Who is Fayez Al Sarraj?

Fayez Al Sarraj is the chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, a position by virtue of which he also holds the office of Prime Minister and therefore leader of the provisional government that was formed in Tripoli in March 2016 following the Skhirat agreement.

Currently Al Sarrajand his government are engaged in a battle for control of the capital which began on 4 April following the offensive launched by General Khalifa Haftar.

Fayez Al Sarraj was born in Tripoli in 1960 to a well-off family from the Libyan capital. Indeed, it could be said that his branch of the family is one of the most important and prominent in the entire city as many of his ancestors were landowners. On top of that, the father of the future Libyan Prime Minister in the years following independence of the country in 1952 held several government offices as he was close to the then monarch King Idris.

Thanks to the status of his family, Fayez Al Sarraj could afford to go to university and entered the department of architecture.

He graduated in 1982 and worked for several important architecture firms but also as a consultant of important ministries. In the 1990s Al Sarraj was also a member of several commissions appointed to draw up projects for the many public works undertaken during the Muammar Gaddafi era.

During his career as an architect, Fayez Al Sarraj also founded Tripoli’s Engineering Consulting Office.

Until 2011, the year of the fall of the Rais, Al Sarraj’s political relationships related solely to technical advice to ministers and some men in the government apparatus. The future premier entered the political arena after the end of the Gaddafi era when his name began to circulate thanks, amongst other things, to his family’s good reputation amongst the various groups that made up the National Transitional Council in Tripoli.

But he really made it into politics 2014 when he was elected as an independent in one of the Tripoli districts in the elections held that year.

Al Sarraj, therefore, captured one of the seats in the Parliamentary which, being unable to meet in Benghazi as it had had been occupied by Islamist militias,  gathered in the eastern city of Tobruk.

In October 2015, Fayez Al Sarraj was indicated, quite by surprise, as a possible candidate to head a new Libyan government capable of putting an end to the fractious divisions between the western and eastern parts of the country. The first to indicate Al Sarraj was the then UN special envoy in Libya, Bernardino Leon.

In December, the Skhirat agreement established a Presidential Council comprising nine members with Fayez Al Sarraj as its head. He also assumed the functions of head of state and was appointed to form a new government within 30 days. In the meantime, the UN Security Council unanimously recognised Al Sarraj as the sole head of state of Libya.

The executive set up by Al Sarraj in January 2016 did not, however, obtain the confidence of the Parliament in Tobruk and the same fate befell the second executive presented in March 2016. Nevertheless, Al Sarraj officially took office on 30 March as the new Libyan premier even though he was not recognised by Cyrenaica. Initially, his offices were for security reasons located in a naval base near Tripoli.

One of the first acts of the Fayez Al Sarraj government was to request international support to remove Isis from Sirte. In Gaddafi’s city of birth, the jihadist militiamen managed to create a small caliphate on the lines of what was happening in Syria and Iraq.

In August  2016, the US-led coalition bombarded Sirte and the areas of Libya occupied by the Islamic State following a request submitted by the Al Sarraj led executive.  Italy built a field hospital in Misurata and deployed 300 soldiers for operation Hippocrates.

Misurata was the home of the most important militias which, backed up by the US airforce, managed on behalf of the Al Sarraj government to drive Isis out of Sirte. On that occasion, however, as can easily be understood, the Libyan premier did not have his own forces and had to rely on a myriad of militias, the majority of whom were from Misrata, to control the territory.

At the same time, in the east of Libya, General Khalifa Haftar advanced and conquered a large part of Cyrenaica with his Libyan National Army engaged in so-called “Operation Dignity”.

The contrast between an Al Sarraj without his own forces and unable to really control his territory and a Haftar who, on the contrary, reunified the east of Libya and drove out the Islamists from the most important cities is one of the elements that most characterises Al Sarraj’s term of office.

Despite three summits over the last few years in Paris, Palermo and Abu Dhabi where on each occasion  Haftar and Al Sarraj shook hands the war in Libya has intensified and the dualism between Haftar and Al Sarraj continues unabated.

Two main accusations have been made against Fayez Al Sarrajboth within Libya and abroad: on the one hand that he is unable to control the territory around the capital, forcing his government to use various militia groups all over Tripolitania and, on the other, that he has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both accusations are often made by Haftar to justify operations aimed at conquering Tripoli. Al Sarraj, for his part, denies membership of the Muslim Brotherhood yet, at the same time, his government appears mainly to be supported in the region by Turkey and Qatar, in other words, the countries who are the main financiers of Pan-Islamic politics.

Under pressure from the current UN envoy in Libya, Ghassan Salamé and following the diplomatic efforts by the United Nations and several countries, including Italy, there was a rapprochement between Al Sarraj and Haftar but on 4 April the Libyan National Army launched its attack in Tripolitania. The Palermo summit of November 2018 and the Abu Dhabi agreement of March 2019 seemed to be pushing Libya towards a new national unity government with Al Sarraj as political leader and Haftar as head of the military, pending the holding of new elections by the end of the year.

The start of the battle in Tripolitania was a game-changer: relations between Al Sarraj and Haftar cooled and both blamed each other for the deteriorating situation in Tripoli and a political solution seemed increasingly distant.

Since 4 April the war around the Libyan capital has become increasingly intense and has left a growing number of victims and unfortunately, civilians are amongst them. Currently, Al Sarraj, together with his government, is backed by a heterogeneous coalition of militias opposed to Haftar’s Libyan National Army.