Libya Tribune

Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°57 – Tunis/Brussels, 8 May 2018 Download PDF (710.41 KB)

The surprise electoral defeat of one Libyan leader and the hospitalisation of a rival show the error of relying solely on individuals to achieve national reconciliation in Libya. All sides in Libya’s conflict should focus instead on making institutions more representative and improving governance.

What’s new?

Two events have shaken up Libyan politics: the election of Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Khaled Mishri as president of the Tripoli-based High State Council, replacing Abderrahman Swehli, who had held the post since 2016, and the mid-April hospitalisation of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, general commander of the Libyan National Army.

Why does it matter?

Until April, Swehli and Haftar were two of four Libyan personalities whose buy-in was viewed as crucial to securing a peace deal in Libya. But Swehli’s removal from power and Haftar’s ill health raise questions about the path ahead.

What should be done?

These events should remind all concerned that Libyan reconciliation cannot rely solely on individual personalities.

To better aid reconciliation, Libyan leaders and their outside backers should work to make governing institutions more representative, address the constituents’ needs, and deliver more and better services.

PART ONE

Overview

Seven years after the uprising that toppled Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi, Libya remains in turmoil. In the last month, two surprise developments have roiled Libyan politics anew.

Each demonstrates how misguided it is to depend entirely on individuals to resolve the conflict ongoing since 2014. Excessive focus on personalities, in fact, can obstruct rather than promote peace efforts.

The first event was the 8 April election of Khaled Mishri as president of the Tripoli-based High State Council, a consultative body established under the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. He succeeded Abderrahman Swehli, who had headed the State Council since its creation in 2016.

Mishri is a member of the Justice and Construction Party, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood; his affiliation is likely to arouse the suspicion of eastern Libyans who dislike Islamists.

Any friction could scuttle or delay the implementation or amendment of the 2015 agreement, which will require a deal between the State Council and its political rival, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

The Tobruk legislators have yet to officially recognise the agreement’s legality.

The second development was the mid-April hospitalisation (in France) of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, general commander of the Libyan National Army, a coalition that controls most of eastern Libya.

Nominally, Haftar answers to the House of Representatives, but he has his own power base, and is a key actor in negotiations to reunite Libya. He appeared well enough upon his return to Benghazi on 26 April, stopping to address his supporters, but it remains unclear why he was hospitalised.

According to independent sources close to the coalition, Haftar had a stroke, and also suffers from a chronic illness.

Whether his poor health will allow him to continue leading his men or force him to step down is an open question.

Swehli’s ouster and Haftar’s ill health should serve as reminders that a lasting peace agreement cannot be predicated on “dividing the cake” among a few individuals.

Until these unexpected events, Haftar and Swehli were two of four personalities considered indispensable to the project of reuniting Libya. The other two are Faiez Serraj, the head of the Presidency Council (which heads the internationally recognised government in Tripoli), and Aghela Saleh, president of the House of Representatives. Most international efforts to implement the Libyan Political Agreement focused on securing an understanding among these four men, each of whom has proven he can be a spoiler.

Swehli’s ouster and Haftar’s ill health should serve as reminders that a lasting peace agreement cannot be predicated on “dividing the cake” among a few individuals.

As long as one person or faction reaps all the benefits of power, others will mobilise against them. This dynamic has been a constant feature of Libyan politics since 2014. It fosters a cycle of counter-narratives and revenge attacks that undermines chances of bridging the country’s rifts.

Efforts to reconcile Libyans should instead aim to ensure the inclusivity and representativeness of existing political institutions, take into account the needs of their constituents, and improve their ability to deliver services. As it stands, these institutions mainly serve the interests of the handful of men who lead them.

Swehli’s Defeat

On 8 April Mishri unexpectedly defeated Swehli for the High State Council leadership by a vote of 64 to 45. Swehli’s opponents accused him of obstructing a UN-mediated agreement with the House of Representatives in order to secure a seat on a reconstituted three-member Presidency Council.

An opportunistic alliance between the Justice and Construction Party (whose votes had been key to Swehli’s election in 2016) and disparate councillors, including former members of the Tahaluf bloc (once the party’s main ideological rival in the 2012-2014 parliament), sealed his fate.

Some observers have hailed Mishri’s election as a step forward for the stalled political process because, in their eyes, reaching a political agreement with the House of Representatives will be easier without Swehli dictating the pace of talks.

In his first public remarks after the vote, Mishri said he is keen to reopen “direct and quick” negotiations with the Parliament. He invited its president, Aghela Saleh, to a meeting. Likewise, in early April the Justice and Construction Party went so far as to make overtures to Haftar.

The party’s chairman, Mohamed Sawan – who had previously considered the Libyan National Army illegitimate – praised its “martyrs” slain in the fight against jihadists.

Saleh’s openness to talks with Mishri likely hinges on personal interest rather than support from the institution he represents.

These gestures are significant considering the ideological divide between the Islamist Justice and Construction Party and the anti-Islamist leadership in Benghazi and Tobruk.

Nonetheless, they are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. First, the party and its new allies in the State Council lack a common political agenda apart from their anti-Swehli feeling.

A number of council members, including fierce opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, allied with Mishri’s party against Swehli only with the hope of securing the post of State Council deputy president, partly as a way of containing the Brotherhood.

As deputy president they chose the person they thought could best counterbalance Mishri, Naji Mukhtar, a council member from southern Libya involved in the fuel sector.

Some Libyan politicians doubt that a Mishri-Mukhtar leadership will produce more than a division of spoils. Many fear that tensions between Islamists and anti-Islamists will quickly resurface.

The second reason for scepticism is that Saleh’s openness to talks with Mishri likely hinges on personal interest rather than support from the institution he represents.

In recent months, Saleh has made clear through backchannels that, like Swehli, he wants a seat on a reconfigured Presidency Council: this request was unspoken but well understood several times during the UN-led consultations between House of Representatives and State Council members from October 2017 to February 2018.

Saleh reiterated this demand as recently as March to a delegation from Misrata that had sought to reach out to easterners, offering to accept the nomination of a Misratan prime minister in exchange for the seat.

Mishri and Saleh met in the Moroccan capital of Rabat on 23 April, and the two appear to have tentatively agreed to resume talks to revise the Libyan Political Agreement and nominate a new Presidency Council.

Saleh invited Mishri to visit Tobruk, where the House of Representatives is seated. While in principle this development is welcome, Saleh’s track record suggests he will select a handful of loyalists (rather than a group representing the House as a whole) to take part in negotiations and cooperate only as long as his demands are met.

It is already telling that Saleh agreed to meet Mishri without even consulting other House members. Broader buy-in by Libyan National Army leadership will also be key for any deal to be accepted in the east.

Most importantly, even if the two men reach an agreement, it is improbable that many easterners would support it. Mishri is widely viewed as a member of the Brotherhood, a movement regarded with outright hostility in the east.

(The House of Representatives designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist” organisation in 2017.)

Many in the east remember Mishri’s 2014 call on “revolutionary forces” in Benghazi and Derna to capture Tripoli; they view these forces (which later evolved into, respectively, the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council and the Derna Revolutionaries’ Shura Council) as pawns of jihadist groups.

Mishri should dispel the widespread impression that the council is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and that his party will monopolise decision-making.

In the narrative of eastern Libyans who support Haftar’s army, opening up to Mishri would be tantamount to admitting that Libyan National Army youth who fought against jihadist groups in 2014-2017 died in vain. Easterners more open to reconciliation with the State Council are also irritated by the false news of Haftar’s death.

One said the rumour-mongering showed that the Brotherhood and others from western Libya could not to be trusted “despite their sweet words about reconciliation”.

To build on his election, Mishri should dispel the widespread impression that the council is now dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and that his party will monopolise decision-making. He should ensure that a cross section of State Council views is represented, bringing the body’s deputy presidents with him to talks with other Libyan constituencies and including all council members in decision-making.

Such inclusivity is especially important in reaching out to eastern politicians and the House of Representatives. The same considerations apply to Saleh, whose tendency to exclude others from the decision-making process has been equally divisive; he, too, should be reaching out to members of his own institution.

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The International Crisis Group (Crisis Group) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation, with some 120 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

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