On Thursday, April 23, Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar and President of the House of Representatives (HoR) Agila Saleh issued contrasting statements regarding Libya’s political transition, setting off a power struggle in eastern Libya.
Saleh proposed a political roadmap to end the present conflict that consisted in a total reset of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).
For those who may be unfamiliar with it, the LPA created the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2015, giving its Presidential Council executive authority over the country and leaving legislative authority to the House of Representatives (HoR) as per elections that took place in June 2014. The LPA also established the High Council of State (HCS), which is currently headed by Khalid al-Mishri.
Saleh’s proposal called for the formation of a new Presidential Council composed of three members that would represent Libya’s historic provinces (Tripolitania, Barqa and Fezzan), along with the formation of a new government. Meanwhile, the LNA would oversee military and security matters.
However, only a couple of hours after Saleh announced his political proposal, Haftar gave a statement in which he asked Libyans to voice their opinions and declare who they wanted to oversee Libya’s political transition. Due to the contradictory and momentous nature of these developments, coverage on the matter has been subpar.
As of recently, many foreign actors have grown increasingly impatient with the yearlong war to take Tripoli. Moreover, following Turkey’s overt military intervention in Libya, even the LNA’s allies no longer see a military solution as a viable one.
Indeed, external pressure for Haftar to consider a peaceful solution has been a constant, albeit unsuccessful, presence in eastern Libya’s internal politics for a while now. This led some countries, with UNSMIL’s mediation, to seek an end to the conflict by getting all political parties — excluding the LNA — to agree on a solution.
In practice, this meant getting HoR President Agila Saleh on board. The dominant idea was that, by getting Saleh on board, the LNA would lose its claim to legitimacy and find itself isolated politically. However, the idea relied on the assumption that Saleh would be able to utilise his powerful tribe — the Obeidat — to support the move and pressure Haftar to concede.
The idea soon translated into a multi-faceted negotiation between actors in eastern Libya and foreign entities. All parties in Libya agreed in principle to a political solution; however, they could not agree on what the proposed power-sharing agreement would look like.
As the negotiation ensued, Haftar caught on to what was happening and realised that his project was at risk. Both his allies in eastern Libya and in the international community were wavering in their support for the LNA.
As a result, he decided to take a huge gamble by calling on Libyans to voice their demands. Although this seemed confusing to external observers of the Libyan conflict, people in the east understood what was happening.
The differences between Haftar’s statement and the one that Saleh had made earlier the same day made it clear that a political stratagem of sorts was underway. This led Libyans in many cities in eastern Libya to take to the streets in support of the LNA.
Social pressure amassed against Saleh, most notably from his tribe and specifically from his own branch of the tribe. Saleh succumbed to the pressure he was under and reached out to Al Rajma to make amends, blaming a misunderstanding caused by external actors.
However, some foreign actors persisted in fuelling tensions in an attempt to better position the HoR President to continue his efforts. This resulted in Saleh carrying out a series of meetings with tribal figures and MPs during which he argued that his actions were the result of long discussions and had the support of foreign countries.
Disbanding the Libyan Political Agreement
Following from the events above, on Monday, April 27, Haftar issued a second statement in which he declared the LPA and the institutions it created (that is, the GNA and the HCS) to be expired, invalid and no longer relevant.
The statement had a strange galvanizing effect on demographics that are not traditionally supportive of the LNA. Indeed, although Libya is a fragmented state and its population is divided on a cellular level, one thing the vast majority of Libyans agree upon is their frustration towards the LPA.
Thus, Haftar’s statement was received well enough for him to achieve his goal — which was to thwart efforts to weaken him.
Most surprisingly, even political actors that have not been active for quite some time and that are not necessarily supportive of the LNA decided to intervene and apply pressure on Saleh and his advisors in order to make sure the HoR President did not deviate away from the LNA.
For many, this was not so much done in support of the LNA, but to secure an end to the LPA and to avoid divisions in the east from leading to further instability in the country.
Following immense pressure practiced on the HoR President, Saleh officially realigned himself with the LNA.
The HoR released a statement condemning “foreign actors” for attempting to fuel tensions in the east and thwart the LNA’s mission to free the capital. This statement was referring mainly to Russia and UNSMIL.
Why this matters
What started off as an attempt to divide authorities in eastern Libya in order to pressure the LNA into accepting a political solution ended up strengthening Haftar — as many past attempts have.
Haftar saw a threat to his project and, in a desperate act, put his popularity to the test by relying on popular support within the east. Despite what many are saying, it is safe to say that Haftar has so far succeeded in warding off this attempt.
More specifically, he was successful in dispelling the belief that he was losing support within the east and that it was possible to turn the tables against him.
Thus, it is important to understand that Haftar’s statements were not part of a long-term strategy and should not be construed as a “coup” against the HoR. On the contrary, Haftar’s actions were a reactionary attempt to keep his domestic and international allies in check and avoid being cornered into submission.
Why the plan failed
The lack of understanding of Libya’s tribal and social dynamics was, once again, the fundamental miscalculation that thwarted yet another foreign initiative in Libya.
More specifically, the fact that the whole plan relied on the notion that Saleh’s proposal would cause a rift within the Eastern bloc that could be leveraged to corner Haftar reflects a worrying detachment from, and understanding of, realities on the ground. The latter is made even more worrying because, at this point, UNSMIL should be able to understand and foresee such developments.
To be sure, although Saleh is from a powerful tribe, seasoned observers know that he did not reach his position of power due to his popularity or influence within the Obeidat. Much like the majority of politicians in today’s scene, Saleh appeared as a matter of circumstance.
He became the President of the HoR because he was the only viable MP for the position when the parliament moved to eastern Libya. In other words, his appointment ensured the tribal protection needed to ensure the HoR’s longevity.
Conversely, the support demonstrated by his tribe towards Saleh was because he was their means to maintain power and influence within the current political apparatus.
However, when it came to Saleh having enough influence to convince people to follow him, he encountered the same obstacles that prevent every other politician in modern Libya from actually achieving tangible results on the ground — that is, their power stems from their position, not the person.
The Obeidat is a big tribe composed of many branches, each one of which has acted as a foundation block for the LNA project and each one of which has made countless sacrifices since 2014. It is very difficult to conceive that they would put it all on the line for Agila Saleh.
Ultimately, the plan’s failure was two-fold: not only did it fail to destabilise power structures in the east and/or corner Haftar into making concessions, it is now being heralded as an internationally-backed conspiracy that will only further nationalist sentiment in support of the LNA amongst its traditional support base.
What eastern Libya’s political future may look like
A new constitutional document for Libya, the role of the HoR and the overall governmental structures are all currently being discussed by authorities in eastern Libya.
Many ideas are being considered — ranging from a military council to a joint military-civilian council, from the formation of an entirely new government with the HoR maintaining legislative authority to the latter being dissolved all together.
Although it is currently impossible to say what the future political structures will look like, the end goal is clear: Haftar and his allies want to make the LPA a thing of the past.