait au moins 70 morts dans un poste de police, à Zliten en Libye, le 7 janvier 2016. Photo via EPA

This is an important week for Libya, which began Monday with a gathering of foreign ministers in Vienna to shore up support for the new United Nations-backed government, one of the three competing authorities in the country — and the one's that's getting Western backing to fight the local Islamic State (IS) offshoot. The meeting ended with a promise to back efforts to prevent illegal migration from reaching European shores through Libya, as well.

The Government of National Accord or GNA is the international community's latest attempt to try and stabilize a country in disarray since the 2011 ouster of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. After an agreement among international backers including the US and European Union countries, the GNA has set up shop in the capital Tripoli, promising security, a better economy, and that international support.

Confusingly, Libya now has three proclaimed governing bodies — one in the east and two based in Tripoli — all with questionable legitimacy and varying degrees of control. For a country with more than 400,000 internally displaced people, rapidly running out of revenue as its oil production falls and prices remain low, and with a new war brewing against the Islamic State-allied militia in its center, this is a toxic mix.

Libya's newest Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, sits at a heavily guarded naval base along Tripoli's waterfront, where he arrived by boat on March 30 after threats by opposing politicians and their allied militias prevented his plane from landing.

Sarraj is supported by some powerful armed groups, like the brigades from the city of Misrata that have been a key power in Libya since playing a major role in the 2011 revolution. He's also backed by a Salafist, or hardcore Islamist, police force that has been fighting against an even more radical Muslim group: the local Islamic State militants, which got the world's attention after attacking Tripoli's Corinthia Hotel in January last year.

The GNA is engaged in a military push to IS fighters back to their stronghold of Sirte, their biggest base outside of the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. On Wednesday, forces loyal to the GNA made some advance, officials said, but lost more than 30 men.

But for average Libyans, life hasn't improved since the GNA's arrival. Even in Tripoli, the order of the day is economic chaos and instability — and even tough guys like the leather-clad bikers of the Sons of Sahara motorcycle club have a hard time.

One warm spring evening along a busy Tripoli highway, the club met up with up other young bikers to celebrate the opening of a café by one of their own. Libya was, they said, a free-for-all.

"When you live without law it, is like a jungle," said biker Tariq Shalbot, recalling that he had to guard his home from looters during the fighting in Tripoli in the summer of 2014. Things have become even worse, he said: "This past year was very, very bad, the worst year. I don't know about the new government, I am just waiting. I don't trust anyone. Only family and friends."

Libya's unity government's Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj (fourth from left) chairs a meeting of the presidential council with Tripoli municipal council in Tripoli, Libya, 31 March 2016. Photo by stringer/EPA

Libya's financial crisis and lack of security are closely intertwined. The militias that hold sway in the absence of a strong central power are steeped in a culture of robbery and kidnapping that is making economic rebirth hard. Some of them have even been enlisted by the GNA to help with security in Tripoli; there is no really effective national police force.

Stories abound of bank staff tipping off militias about certain clients' wealth for kidnapping and extortion, militias laundering cash through real estate deals made under false names, and businessmen scamming government funds through false deals involving letters of credit.

So, on the eve of the Muslim month-long fasting period of Ramadan, which begins in early Junetraditionally a time for giving to charity, and for family and friends — Libyans find their finances in dire straits.

Shops along the battered thoroughfares in downtown Tripoli are mostly shuttered; people crowd the banks, increasingly desperate to withdraw meager salaries or social security funds. But with little cash in the vaults, banks have limited withdrawals to a few hundred dinars each. And while the official exchange rate is just over one dinar to a US dollar, on the black market the Libyan currency is worth three times less.

Related: African Migrants in Libya Face Kidnapping, Torture, and Robbery on Smuggling Route to Europe

"People are becoming sarcastic about the GNA," said Sami Khashkhusha, an economics professor at Tripoli University. "They are losing momentum. To get to the hearts of people is through their stomach. They want their salaries, they want services, there are electricity cuts starting again. And there is no cash — on paper they have salaries, but they receive nothing."

Sarraj won the support of institutions vital to the economy, including the central bank and national oil company — which is a greatly diminished entity compared to just after the revolution, when Libya pumped 1.6 million barrels a day, down to just 200,000 now.

But that does not mean he really wields power in the country. Rival premier Khalifa Ghwell from the National Salvation government has refused to step down after Sarraj's arrival. Meanwhile, the parliament in exile, which fled to Tobruk near the Egyptian border after a bloody battle for power around Tripoli's airport in the summer of 2014, has refused to vote the GNA into power, as required by the UN.

In April, a stream of foreign dignitaries got a red carpet welcome at the navy base where the GNA is holed up, when they came to pay their respects and pledge investment once the new government gets on its feet. Their priorities are to destroy the Islamic State's affiliate in Libya and stop migrants from reaching European shores, as criminal gangs exploit the country's lawlessness to smuggle people through.

But for Anas el-Gomati, an analyst at Sadeq Institute, a Libya-based think tank, western countries backing the GNA have done little to address the underlying causes of the country's chronic chaos — especially the militias and political corruption that is running Libya into the ground — instead prioritizing the fight against ISIS.

"In terms of the Libyan transition to democracy, the international community has not felt the need to reprimand the spoilers, or sort out the civil war once and for all," he said. "The competition over financial and military resources has actually been heightened, by them saying you can be anyone just as long as you are not ISIS."

One real center of power in fact may not be in Tripoli at all, but far to the east in Tobruk. That's not only the seat of the third rival prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, and the exiled House of Representatives, but also the base for the unilateral military campaign waged by controversial strongman Khalifa Haftar, an ex-general in Qaddafi's army who came back from US exile to lead a fighting force backed primarily by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Watch VICE News' Libya's Quiet War: The Tuareg of South Libya

Haftar is avowedly fighting against Islamist militias, but detractors in places like Tripoli and the central Libyan town of Misrata compare him to the authoritarian Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — and say he is after oil and power and will reverse the revolution. Flush from victories over Islamic State offshoots in parts of Benghazi and Derna, Haftar is now gunning for the estimated 4,000 militants at their base in Sirte too.

Haftar's refusal to coordinate with the GNA on a military push against IS has also put him on a collision course once again with revolutionary powerhouse Misrata, whose fighters played an outsize role in the battle against the Qaddafi regime. Just over one year ago, fighters from Misrata clashed with Haftar's forces over the lucrative central oil fields at Sidra, near Sirte, and Misratans consider Haftar and IS a dual deadly threat.

According to a report published Wednesday by Human Rights Watch about IS in Libya, the militants have imposed strict interpretations of Sharia law in Sirte and have created dismal living conditions. "The group is failing to provide basic necessities to the local population. Instead it is diverting food, medicine, fuel, and cash, along with homes it confiscated from residents who fled, to as many as 1,800 fighters, police and functionaries it has amassed in the city," the watchdog group said.

A member of the Sons of Sahara displays a club t-shirt in Tripoli. Photo by Rebecca Murray/VICE News

In Tripoli, the chasm between a desire for stability and the everyday reality is evident in the Sons of Sahara, the bikers' club that's been trying in vain to turn Libya's coastal highway into one they can ride on without fear.

Police under Qaddafi would stop bikers who rode together, and often confiscate the bikes, said Salah al-Morjini, 28, a founding member of the Sons of Sahara. Just after the revolution, riders in Benghazi helped his friends make a euphoric trip to Derna, 1,300 km (830 mi) away, before Islamist extremists took the picturesque town over.

Morjini, like many Libyan bikers, bought his Harley in the US, with hard-won profits from his fish wholesale business, and had it shipped by sea before the economic crisis in the past few years hit Libya hard. He used to swap stories, and spare parts, with his fellow bikers in Benghazi.

"But this has gotten really difficult to do this now," Morjini sighed. Some of his Benghazi contacts are now fighting, or in exile. "For a bike to come from Benghazi now, it has to go to the south, around IS territory in Sirte, before it reaches Tripoli."

Morjini, a former revolutionary fighter, says the heavy security presence that came with the GNA in the capital's downtown and the international drumbeat for war against IS is an ominous sign Libya might be headed back into conflict. Much of the country is off limits to his riders anyway, due to conflict or kidnapping.

Recently, he said, the Sons of Sahara had to scrap a ride to Khoms, a seaside town next to the famous Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. "We thought it would be shameful to ride," he said, "while others were fighting IS nearby."

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