By Sami Hamdi
The political process in Libya has not been brought about out of a desire for a lasting political solution, but as a framework through which Washington might contain Russia, and Russia might cement itself further on the Mediterranean, all at the expense of the Libyans.
The UN-led political process in Libya has brought about some notable achievements.
From a permanent ceasefire to the re-opening of land and air routes between Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east, there is clear engagement from Libya’s political factions with the process and cautious optimism that dialogue will permanently replace war.
The joint military 5+5 commission – composed of five military officials from the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and five military officials from warlord Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – have also conducted a number of meetings in Ghadames to iron out the technical details of implementing the ceasefire, including intelligence sharing and monitoring of military activity.
However, the headlines and positive announcements being made by UN envoy Stephanie Williams detract from the darker realities that underpin the political process and, upon closer inspection, reveal that for all the participation of Libyan factions, Libyan agency remains almost non-existent.
The primary motive that drove Libya’s factions to engage with the political process was not a desire on their part to do so, but the result of their international backers making it clear that they would no longer support a military solution in the current circumstances.
Turkey, which rescued the GNA from Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, deemed the cost of an offensive against Sirte and a campaign eastwards to be too high following a failed attempt in the immediate aftermath by GNA forces, subsequent entrenchment of Russian mercenaries, and Egyptian President Sisi’s threat to intervene militarily.
For the LNA, Cairo made its frustrations clear to both Haftar and the UAE— the prime international backer of a military solution— as it fretted over the establishment of a Turkish military presence in North Africa and the possible blowback of Haftar’s failed offensive on the security of its own border.
The complexities of the political process are compounded by the multiple countries involved, revealing the extent to which talks are driven by international power play as opposed to a desire for a lasting political outcome.
Russia has sought to oversee its own political process with both Turkey and Egypt. It has already established a Libya working group with Ankara and has liaised with Cairo over navigating the politics of Eastern Libya as the fissures caused by Haftar’s military failures become more pronounced.
Meanwhile, a US that was apathetic to Haftar’s military offensive in 2019, has suddenly stormed into the Libyan political scene, imposing its envoy on the UN-led process after rejecting proposals from Algeria, dispatching its Defense Secretary in a rare-visit to Libya’s neighbors to impress the necessity of cooperation, and side-lining both France and the UAE – who Washington blames for encouraging an undesirable Russian presence – in the process.
The sudden US diplomatic rush is not rooted in an abrupt desire to bring about a political solution, but a reflection of the deep concern among US officials over the extent to which Russia has capitalized on the chaos to expand further along the Mediterranean.
In other words, the current UN-led political process is considered by Washington as a viable means to uproot Russia’s presence, while Moscow considers its own political pursuit to be the most viable means to cement its gains. Both powers are deploying their diplomatic capabilities to force the Libyan parties onto a course that can guarantee these aims.
More troubling for the US and the UN-led process is that despite the ostensible buy-in of its allies Turkey and Egypt, these same allies have refused to detach from their engagements in Libya and have established their own framework of cooperation with Russia.
Turkey believes that the US is not just targeting Russian gains, but also Turkish gains in Al-Watiya, Misrata, and the numerous bilateral security and economic agreements signed since the successful intervention.
Egypt fears that the US focus on Russia will undermine Cairo’s concerns over the make-up of a prospective unity government that might see an increased Islamist presence.
More importantly, and perhaps most frustrating of all for the US, is that the continued engagement of Ankara and Cairo with Moscow suggests that the traditional US allies have begun seriously contemplating alternative long-term partnerships to secure their interests.
There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that Turkey and Egypt generally believe that Washington in recent times has had very little regard for the concerns and priorities of its allies, preferring instead to bully them into compliance with wider US aims in the region.
Turkey fears it will be pressured to give up its gains while Egypt fears the US will facilitate a Libyan government that disproportionately rewards anti-Egypt elements and what it refers to as “Islamists.”
With such an attitude and given the US’ dogged pursuit to contain Russia, facilitating US policy will most likely come at the expense of American allies with little compensation in return.
The second possibility is that US allies no longer perceive Washington as the power it once was and are ensuring an avenue to secure their interests in the event the US fails in securing its objectives.
The international power play has spilled over to undermine some of the more positive developments announced by UN envoy Stephanie Williams.
Despite talk of freezing security agreements and the setting of a three-month deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces, GNA officials were quick to state that this would not apply to agreements with Turkey; yet the GNA knew full well that the clause was only accepted by the LNA groups because it was to be interpreted as including those agreements.
The complexity of the political process is compounded when assessing the popular legitimacy of the Libyan groups involved. The amplifying of international power is rooted in the reality that the Libyan factions generally lack a popular mandate.
This was no more evident than in the protests that broke out immediately following the initial ceasefire in August this year not only in Tripoli, but in Benghazi, Sebha, and even Sirte.
These protests were not factional protests, but targeted Libyan politicians across the spectrum, accusing them of exacerbating a war for the sake of personal gain, and at the expense of the Libyan people.
The legitimacy of the Libyan factions involved in the political process stems from either international backing or military power. Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj is present by virtue of the Skhirat Agreement, not because of a popular mandate.
Former General Khalifa Haftar is present by virtue of his military strength. Libyan Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh is present because of a renewed push by Egypt and Russia to reduce Haftar’s carefully crafted influence in the east. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is influential because of the established might of the militias of Misrata.
While Libya seeks a unity government with an eye on elections, these parties seek a power-sharing arrangement that allows them to cement their authority within the framework of the state.
The former facilitates the establishment of a popular mandate, while the latter creates a paralyzed state of “proxies” similar to Iraq. In other words, the process appears to be a gathering of proxies and individual fiefdoms, rather than one that represents Libyan society for the sake of a unified Libyan state.
The reality is that the political process emerged from the military dynamics on the ground. Therefore, it makes sense that any assessment of its potential success or implementation of its directives be dependent upon the primary actors that brought about such realities.
In this, it becomes clear that there are two major international powers with significant military sway and influence: Russia and Turkey.
Neither will withdraw at the behest of Washington, and both have established sufficient ties with numerous Libyan political factions that are engaged with the UN-led political process, which enables them to insulate themselves from any directives they disapprove of.
While Washington in theory has the clout to bring about a political solution, its primary intention to drive out Russia will inevitably hinder its ability to bring about genuine reform that might revive the failing state.
Yet, in addition to these complex dynamics, the undercurrents that have fueled the conflict remain unaddressed. The manner of Gaddafi’s fall through NATO intervention has had significant ramifications for how the conflict has unfolded.
Libyans as a people have yet to impose themselves on the politics of their country through their own strength. An unhealthy precedent since 2011 of Libyan factions summoning foreign powers to assert themselves on other Libyan groups has only further undermined the agency of the Libyan people and the value of “popular legitimacy” in the eyes of the political actors.
At some point, Libya’s politics will need to do away with the propensity for foreign intervention to secure short-term gains, and embark on a national reconciliation that seriously engages the population in re-establishing what it means to be Libyan, and what their collective forefathers gave their lives for so that they might become independent.
The UN-led political process may bring about a lasting end to the conflict, however, political instability is likely to continue for a much longer period unless these underlying issues are addressed.
Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest, an experienced foreign policy adviser, and seasoned consultant who has advised governments and global companies on the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East.