The cityscape of Tripoli has come to chronicle the large and small conflicts that have plagued the Libyan capital since the fall of the country’s longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Ruins scattered across the city radiate a feeling of decay — reminders that no government since that year has been able to reverse Libya’s descent into crisis.
If you join the trickle of foreign visitors braving the unpredictable security situation, you won’t arrive at the city’s international airport, which burned down in the 2014 civil war and was then partially restored, only to be fought over again in 2018 and 2019. Instead, you’ll land at Mitiga, seven miles east of Tripoli’s city center, on the Mediterranean coast. There, ruined hangars tell of the rockets and drone strikes that hit the airport during the 2019-20 war, when the forces of the warlord Khalifa Haftar besieged the capital for over a year before being forced to withdraw.
Driving toward downtown Tripoli, you’ll pass the foreign ministry, a trapezoid-shaped block from the Italian colonial era, whose large windows are burnt out from a 2018 suicide attack by the local Islamic State affiliate. Buildings bombed by NATO as command-and-control centers in 2011 still dot the city.
In the city center, Gadhafi’s former headquarters is a wasteland whose destroyed walls and watchtowers were only recently cleared away. Over the years, militia battles have left bullet holes everywhere from luxury hotels to decrepit apartment blocks. On a main thoroughfare, the scorched carcass of the Aman Bank high-rise reminds passersby of the height of the country’s cash shortage in 2017. The militia guarding the bank lost control of the angry crowd queuing for cash and opened fire, killing a young man. The next day, relatives of the victim returned and fired rocket-propelled grenades into the building, setting it ablaze. I was in Tripoli at the time; the tower continued to smolder for days.
Yet, in the heart of the city, the country’s most coveted piece of real estate stands unscathed: the Central Bank of Libya, a heavyset, red-brown Italian-era building with an arcaded entrance and two turquoise domes. Built in the 1920s as the Savings Bank of Tripolitania by a future fascist star architect, it sits right next to the Red Castle, the fortress that had been the seat of Tripoli’s rulers from the 16th century until the Italian conquest in the early 1900s.
There is little visible security. The dozen or so militiamen guarding the central bank’s perimeter let you pass unchecked when told that you have an appointment. Nothing would suggest that this building holds the ultimate prize for Libya’s warring factions: Africa’s largest foreign exchange reserves and the sputtering heart of Libya’s oil-fueled economy.
Receiving visitors in his elegant office, the governor has an unimposing presence that contrasts with the vast power attributed to him by the many Libyans who describe him as the country’s de facto ruler. Bald, bespectacled and slender, Siddiq Kabir looks more like a mid-ranking bureaucrat with a conservative Italian dressing style. If asked about policies for which his enemies are attacking him, he will invariably respond by calmly explaining how the central bank is following the law to the letter, spiking his conversation with English phrases to flaunt his American education.
And yet, Kabir, who is in his early 70s and has been in office since 2011, is perhaps post-Gadhafi Libya’s most intriguing figure. He has survived a decade of turbulence and civil wars — against all odds. As governor, he has seen two civil wars break out and end, and outlived six prime ministers. He has withstood numerous attempts to dislodge him, whether by U.S. diplomats or the violent onslaughts unleashed by successive Libyan factions. Of the latter, Haftar’s forces came closest — but they ultimately failed to seize the bank. To this day, Kabir holds the keys to Libya’s treasury.
A core paradox of post-Gadhafi Libya is that, while state authority has almost entirely collapsed, the bureaucracy lives on. Throughout the past decade, the state has continued to add employees to its payroll, even as civil war split the country between rival governments and militia leaders shut down oil production for prolonged periods of time.
This bloated public sector is a legacy of the Gadhafi era, during which Libya became a quintessential petrostate. Yet, since Gadhafi’s fall, the number of state employees has almost doubled, to 2.4 million, in an overall population of 7 million. The education ministry alone employs more than 650,000 people, almost 10% of the population. But public schools and universities are in crisis, and parents who can afford it increasingly send their children to private institutions. The health ministry employs another 210,000 people, though state hospitals are decaying. Doctors often refer their patients to the private clinics at which they moonlight. State employees generally spend only a few hours per day at their workplace, many showing up just once a week, or not at all. Meanwhile, manual tasks are the preserve of migrant workers from Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, who lack the most basic rights.
When I first met Kabir, in 2018, he belittled politicians for their hiring sprees. “The government is weak,” he said. “They keep adding people to the payroll, then come to us asking that we cover these salaries.”
It is the central bank, from its seat on the Tripoli seafront, that ultimately makes the salary payments — or withholds them, sometimes for several months. Since 2014, this decision has been Kabir’s alone.
That year, war erupted between rival militia coalitions both in Tripoli and in the main eastern city of Benghazi. The fragile post-Gadhafi transitional government collapsed, and state institutions split in two — among them the central bank. Kabir’s deputy, Ali Hebri, moved to eastern Libya along with three other board members. The newly constituted east-based Parliament, which enjoyed international recognition, then appointed Hebri as governor, and he began establishing a parallel central bank in the east. Kabir, who had stayed in Malta as the war erupted, returned to Tripoli, retaining the loyalty of two other board members and — crucially — control of the bank’s SWIFT codes, which help banks identify one another.
Western governments quickly decided they would not recognize the new appointments made by the eastern authorities to the central bank and the National Oil Corporation (NOC). Like Kabir, the NOC chairman in Tripoli, Mustafa Sanalla, had been in place since before the split. In international eyes, Kabir and Sanalla remained the legitimate heads of the two institutions. It was this international recognition that allowed Kabir to prevail over Hebri. “Kabir has been held in place by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the IMF,” Martin Kobler, the U.N. special envoy to Libya from 2015 to 2017, told me in 2018.
Since the split, Kabir has exercised exclusive control over the central bank in Tripoli – “a one-man show,” his predecessor as governor, Farhat Bengdara, told me this June, shortly before he was appointed as Sanalla’s successor at the NOC. With some notable interruptions, oil revenues have continued to accrue to the central bank in Tripoli. The split made the regular budgeting process impossible, turning Kabir into the central player in all future negotiations over government spending.
Hebri’s eastern body, lacking access to hard currency, resorted to creating money out of thin air: Hebri had billions of dinars printed in Russia. (He told me he was forced to take that step because Kabir curbed cash transfers to the east after the split.) Hebri also credited eastern banks with fictitious deposits at his central bank in exchange for the payment of salaries to employees of the parallel eastern authorities — effectively saddling these banks with billions of dinars in public debt.
Perhaps the most perplexing feature of this situation was that the central bank in Tripoli continued paying out salaries to state employees across Libya — including to militiamen on both sides of the civil war. Virtually all the Libyan armed groups that had formed since the 2011 revolution operated officially as units of the defense or interior ministries. In the first year after the split, Kabir continued to work with the payrolls that predated the civil war, in what he says was an effort to preserve the central bank’s neutrality in the conflict. This meant he was effectively financing both sides in the war. “It used to drive [then-U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry crazy,” Deborah Jones, the U.S. ambassador at the time, told me. “He would ask about Kabir, ‘Why doesn’t he just cut it off?’”
State funds even reached certain jihadist groups during the war. In 2015, central bank checks surfaced that the defense ministry in Tripoli had made out to a coalition of armed groups that included Ansar al-Sharia, which the U.N. and U.S. had blacklisted as an al Qaeda affiliate in 2014. Kabir confirmed the checks’ authenticity to me, blaming their clearance on negligence by one of his subordinates while he himself was traveling.
Overall, however, the salary payments have ensured that average Libyans have retained a minimal level of income despite the dire economic repercussions of the conflict. And they have benefited citizens across the country. In 2018, the Tripoli government took hundreds of thousands of employees of the eastern parallel authorities onto its payrolls, where they have remained since. Since 2021, the government has transferred large lump sum payments to Haftar, who does not recognize the Tripoli government and has tried to unseat it. While these funds are ostensibly for salaries, the Tripoli authorities have no means of verifying the final beneficiaries of the money.
Kabir and his close collaborators argue that, by continuing to pay out salaries across Libya, the central bank has been the last pillar standing to hold the country together, solely responsible for keeping its economy going. They also claim that, by requiring ministries to match employees to a national ID system introduced in 2015, they have helped reduce widespread salary fraud. (Previously, civil servants would often get on the payrolls of several ministries at the same time. While such practices have become less common, they persist.)
Yet Kabir’s depiction of a technocratic, politically neutral central bank contrasts starkly with the accusation hurled at him by his numerous enemies and echoed by many Western diplomats in recent years: that he has exacerbated Libya’s economic woes, exploiting them to buy loyalties and keep himself in office.
The 2014-15 civil war pushed Libya’s economy into a deep crisis. In the east, a militia leader named Ibrahim al-Jadhran kept oil ports under his control shut, demanding large sums of money in exchange for allowing exports to proceed. In the west, armed groups allied with Haftar closed the valves of pipelines linking southern oilfields to export terminals on the coast. By January 2016, the NOC estimated the treasury’s losses from these closures at $68 billion.
Kabir reacted to the loss of Libya’s only source of export revenue by drastically slashing government spending and the sale of hard currency from early 2015 onward. The Libyan dinar is not freely convertible; its rate to the dollar is fixed by the central bank, which authorizes the sale of foreign currency to importers through letters of credit that are issued by banks.
By 2016, Kabir had cut sales of hard currency to one third of their 2014 level. Unable to get foreign currency through letters of credit, importers resorted to the black market — depriving the banking system of their funds and sparking endemic cash shortages at banks. The result was a widening gap between the official and the black market exchange rates, which before the war had been on a par with one another. By late 2016, the black market rate of the dollar was four times the official rate; a year later, it had sextupled from the original rate.
Businesses that could obtain letters of credit were highly privileged — and the central bank made the ultimate decision on who did. Access to foreign currency at the official rate opened up huge opportunities for fraud by exploiting the price differential with the black market. Companies would open letters of credit for a given commodity, then import containers filled with water bottles or simply nothing. After bribing customs to certify that the transaction had been completed as planned, they could sell the hard currency they had bought at the official rate on the black market, reaping profits of up to 600 percent.
Spectacular fortunes were made in those years, from 2015 to 2018, even as the growing cost of imports impoverished vast swaths of Libyan society. Among the businessmen who rose from obscurity to sudden prominence was a foodstuffs importer named Mohamed Taher Issa, a resident of Misrata, which since 2011 has hosted some of western Libya’s most powerful armed groups. Dubbed the “letters of credit king” on Libyan social media, Issa is widely alleged to have benefited from privileged access to hard currency thanks to the warm relations he built with Kabir. Several people close to both men confirmed this relationship to me. A former close collaborator of Kabir, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed that, at the height of the dollar’s black market rate, Issa would come to the central bank several times per week. Issa himself confirmed to me that he frequently went to the bank and considered Kabir a “friend.” But when I repeatedly raised the issue with Kabir, he twice responded by asking “Mohamed who?” and denied any privileged relationship.
A leaked 2018 report by Libya’s audit bureau concluded that the central bank had deliberately caused a crisis in imports by obstructing the work of a cross-government committee formed to oversee letters of credit. As price hikes in basic commodities raised the political pressure to find rapid solutions, the bank then allocated letters of credit on its own. Kabir also held meetings with several prominent businessmen, Issa among them, to draft decrees authorizing emergency imports. The same businessmen then attempted to benefit from these measures before the audit bureau suspended them, according to the report and several people with knowledge of the meetings.
Some of the businesses profiting from letters of credit were front companies for armed groups. A U.N. investigative panel documented letters of credit worth more than $20 million obtained by one Tripoli militia leader, Haitham al-Tajuri, in 2015 alone, by threatening central bank employees. “They were extremely bad times,” a senior bank executive in Tripoli told me. “Armed groups were threatening and kidnapping bank directors.” Among the victims of abductions were several central bank officials or their relatives, including the brother of Kabir’s head of office. Kabir claims he himself never submitted to threats. “In spring 2017, Haitham [al-Tajuri] and Ghnewa [al-Kikli, another Tripoli militia leader] came to my house,” he told me in 2018. “But we always rejected attempts to intimidate us.”
During the same period, a handful of armed groups — including those of Haitham al-Tajuri and Ghnewa al-Kikli — gradually carved up Tripoli among themselves, dislodging smaller factions in a series of clashes. The victorious militias protected the Government of National Accord, the internationally recognized government formed through U.N. mediation, which took office in Tripoli in March 2016. Protection came at a price: The militias gained sway over state institutions, including by appointing allies to crucial positions. By controlling bank branches, they also exerted growing influence over the allocation of letters of credit.
Factions that felt disadvantaged by the distribution of spoils in Tripoli blamed Kabir and looked for ways to alter the balance of power. Fathi Bashagha, a key Misratan protagonist who would go on to become interior minister, angrily complained to me in April 2018: “Libya’s biggest problem today isn’t [Prime Minister Faiez] Serraj or Haftar — it’s Kabir! He’s buying militia leaders and parliamentarians with letters of credit, turning them into millionaires overnight. He needs to go!”
One evening that month, I joined a group of Misratan militia leaders chatting over dinner, sweet tea and a water pipe. My host became agitated about the Tripoli militias taking everything for themselves. “We’re going to Tripoli to get our share! If necessary, we’ll throw the government into the sea!” A member of Misrata’s municipal council countered: “Let’s be honest — this is about getting your slice of the letters-of-credit cake!” Nobody protested.
The group I had met was plotting an offensive on Tripoli with the Kaniyat, a militia from Tarhuna that later became notorious for the mass graves it left behind in the town. When the Kaniyat finally attacked Tripoli in August of the same year, it allied with a different set of Misratan militia leaders, while those I had spent the evening with mobilized to position themselves between the warring sides.
The month-long fighting became known as the letters-of-credit war. The Tripoli militias repelled the assault but, as part of the settlement that ended the conflict, the U.N. negotiated the introduction of a tax on purchases of foreign currency. That measure significantly narrowed the gap between the official and black market exchange rates, allowing the central bank to liberalize the allocation of letters of credit.
Kabir remained in place. But soon, a bigger threat to him loomed from the east.
Ever since Khalifa Haftar first assembled a coalition of militias to launch an assault on rival armed groups in Benghazi in May 2014, he has never made a secret of his ambitions. The mustachioed, septuagenarian general styled his forces as the “Libyan National Army” and vowed to eradicate all “terrorists” from Libya — a term that encompassed anyone who opposed him. Haftar’s campaign quickly gained much support in eastern Libya, where an assassination spree targeting military officers had spread fear and anger.
With backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar’s forces slowly subdued their enemies in Benghazi, in grinding street fighting that lasted almost four years. Meanwhile, Haftar consolidated his authority in the east. In September 2016, he took over eastern Libya’s oil ports from rival militia leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran. Haftar allowed oil exports to resume despite the fact that the revenues were going to the central bank in Tripoli — a policy that won him praise from the NOC and Western governments, and helped strengthen his profile as a statesman. But, in meetings with Western ambassadors, Haftar railed against Kabir, accusing him of funding “terrorists.”
As Haftar’s forces expanded both in number and territorially, his need for funds grew, and his tolerance for the flow of revenues to Tripoli dwindled. In June 2018, Jadhran furnished the pretext for Haftar to challenge that arrangement. Jadhran seized the eastern oil ports in a lightning attack with dozens of four-wheel-drives, only to be driven out again by Haftar’s forces a week later. It was the third such attack on the oil ports in the space of 18 months, by varying coalitions of armed groups opposed to Haftar.
Once he was back in control, Haftar’s forces announced that the eastern oil facilities would henceforth be operated by the east-based parallel NOC, and demanded that Kabir be replaced. Yet, one week later, pressure from a U.S. administration worried about rising oil prices prompted Haftar to reverse his position and allow the Tripoli NOC to resume exports. To justify the U-turn, Haftar could point to a face-saver: a letter to the U.N. Security Council from the Tripoli-based prime minister, Faiez Serraj, demanding a financial review of both the Tripoli and the east-based central banks. Serraj had his own reasons to challenge Kabir, since the latter met Serraj’s requests for spending with stubborn austerity.
Haftar continued to advance, seizing control of southern Libya in early 2019, and his eventual ascension to overall power increasingly appeared inevitable. But his debt-based financial model was reaching its limits, as east-based banks neared bankruptcy. To facilitate his takeover, Haftar’s foreign backers sought to alleviate the financial pressures on him. French diplomats I met in February 2019 argued that the Tripoli government should quickly inject money into the southern regions Haftar had just captured and that any power-sharing agreement with Haftar had to include change at the central bank.
Ghassan Salamé, who, as the U.N. envoy from 2017 to 2020, met Haftar frequently, told me that Haftar raised the need for Kabir to leave in virtually every meeting. In the ill-fated negotiations over a power-sharing agreement that took place in early 2019, Haftar even proposed a replacement for Kabir: Farhat Bengdara, the last central bank governor before the 2011 uprising.
When Haftar launched a surprise offensive on Tripoli two months later, neutralizing Kabir was part of the plan. The French president’s adviser for Libya, Paul Soler, invited Kabir to a meeting at the Élysée Palace for the day of the attack, April 4, 2019 — thereby ensuring that Kabir would be out of the country. (Soler did not respond to requests for comment.) According to Kabir, Soler and a senior Emirati official who joined the meeting had no specific questions related to the central bank. Instead, they told him that arrangements had been made with militia leaders in Tripoli and that Haftar’s takeover would be complete within hours. They then asked him to meet again the next morning. Overnight, however, armed groups in the Tripoli area captured over 100 of Haftar’s soldiers, foiling their attempt to reach the city center. “When I met them the next day, the picture had changed. They were surprised, they had imagined — based on what Haftar’s people had told them — that his forces would enter smoothly.” Kabir returned to Tripoli the same day.
With Haftar’s forces settling in for a long fight over the capital, Kabir became a key target for foreign states seeking to negotiate a settlement favorable to Haftar. In the early months of the war, the Donald Trump administration tacitly supported Haftar’s offensive. According to Western diplomats at the time, the U.S. National Security Council under John Bolton was adamant that Kabir had to go. Haftar’s backers — France, the UAE and Egypt — shared that goal. “The Tripoli government has to make concessions to Haftar: dismantling militias and changing the board of the central bank,” French diplomats told me in October 2019.
Meanwhile, Haftar’s forces on Tripoli’s southern outskirts — now backed by mercenary fighters from Russia’s Wagner Group — continued to make incremental progress towards the central bank in the city center. While the physical prize remained out of reach, Haftar began lobbying foreign capitals on an alternative plan: depriving the central bank of oil revenues. In December 2019, Haftar’s son Belgasem and Farhat Bengdara, the former central bank governor, traveled to Washington to propose that an escrow account under international supervision be set up for oil revenue. But the Treasury Department opposed the idea, and the U.S. position on Kabir had softened after Bolton left the White House in September. Belgasem Haftar and Bengdara were unable to get face time with any senior officials.
To press his demand, in January 2020, Haftar shut down most of Libya’s oil production. Turkey had just begun intervening in earnest to support the Tripoli government against Haftar, who argued that oil revenues were paying for the Turkish intervention. But British diplomats who went to see him that month found him “obsessed with Kabir,” according to one member of the delegation.
In Tripoli, Kabir reacted to the oil shutdown by suspending payments of salaries and, in March, sales of foreign currency. This escalated tensions that had been brewing for years between Kabir and Prime Minister Serraj. While Haftar’s forces continued their shelling of Tripoli, the spat between Kabir and Serraj spilled out into the open. In April, Serraj spent the bulk of a 40-minute televised speech attacking not Haftar but Kabir: “I have tried to avoid a war of words with the Central Bank of Libya, but things have really crossed all lines.” Decrying Kabir’s unilateralism, Serraj called for the board of the central bank to meet — a frontal challenge to the exclusive authority Kabir had exercised over the bank for six years.
In late May, the Turkish intervention finally turned the tide. First the Wagner fighters and then Haftar’s forces hurriedly retreated from western Libya, drawing a new frontline through the center of the country that left them in control of most oilfields and export terminals.
But the slow detente that followed the war turned out to be a greater danger to Kabir than Haftar’s power grab had ever been. Tarik Yousef, a board member who had stayed loyal to Kabir, tried unsuccessfully to mediate between Kabir and Serraj, telling me that July that the two were still not on talking terms. Meanwhile, to get the oil flowing again, U.S. and U.N. diplomats sought to broker an agreement for revenues to remain embargoed in the NOC’s account at Libya Foreign Bank, a central bank subsidiary — but without any onward transfers to the central bank itself. They found allies in Serraj and NOC Chairman Sanalla.
When Serraj came out in support of the idea in August 2020, neither he nor the U.S. ambassador, nor U.N. envoy Stephanie Williams, had discussed the matter with Kabir. In September, oil production resumed, with revenue flowing into the NOC account, prompting a struggle between Kabir and Serraj over control of Libyan Foreign Bank. Kabir was increasingly isolated. “Kabir’s time horizon for everything he’s doing now is days and weeks,” a close collaborator of Kabir who asked to remain anonymous told me at the time.
Furious at being sidelined, Kabir leaked a “top secret” letter to Sanalla in which he accused NOC of having concealed billions of dollars in oil revenue “for years” instead of transferring them to the central bank. Sanalla hit back at what he called Kabir’s “failed policies” with an acerbic video address: “Where has all the money gone? One person controls everything. Who are you, brother? This chaos can’t go on. Until the central bank is reformed, you won’t see any money at all,” he barked into the camera.
Williams, too, vented her frustration with Kabir. “We’ve been pushing on a central bank board meeting for two years. Siddiq Kabir needs to go,” she told me that September.
The noose around Kabir was tightening.
The French Revolution, its detractor Jacques Mallet du Pan famously observed, devoured its own children. In what has become a recurrent pattern, once revolutionary upheaval has mobilized wide swaths of society, it tends to annihilate its agents in the struggles that follow.
The Libyan revolution has been no exception. Most members of the 2011 National Transitional Council (NTC), the revolutionary leadership, have long sunk into irrelevance or abandoned crisis-ridden Libya for a more comfortable life abroad. Exiles who returned to Libya in 2011 after spending decades overseas enthusiastically embraced the democratic transition, then left disillusioned as conflicts and corruption engulfed the country. Many commanders in the revolutionary war against Gadhafi were killed or sidelined in the struggles that followed, prompting the rise of a younger generation of militia leaders. Former regime officials, after being exiled, imprisoned and ostracized by the revolutionaries in the years after 2011, have returned to the fore. The appointment of Abdelhamid Dabeiba as prime minister of a unity government in March 2021 has been the most conspicuous example. In the Gadhafi era’s final years, Dabeiba had grown rich at the head of a state-owned company. In eastern Libya, Haftar — who participated in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power but later joined the exiled opposition — has built a regime that eerily resembles Gadhafi’s: iron-fisted repression and blatant self-enrichment by Haftar’s sons, all draped in a grotesque personality cult.
Kabir is the sole top-level survivor from 2011. When the February 2011 revolution erupted, Kabir was in London, heading the local subsidiary of Bank ABC, whose majority owner is Libya’s central bank. He went to Benghazi and, with the support of influential figures from Tripoli, became one of six members representing the capital on the NTC. In September, after Tripoli had fallen but while the war was still ongoing, the NTC appointed Kabir as central bank governor. “If Siddiq Kabir leaves, the era of the February revolution will be over,” Abderrezaq Aradi, a prominent businessman and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, told me.
Aradi’s assessment is not disinterested. He has known Kabir since childhood, having grown up in the same neighborhood near the Belkheir mosque in Tripoli’s Italian-built city center — only a few hundred meters from the central bank. In 2011, Aradi — like Kabir — was an NTC member for Tripoli, and he backed Kabir’s appointment as governor.
By the time Kabir joined the revolution, he had already proven his political acumen by surviving the vagaries of Gadhafi’s rule. In 1988, Gadhafi’s finance minister, Mohamed al-Bukhari, another childhood friend from the Belkheir neighborhood, introduced Kabir to an influential regime official, Saleh Ibrahim. (In 2021, the British High Court found Ibrahim jointly responsible for the fatal 1984 shooting of a policewoman outside the Libyan Embassy in London.) At the time, Kabir was in his mid-30s and had no experience in banking. But Ibrahim’s intercession with Gadhafi’s right-hand man, Abdesselam Jalloud, won Kabir an appointment as chairman of al-Umma Bank, one of Libya’s largest state-owned banks — “without the central bank governor so much as being informed about it,” Kabir told me.
Under Gadhafi, bank executives had to ensure they retained the goodwill of powerful figures, particularly high-ranking security officials and members of the Gadhafi family. Favoritism translated into an endemic problem of unpaid debts. In 1998, a scandal over hundreds of millions of dinars (at a time when the official rate of exchange was 2 to 3 dollars per dinar) embezzled by regime cronies erupted in eastern Libya. Gadhafi ordered the wholesale prosecution of several dozen executives at the country’s banks — among them Kabir and his deputy at al-Umma. Kabir spent 90 days in pretrial custody.
Among the accusations leveled against Kabir specifically was that al-Umma had accorded a large number of real estate loans on the basis of personal guarantees from the head of military intelligence, al-Khweili al-Hmeidi. Kabir’s lawyer in the case, Mohamed al-Alagi, told me that the accusation was hypocritical, since Kabir had no choice: “this was the way it worked.” Alagi demanded that al-Hmeidi be heard as a witness, prompting the judge to take fright and eventually clear Kabir.
In the broader case against Kabir and dozens of other executives, the court also initially cleared the accused. Kabir left for Tunis and began working at the local Bank ABC subsidiary. But then the case was brought before another court, and Kabir was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison. “I didn’t return to Libya for about a year while I appealed,” Kabir said. During that time, Kabir worked with a well-connected Libyan businessman named Mohamed Aqil, a long-standing friend whose businesses, as Kabir admitted to me, enjoyed the protection of Gadhafi’s intelligence chief, Abdallah Senussi. Eventually, the appeal court cleared Kabir of all charges, and he resumed his career at Bank ABC, promoted by Farhat Bengdara, the bank’s chairman who later became central bank governor.
After 2011, revolutionary hardliners turned that background against Kabir, castigating him as a Gadhafi regime crony — a potent smear in the first years after the ancien regime’s demise. But as power struggles divided the former revolutionaries, the line of attack changed. “When I arrived, people complained about Kabir being pro-Gadhafi. Later, they started saying he was a Muslim Brother. So which is it?” asked Deborah Jones, the U.S. ambassador from 2013 to 2015. Kabir himself portrays himself as the victim of defamation campaigns by “those who want to seize what’s inside the central bank,” as he told me.
The allegations that Kabir and everyone around him were held in place by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood would mount for years. They were pushed by the Egyptian and Emirati governments, who saw their own countries’ Brotherhood wings as the primary threat to regime stability and led a regional propaganda campaign to demonize the group. During Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, French and U.S. diplomats made the charge their own.
The evidence fueling such suspicions was often flawed. There was the recurrent claim that one Tripoli NTC member who had backed Kabir’s appointment as governor, Abderrezak al-Mokhtar, was a Muslim Brother — when in fact he was not. While one senior central bank official, Fathi Aqub, is indeed a member of the group, his colleague Mustafa Manea merely has a brother who is, but on that basis Manea has been branded a member himself. Kabir’s enemies also made much of the fact that, in 2011, he had been one of three directors of a company registered in the U.K., the other two being a prominent cleric close to the Brotherhood, Ali Sallabi, and Ibrahim Dabeiba, a relative of the later Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dabeiba. But according to Abderrezak Aradi, Kabir’s childhood friend and a former Muslim Brother, he himself had set up the company to manage shipments of humanitarian supplies to rebel-held areas and had asked Kabir and Dabeiba because he needed two U.K. residents for registration. Kabir confirmed this account, insisting that he knew neither Sallabi nor Dabeiba at the time.
Rather than relying on any particular faction, Kabir has survived by constantly adapting his political network. The 2014 split allowed him much leeway in navigating Libya’s shifting landscape. It is the legislature that appoints the central bank governor, but western factions have contested the east-based Parliament’s legitimacy, preventing it from toppling Kabir. The political agreement signed under U.N. auspices in late 2015 requires the east-based Parliament to agree with its Tripoli-based rival, the High State Council, on replacements for Kabir and other top officials. The east-based Parliament’s unilateral appointment of a replacement to Kabir fell flat in December 2017. Several unsuccessful attempts by both bodies to hammer out a deal followed over the years. A renewed attempt was ongoing at the time of writing, in February 2023.
Kabir is widely alleged to have cultivated allies in both the High State Council and the east-based House of Representatives, transcending all political divides. The former chairman of the High State Council, Abderrahman al-Sweihli, told me in a 2021 interview that Kabir had assembled “lobbies” in both bodies. Sweihli said that the recurrent threats by parliamentarians to replace Kabir amounted to a form of extortion aimed at securing access to funds. A former close collaborator of Kabir’s told me that members of the east-based Parliament recurrently came to see the governor to solicit favors. (When I met Kabir in 2018, a parliamentarian from eastern Libya was just leaving his office.) In 2017, Libya’s audit bureau accused the head of the Parliament’s finance committee of being Kabir’s “personal companion in all meetings” and of having interceded with the bureau on behalf of companies engaging in letters of credit fraud. According to minutes of a 2017 meeting between Kabir and parliamentarians, the governor gave the head of the economics committee a say in the allocation of letters of credit in the east.
Kabir’s pragmatism in dealing with Libya’s political divisions has allowed him to hold on to his position even when everyone appeared to have turned against him.
By December 2020, Kabir was under pressure from all sides. Prime Minister Serraj, NOC chief Sanalla and the U.N. all agreed to bypass him, depriving the central bank of oil revenue. In this precarious situation, Kabir held a board meeting with Ali Hebri and the other east-based members — the first since 2014. “Serraj and Sanalla were putting Kabir in a corner. By reaching out to Hebri, Kabir called their bluff,” a close collaborator of Kabir told me at the time. The board agreed on devaluating the dinar and extending credit lines as well as access to foreign currency to several east-based banks. Over the following year-and-half, Kabir drew Hebri into a protracted process ostensibly leading to the central bank’s reunification. The process eventually failed but, as it ran its course, it deflected much of the international pressure Kabir had faced.
In parallel to the rapprochement with Hebri, Kabir discreetly weighed into the U.N.-led negotiations over the formation of a unity government to replace both Serraj and the eastern parallel authorities. He conducted backchannel talks with parliamentarians and, according to one person present in the meetings, held out his cooperation as the trump card for any prospective prime minister they would support.
The U.N.-led talks in February 2021 designated Abdelhamid Dabeiba as prime minister, amid allegations that Dabeiba’s relatives had bribed several negotiators. To the surprise even of optimistic foreign observers, the east-based Parliament endorsed Dabeiba’s government, which thereby became the first unified Libyan administration since 2014. Sanalla resumed the NOC’s transfers of oil revenue to the central bank, which funded Dabeiba’s public investment projects and generous raises of civil servants’ salaries. Dabeiba reached out to Kabir almost immediately after his designation. Instead of his enemy Serraj, Kabir now had an ally at the prime minister’s office.
For several months, Kabir put his close alliance with Dabeiba on open display. He appeared with Dabeiba at a youth forum, where the prime minister announced extravagant grants to help young couples marry. Dabeiba suddenly became immensely popular. When, in October 2021, I pointed this out to the head of the High State Council, Khaled al-Meshri, he countered: “The only thing Dabeiba has succeeded in is unlocking access to the central bank. Kabir always refused requests from previous governments. As soon as Dabeiba arrived, he began disbursing funds.”
But soon, Dabeiba’s star faded, and Kabir took his distance. Fathi Bashagha, the Misratan power broker who had repeatedly told me that Kabir had to leave, gained Haftar’s backing to form a new government in early 2022. In a tense standoff that lasted for months, Bashagha and Dabeiba both courted armed groups in and around the capital. By August, Dabeiba had warded off the Bashagha government’s final attempt to take office in Tripoli. There, Dabeiba has since cemented his hold, but the Bashagha government remains active in the east and is reportedly reverting to raising funds through the Benghazi-based central bank. The rivalry has returned Libya to its chronic state of division and upended the protracted process of central bank reunification.
Kabir, meanwhile, resorted to his erstwhile austerity policies, largely reducing government spending to payments of salaries and subsidies. At least initially, he maintained ambiguity towards Dabeiba and Bashagha, as well as the goodwill of the U.S. and U.N., which were alarmed over reports that Dabeiba was handing out checks to militias to keep himself in office. Under U.S. pressure, Kabir also began publishing far more detailed data on government spending. Throughout the spring, armed groups in the capital puzzled over Kabir’s position in the struggle between Dabeiba and Bashagha. “Whomever Kabir supports will be prime minister,” one militia leader told me in May. But Kabir was inscrutable. “It is a waiting game for him,” a close collaborator of Kabir said.
As Bashagha lost his tug-of-war with Dabeiba, Kabir again moved closer to the winner, though without loosening the purse strings. His caution may go a long way to explaining Kabir’s political longevity. “He is an expert at reading the landscape, at riding the wave to stay in power,” Hammuda Siala, a parliamentarian who had taken his distance from politics since Dabeiba’s rise, told me. U.S. officials, conscious that their recognition helped keep Kabir in place, have been consistently frustrated by his resistance to their reform proposals. “He was polite, listened to our advice, but was extremely cautious — apparently worried that if he made big changes of any kind, he would be at risk of being pushed out,” Jonathan Winer, the U.S. Special Envoy from 2014 to 2016, said.
Kabir’s detractors often describe him as all-powerful and overbearing. “He controlled everything, interfered in everything: the government budget, who gets letters of credit,” one of Serraj’s former ministers told me. (Indeed, Kabir’s power was evident in the sheer number of people interviewed for this article — bankers, parliamentarians, government officials — who asked to remain anonymous.)
Behind the appearance of omnipotence, however, a more complex picture emerges, one that highlights Kabir’s readiness to strike arrangements with political adversaries when needed, as well as his cautious, temporizing modus operandi. Among Kabir’s traits, it is his fundamentally ambiguous, sphinxlike character that perhaps best captures his politics. Even senior foreign diplomats who regularly met Kabir concede that he remained a mystery to them. He is neither the ultimate barrier against the pillage of the Libyan state, as he himself maintains, nor the biggest culprit behind its crisis, as his enemies say. Yet even many of his critics, acknowledging his austerity, grudgingly accept his claim to have helped save Libya from bankruptcy and reliance on foreign loans.
Kabir’s ambiguity mirrors many of the contradictions of post-Gadhafi Libya — contradictions he has contributed to shaping: the state’s financing of the competing factions vying for its control; the constantly shifting alliances; the collusion between ostensible political adversaries in perpetuating the country’s crisis. The only event certain to conclude the enigmatic governor’s tenure is a settlement ending Libya’s conflicts.
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