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Interview with Libya's Prime Minister

'We Will Not Become Like Somalia'

Since March, Fayez Sarraj has been the prime minister of Libya, a country torn by civil war. Now he is tasked with surmounting the country's political divisions and leading the fight against the Islamic State and a network of human-traffickers transporting tens of thousands of migrants to Europe.

Interview Conducted By and
Friday, 8/19/2016   06:18 PM

The power goes out in the capital city for as long as 10 hours a day, there is little cash available at the banks, food prices have skyrocketed and every second hospital is closed due to a lack of medication or staff. There's trash everywhere -- on every street and every corner. People crouch as they walk. Shots can be heard -- isolated ones -- in what has become everyday life in Tripoli, Libya.

"We will burn the ground beneath their feet," Moammar Gadhafi said, threatening his opponents as his time as the country's dictator drew to a close. Gadhafi was shot and killed in 2011, but his threat came true. The massive desert country, with only 6.4 million inhabitants, already had plenty of weapons and ammunition depots even back them. Gadhafi had opened the depots for his supporters and allowed weapons to be sold in the major cities. That same weapons arsenal is Gadhafi's legacy and the basis of today's civil war.

Libya, of course, also had its zero hour -- a time when things could have gone very differently if the United States, Russia, Europe and, naturally, the people of Libya themselves had made a more serious effort. But the opportunity was lost and the old authorities merely got replaced by the anarchy of the militias -- young men, often still children, who control the streets with one gun on their waistband and the other in their hand.

A Dark World

In Tripoli's Qerqarish district, just behind a shopping street where vendors selling brands like Mango and Benetton wait for customers, a dark world begins. With few jobs, little industry and no growth, many here are involved in the smuggling business. They trade in cigarettes and drugs, but mostly in people. Entire parts of the city are sinking into poverty and transforming into a criminal jungle.

Few countries are more important to Germany than Libya right now. Thousands of refugees depart from the country each day as they make their way to Europe, and tens of thousands more are waiting to set sail. Meanwhile, Islamic State has also found a home in this burning country. That makes Libya a center of two of the major issues currently occupying Germany and Europe.

What went wrong? In 2011, there had been a united and victorious battle against Gadhafi's troops. That was Libya's zero hour. But then the rebels split into different camps -- Islamists and non-Islamists -- reigniting old tribal feuds. Only this time everyone had plenty of weapons. Gadhafi's former fighters joined the non-Islamists, as did the army of Khalifa Haftar, the powerful general in the east of the country. Islamic State joined the side of the Islamists. Regional conflicts had already existed even before and today the country is divided between east and west and countless militias, with some disappearing and new ones emerging each week.

Other countries are also, unhelpfully, influencing events in the country. The United Arab Emirates, which did not want the Arab Spring to succeed, sent weapons to the conflict zone. Russia provides General Haftar with weapons. Qatar sends money. Jordan is intervening all over the place on a small scale, as are the United States and France.

The devastated country lacks not only order, but leadership, structure and the sense of common identity that might keep people united in these uncertain times. Instead, each person is out for him or herself, trying to save whatever they can -- their money in the bank, for example. Over 40 billion dinar have been withdrawn from the banks and the central bank -- which has now also been divided, with one in the east and one in the west -- had to print money abroad, one in Britain and the other in Russia. The exchange rate on the black market turned the militia leaders into millionaires. Human-traffickers and drug and weapons smugglers are also buying off politicians, which has contributed to the implosion of the political process that was commenced in 2011 and which is constantly getting set back to zero.

The Main Staging Ground on Path To Europe

As the government structures fall apart, Libya has become the main staging ground on the journey to Europe, a hub for traffickers and refugees alike. No one does anything to help the migrants who have been captured by the Libyan coast guard. They can be found sitting in camps like the one in Abu Salim, where 150 men share around 50 mattresses in one muggy room and 60 women can be found on 60 mattresses in another. They whisper that they are being mistreated and that they are never allowed to get fresh air. They were captured on a beach, shortly before they were to depart for Europe, and now they are waiting to be taken to the desert in the country's south.

Even Fayez Sarraj's new government is unable to offer its people much by way of protection. The government had been brokered by the United Nations. The West considers Sarraj to be a man who could unite Libya, a country in which there are still two governments -- one in Tripoli and another in Bayda in the east. Sarraj's unity government still hasn't been officially recognized by the political forces in the east. Martin Kobler, the German special representative for the UN for Libya, has compared the government to an ambulance that transports the seriously injured to the hospital without a license plate -- meaning it lacks legitimacy, but will at least hopefully keep the country from falling apart completely.


Map: A country divided

It is hot and sticky in Tripoli. During the day, the streets are packed and bustling, with few people working. Everyone here says they fear attacks and shootings. Despite this, there are still people here who could leave Libya, but choose to stay because they are determined to save their country. People like the student leader who organizes an international book swap each year. Or the human rights expert who dispatches stoic reports about abuse of migrants and private torture chambers to Human Rights Watch and journalists.

Fifty-six-year-old Prime Minister Sarraj, an architect, is one of these people. His father had been a minister during the times of the monarchy, before Gadhafi came to power in 1969. Sarraj himself had been a member of parliament in Tobruk. The UN and Libya's international partners appointed him as prime minister specifically because he isn't closely aligned with any group, he has no criminal background and because he appears to be entirely free of corruption. All these factors are simultaneously strengths and weaknesses, because Sarraj appears to be independent, but also lacks a strong connection to the people he is supposed to be governing. Nor has he been elected in any election or vote by parliament.

Sarraj receives two editors from SPIEGEL to conduct an interview at a navy base. Pictures of sea battles are hanging all over the place, images of things that are burning or exploding.

What will happen to Libya? Will the country disintegrate into two or more parts that will be forever at war with each other because they all want power over Libya's oil? Will it become a second Somalia controlled by pirates, thieves and jihadists? Or will Prime Minister Sarraj succeed in establishing a conciliatory dialogue that can result in rebuilding Libya into a normal country?

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, are you really the right man to lead Libya?

Sarraj: It would be better if you posed this question to the people of Libya -- they are qualified to answer it. The situation here is complicated, and when I was appointed chairman of the Libyan presidency council, I was in any case ready to accept the assignment. We are hoping for support, both locally and internationally.

SPIEGEL: It is said that you are a good listener, that you're well educated, that you're not corrupt and, if we may say so, that you're a pleasant man. Will you be taken seriously in a country as armed and brutal as Libya?

Sarraj: The Libyans have experienced a great deal of unrest and difficulties during the past five years, as well as a delicate security situation. They need a bit of peace and reflection.

SPIEGEL: You don't have any apparatus of power -- you don't even have the power base to govern in Tripoli, not to mention the east. We're sitting here at a naval base at the port, and you are relying on a militia to provide you with protection. Do you have any connection to your people whatsoever?

Sarraj: This here was our first stop when we arrived in Tripoli in the spring. The new seat of government for the prime minister is now located in the original government building. We work there often. But now and then we get a longing for the naval base.

SPIEGEL: It offers a great view of the sea.

Sarraj: (Laughs.) The sea air! And seriously: I meet with the people often.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel safe?

Sarraj: Most of the time.

SPIEGEL: There haven't been any attempted attacks yet?

Sarraj: No, as we Arabs say: Whether you live or die lies in the hands of God. One should not have too much fear.

SPIEGEL: So you still consider the probability of terrorist attacks to be very likely?

Sarraj: The threats will increase as a result of our fight against terrorism, but we have to play our role and take responsibility in this battle. That is our fate.

SPIEGEL: When you traveled in a ship from Tunis to Tripoli in March, to get started with the business of governing, you had the support of the people. Unfortunately, that backing is now dwindling because the situation is so difficult and unstable. Why can't you offer your people more?

Sarraj: I didn't take office until March 30, 2016. We were immediately confronted with numerous problems that were produced by former governments and the old regime, not by us. We have a difficult environment here and no financial resources. Oil exports have stopped. The government has no revenues.

SPIEGEL: No taxes, nothing?

Sarraj: No. We have been working here for months without a budget. We first got access to a small amount of resources two weeks ago that we have been able to pass along to the ministries, making a few things easier.

SPIEGEL: How much money?

Sarraj: 1.5 billion Libyan dinar.

SPIEGEL: That would have been worth just under a billion euros in 2009, but the value of the dinar is falling.

Sarraj: Anyone who is familiar with economics knows that this is not enough to enable a country to function -- particularly in a postwar situation in which there is so much damage all across the country.

SPIEGEL: Where will you start with rebuilding?

Sarraj: Everywhere at once, but of course it won't happen quickly enough for the people anywhere. Sometimes we are only able to mitigate the impact of the problems, not solve them.

SPIEGEL: No, the problems actually seem to be getting bigger right now.

Sarraj: Let's take electricity as an example. The war and the lack of maintenance and repairs have triggered a mechanical crisis that has in turn resulted in many power plant outages. Foreign firms had to leave the country because of the security situation. There were no replacement parts. And the demand increased.

SPIEGEL: Through flight and migration?

Sarraj: That too. But also because of the summer heat. In any case, we contacted numerous companies, including Siemens, in order to get the plants working again.

SPIEGEL: Was it successful?

Sarraj: Yes, an improvement will soon be felt by the people. Or look at the liquidity crisis: It was created because oil exports, already hit by falling prices, fell to a minimal level and because citizens and businesspeople pulled close to 24 billion dinar out of the banks. The banks almost collapsed.

SPIEGEL: What are you doing to counteract this?

Sarraj: We have contacted the two central banks in order to solve the problem. During Ramadan, we supported businesspeople both financially and in terms of easing imports so that prices wouldn't continue to climb. We also printed dinar abroad.

SPIEGEL: Young men continue to join the militias. Schools and universities are open, but there is no work.

Sarraj: We only have a limited number of jobs that can be offered in the public sector. In order to create jobs, we need an economic upswing, and for that to happen, we need to recommence our oil exports. They are the decisive motor for our economy.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a plan for the rebuilding the economy?

Sarraj: The presidency council and I have ordered the resumption of oil exports and the repair of the important ports. Once the country has revenue streams again, we will carry out infrastructure projects, build the factories and revive trade.

SPIEGEL: You have little support and likely little time. Why aren't you acting more assertively? Why don't you leave it to the two central bank chiefs in the east and west to solve the money problem together? Why aren't you initiating a national dialogue under your auspices with the true ruling powers -- the men with the weapons?

Sarraj: Don't underestimate us -- we have done a lot. There have been meetings with the two central bank heads in Bayda in the east and here in Tripoli and even in Tunis, because we want to unite the central banks. These efforts are ongoing. Unfortunately, the political tensions between east and west are casting a shadow over these talks.

SPIEGEL: How was Islamic State able to become so strong in Libya?

Sarraj: The reason is that there was a security vacuum in Libya after 2011.

SPIEGEL: You mean the lack of police, military and a functioning civil society after Gadhafi's toppling?

Sarraj: Yes. We often pointed this out to the world, but nobody listened. No one gave us support. Today our youth are fighting bravely against Islamic State, but IS remains an international problem.

SPIEGEL: Is the West listening to you now?

Sarraj: We are exchanging views. We have received support from the United States, which helped a lot. We still need logistical support. We need the lifting of sanctions against our armed forces that are fighting against IS. And it is enormously important that the West take in our injured. We have no medicines and our hospitals aren't in working order. We all have a shared responsibility for these young men who are fighting for our cause.

SPIEGEL: Many countries have so far pursued their own interests in Libya.

Sarraj: I cannot speak to the past, but since we have been in office, the United States has been helping to overcome the crisis and in the fight against terrorism. The Americans are supporting our military in the battle against Islamic State in Sirte with airstrikes. There is also contact with Saudi Arabia -- I was there and they pledged to promote the process of national reconciliation.

SPIEGEL: Your government has not yet been officially recognized by the eastern part of the country, and many consider you to be a puppet of the West. How is that supposed to work?

Sarraj: By changing it. There is no problem between us and the parliament in the east -- the problems exist within the parliament in Tobruk. So far, the confidence vote to legitimize the government has been obstructed there. We have done everything conceivable: When our first government was criticized for being too large, we offered to create a significantly smaller one. To date, the parliament in Tobruk has neither rejected that nor agreed to it. Supporters of the government were driven to keep silent with threats. Can I use this interview to make an appeal?

SPIEGEL: We're listening.

Sarraj: The parliament in Tobruk needs to finally allow the decisive session to take place, so that members of parliament can exercise their democratic right and express their view of the government. Libya needs progress, not a blockade.

SPIEGEL: Who do you blame for the blockade?

Sarraj: The problem is the continual obstruction of this session and parliament's disappearance from the political stage. We were forced, here in Tripoli, to ask our ministers to start their work without official recognition from parliament.

SPIEGEL: You are avoiding mentioning the name of Khalifa Hafter, the east's military leader and a man who would like to have your position. General Hafter is the one preventing any kind of unity.

Sarraj: Now we've arrived at a minefield. I've visited Mr. Hafter in his office, and we had a discussion. We told him that he should recognize the presidency council and that the military leadership must be subordinate to the political leadership.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to prevail?

Sarraj: The insistence of the military leadership under General Hafter that it is not subordinate is a serious problem. The parliament in Tobruk has rejected this subordination, even though they had agreed to it in the Skhirat accord in Morocco. Now, unfortunately, we are back at the beginning of the dialogue.

SPIEGEL: What does Hafter require in exchange for him becoming cooperative? Would half the country be enough?

Sarraj: We cannot live in a country in which the military and political leaderships are working separately and against each other. Mr. Hafter and Mr. Agila Saleh Essa, the head of the parliament, need to allow the decisive session of parliament to take place.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't Libya need to be split anyways because of the endless conflicts? An arrangement of three states -- Misrata, Benghazi and the south -- under a central political government, would also be conceivable.

Sarraj: That is all unrealistic. The future of Libya lies in the hands of the people, not in those of the politicians or the military. And the Libyans believe that Libya is a single entity -- and the political elites should realize that they must forge ahead with the Libyan Unity project. Today's government exists for everybody -- in the east, the west and the south.

SPIEGEL: What will you do if Islamic State is defeated in Sirte, the Misratis want to keep the city -- and then General Hafter rejects this? The next civil war could unfold there.

Sarraj: I want to take this opportunity to congratulate our heroes. I value their willingness to sacrifice themselves in order to free our country from terrorism. I plea to God that he take mercy on our martyrs.

SPIEGEL: Will you answer our question?

Sarraj: My answer: We are all Libyans. We do not accept that parallel illegitimate institutions act outside of our agreement. We will not stop calling for them to overcome this country's division. If Libyans are not united, we will not be able to achieve the goals of our people. And I'm not worried about Sirte: The inhabitants of Sirte, who were forced to flee, will return and rebuild the city. The city has a tradition, and Sirte is no vacuum -- one cannot wrest it from the citizens.

SPIEGEL: Libya is a rich country. What went so fundamentally wrong after Gadhafi's fall?

Sarraj: Many decisions would have been easy to implement right after the revolution, easier than today. Back then the weapons of the youths and all of the other fighters could have been collected. If there had been explanations, goals and opportunities, it would have worked. But nobody did it. Militias were founded, there were many militias and that led to today's situation.

SPIEGEL: What mistakes did the West make?

Sarraj: Shortly after the revolution, the West abandoned Libya. The country stood alone with its economic, societal and political problems.

SPIEGEL: You mean that Libya could have used nation-building, or reconstruction aid or at the very least attention?

Sarraj: Yes, after decades of dictatorship and a violent revolution, that's only natural.

SPIEGEL: Now Europe is struggling with the refugee crisis. Do you sense this has made the West more understanding?

Sarraj: It has gotten better lately. The West is trying to understand and help Libya. Illegal migration creates problems for Libya as it does for the West. But above all else it's a humanitarian catastrophe for all of those who are fleeing and for their families. The crisis has three dimensions: a humanitarian one, a financial one and a criminal one. Libya is a bridge to the West for migrants and smugglers. Unfortunately, our southern area, the desert, is open, and the borders there are open.

SPIEGEL: Is Libya doing everything it possibly can in this crisis?

Sarraj: We have built up good relations with our neighboring countries, and we are working on borders with joint controls. Our view is that people who are caught should be sent back to their countries of origin. We cannot be their home, because of our unstable situation we cannot take them in.

SPIEGEL: The man who is possibly the biggest human trafficker in Libya lives in Sabratha. It is believed that he smuggles at least one-third of all migrants coming to Europe, or around 50,000 per year.

Sarraj: These kinds of networks are bigger than individuals -- they exist in Libya but also in neighboring countries and in Europe. We are talking with Germany, Italy, the EU. We will lead the fight together in order to save the refugees and beat the smugglers.

SPIEGEL: Do you also expect more engagement on this issue from Europe?

Sarraj: Yes, there are two levels of cooperation. One is that the Europeans should apply pressure on the surrounding countries in the south. On Chad, Niger, Mali. So that the border controls work and are taken seriously. The border soldiers on both sides require training. And as for Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean: We hope that the Europeans will modernize and support our navy, so that it can play its role. It is very weak.

SPIEGEL: Why does an architect become a prime minister?

Sarraj: That's difficult to answer. I was asked. It's an experience, that I can tell you.

SPIEGEL: You couldn't have said "no"?

Sarraj: I couldn't. It's a national duty. By the way, I have endurance, and the architect's way of thinking can be useful when it comes to finding political solutions.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Sarraj: Purposeful planning. Exactitude.

SPIEGEL: Will you wage a look into the future: Is Libya more likely to develop in the direction of Somalia or in the direction of, let's say, Italy.

Sarraj: We will not become like Somalia.

SPIEGEL: What kind of Libya would you like to leave behind for your successor?

Sarraj: A secure and stable one, a prosperous one in which the people smile once again; our people have suffered very much and have a right to prosperity and security. One with better relationships to its neighbors, one in which the state functions and has the sole right to the use of force. One that is free of the Islamic State and one that has a self-evident place in the international community.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.

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