Tobruk or not Tobruk? Pick a lane, Pretoria


The civil war between two governments vying for control of Libya is being played out bizarrely in Pretoria, as diplomats of each side conduct a protracted battle for control of the country’s embassy.

And the South African government is – probably inadvertently – keeping the tussle for the embassy alive because it cannot decide which Libyan government to back. This is threatening to derail relations with the Tobruk-based government, which is recognised by almost every other state in the world.

While President Jacob Zuma was controversially welcoming Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – a fugitive from the International Criminal Court (ICC) – to South Africa in June, he couldn’t find the time to meet Aguila Saleh Issa.

Issa is the president of the Council of Deputies of Libya – and thus also the head of state. Or perhaps one should say, one of the heads of state, of Libya. He represents the government based in the far eastern city of Tobruk, which is headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani.

The other government, headed by Prime Minister Omar al-Hassi, is based in the traditional capital, Tripoli, in the far west of the country.

The bloody war between them rages on. Until recently, peace talks led by the United Nations (UN) in Morocco have made little progress, though there have just been some signs of a possible agreement.  

The second country that recognises Tripoli, according to Tobruk, is South Africa

Almost all of the countries of the world – and also the UN and the African Union (AU) – recognise the Tobruk government, essentially because it was deemed to have won the last elections in June 2014. Tobruk is the seat of the House of Representative – the Parliament elected then, which appointed al-Thani as prime minister. However, the Islamist flavour of the Tripoli coalition has also not helped its cause internationally.

Against the confusing background of the two rival governments in Libya, the question of diplomatic recognition is also murky and controversial for other countries. The Tobruk government claims that there are three countries in the world that recognise Tripoli. It says Italy grudgingly recognises the Tripoli government because the gas pipeline from Libya to Italy passes through Tripoli, which has threatened to cut off the supply if Rome recognises the Tobruk government.

The second country that recognises Tripoli, according to Tobruk, is South Africa. This is the case at least by default, because the acting Libyan ambassador occupying the embassy in Pretoria, Mohamed Bensalim, continues to represent Tripoli while South Africa makes up its mind about whether to switch recognition to Tobruk’s representative, Yousif Sherif, who has been in South Africa since January waiting for acknowledgement. And Tobruk says that Mozambique has taken its lead from Pretoria.

However Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, disagrees with Tobruk’s view. According to him, neither Italy nor any other country formally recognises Tripoli diplomatically, though some countries maintain contact with it for practical reasons. ‘Italy never recognised Tripoli,’ he says, and in February it closed its embassy in Tripoli – being the last of the EU member states to do so. The United States had also pulled out, as had South Africa. Even when it had an embassy in Tripoli, Italy only met Tripoli officials in their capacity as delegates to the peace talks, along with other delegates, Toaldo said.

Tensions with Toburk are rising as Pretoria continues to vacillate

But even if there has been no formal recognition by Pretoria of Tripoli, the reality of Tripoli’s representative occupying the chancery – the embassy building – in Pretoria, is causing some confusion and friction. Other embassies are uncertain whom to deal with. Invitations to Sherif go through the Libyan embassy and Bensalim or his people turn up for the events instead, according to diplomatic sources.

And tensions are rising with Tobruk as Pretoria continues to vacillate. Diplomats say South Africa’s embassy in Cairo issued Sherif a diplomatic visa to come to South Africa in January. But since then, Tobruk has made no progress in getting formal recognition of Sherif as its official chargé d’affaires – or acting ambassador. The idea seems to be to appoint him as full ambassador once he has taken up his position in the embassy.

The foreign minister of the government in Tobruk, Mohamed Dayri, has written to Pretoria several times this year to ask it to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Bensalim, to switch recognition to Sherif instead and to help him take over the embassy building. Diplomatic sources say that Pretoria keeps giving assurances that it will do so, but nothing happens.

The most recent assurance, they say, was given by President Jacob Zuma just a few weeks ago to a delegation from Tobruk seeking the missing millions of dollars of assets that the deposed Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, supposedly deposited in South Africa. The most favourable interpretation of Pretoria’s apparent reluctance to recognise Sherif is that it is waiting for the Morocco peace negotiations between the two Libyan governments to produce a single government for all of Libya.

The Libyan matter looks like diplomatic dilly-dallying, with a dose of South African ‘exceptionalism’

But in the meantime, Pretoria is in effect recognising a Libyan government that includes some very dubious elements, the Tobruk side believes. There are unproven claims that one of the diplomats who was, until recently, based at the Pretoria embassy belonged to an organisation with links to al-Qaeda.

Tobruk is also starting to suspect that Pretoria’s reluctance to accredit Sherif may have to do with the ideological affinity of some South African government officials to the Tripoli government. Tobruk claims the Islamist elements in Libya Dawn are affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and that some South African officials are sympathetic to them.

This apparent empathy with Libya Dawn is evidently reinforced by Egypt’s military support for the Tobruk government. The Egyptian government, led by ex-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, came to power after removing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013.

Pretoria openly condemned Morsi’s removal and took the lead in getting Egypt suspended from the AU because of it. Cairo was re-admitted to the AU after el-Sisi replaced his army uniform for a suit and was elected president – but only after the Muslim Brotherhood had been banned.  

The controversy over who to recognise as the Libyan ambassador caused some awkward moments at the recent AU summit in Sandton, as the AU recognises Tobruk as Libya’s government. There were some suggestions that Pretoria might formally recognise Sherif before the summit to avoid any embarrassment with the AU. It didn’t do so in the end, and the two Libyan diplomatic teams jostled for recognition. Sherif, as Tobruk’s choice, ended up doing the honours for Issa and his foreign minister, Dayri – even without diplomatic recognition from Pretoria.  

Issa was very keen to meet Zuma at the summit, while Dayri was equally eager to meet his South African counterpart, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane – partly to persuade them to recognise Sherif. Neither Zuma nor Nkoana-Mashabane could find time to meet the Libyan leaders, diplomats say. As a result Issa evidently left South Africa in a huff, vowing to break off diplomatic relations, but was persuaded by his aides not to do so.

The tussle over diplomatic recognition is yet another sign of the fraught relations South Africa has had with Libya for a long time. The rebels who toppled Gaddafi accused Zuma of being biased towards him in his role as an AU peace negotiator – and in the secret parallel talks he was conducting with rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril.

But Gaddafi sympathies are not a factor in the current issue, apparently. If anything, the Tripoli government is even less tolerant of old Gaddafi sympathisers than Tobruk.

This looks more like a case of diplomatic dilly-dallying. It is perhaps also a dose of South African ‘exceptionalism’ – with Pretoria doggedly insisting on pursuing its own independent diplomatic path in the world – as the current African National Congress international relations policy discussion documents insists it must – all alone, if necessary, and regardless of consequences. With a little ideological spice mixed in.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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