By Anas El Gomati
Recent political talks to end the civil war in Libya have relied upon the flawed logic of inclusion and compromise to unify rival factions, in the belief that institutional cooperation will follow.
This report analyses how this strategy is destined to fail, due to opposing and irreconcilable visions for the state and its political character.
Why Libya’s last political process failed
The most high-profile political process and attempt to reach political compromise remains the UN-brokered Skhirat Agreement (2015) following Libya’s first, post-2011, outbreak of violence in 2014.
This political process established the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that would establish a new Government of National Accord (GNA). The LPA created inclusive institutional governing arrangements around a Presidential Council (PC), an executive nine-member body to lead the GNA, whose composition was selected on the basis of inclusivity and representation that would ‘leave no conflict line or party to the conflict behind’.
As a result, the U.N. appointed representatives from across all of Libya’s local and regional conflicts under one political body, to encourage their joint cooperation and by extension an end to all their conflicts.
This resulted in Fayez al-Serraj from Tripoli being appointed as a neutral consensus figure to lead the PC alongside eight deputies from a variety of powerful tribes, ethnic groups, political parties, armed factions and key interest groups.
This logic assumed conflict was driven by tribal, ethnic and political greed for power and competition to rule. The process was built on the assumption that if all the parties to the conflict were to simply share power through compromise and rule together inclusively, they would cooperate and the conflict would end.
Despite the UN’s efforts, the political process and products of this strategy of inclusivity and compromise failed to bring about the desired political cooperation and end the conflict. Boycotting members was an early problem, but the LPA’s ideological framework proved to be its undoing.
The institutional arrangements, distribution of power and reassigning of political authority over the military was the fundamental stumbling block to Libya’s peace process and demonstrated the deep ideological incompatibility of Haftar and the LAAF with the pluralist PC.
The LPA’s Article 8– transferred power over the armed force to the politically pluralist PC and in the process transformed the balance of political power, threatening the power structures under construction in eastern Libya.
The PC’s new authority would replace Aguila Saleh as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the chief of Libya’s parliament the House of Representatives (HoR) who appointed Haftar as military chief in 2015 and designed much of the LAAF.
It would thus give the PC power as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to remove Haftar from his position as chief of the LAAF.
Despite Haftar initially endorsing the PC by nominating Ali Qatrani as his representative, a senior Haftar aide claimed they “had not examined the text carefully enough” and not realised the full implications of the LPA, until after the establishment of the PC as grounds for later rejecting the PC.
Haftar’s ally in parliament, Saleh similarly refused to allow for a parliamentary vote to endorse the LPA, only holding a vote to reject the PC’s proposed government – the GNA – in an attempt to delegitimise the UN political process and the LPA.
Despite the UN’s initial claim there would essentially be ‘no Plan B’ to the LPA, it eventually succumbed to external resistance in 2017 and change course.
‘Plan B’: Why accommodating not addressing ideology led to war
The UN Security Council welcomed and endorsed Haftar’s military and political backers who unliterally launched a new political process and negotiations first in the UAE and later France to overcome Libya’s divisions.
The Abu Dhabi and Paris talks began brokering a new deal through direct political talks primarily between Serraj and Haftar between 2017 and 2019 – essentially a ‘Plan B’ to the LPA.
The aim of Plan B was to work around the LPA and carefully unify the two bodies and reform the Presidential Council to accommodate the LAAF. These talks continued to aim at forging a new institutional arrangement, and a reconfigured PC to ensure its political authority would not threaten Haftar’s control of the LAAF.
The deal included a ceasefire, but on the condition the LAAF were allowed to continue its controversial counter terrorism campaign language used by Haftar since 2014 to target a multitude of armed groups and political opponents including Libya’s parliament and political parties.
In October 2017, Haftar and Serraj met in Abu Dhabi, where they discussed the first proposed reform of the PC into a smaller three-person council – that would include Aguila Saleh and Haftar as two of its three members, in order to embed the LAAF’s control over the PC.
As these talks continued, Haftar grew stronger, took hold of Libya’s oil facilities and more territory into southern and later western before, and without warning, negotiations were abandoned in favour of a power grab in Tripoli on April 4th 2019.
Despite the UN’s five years of efforts to broker peace and establish a unified government through compromise and inclusivity, this process and logic failed to address the ideological obstacles to the LAAF presented by the UN’s foundational document the LPA in Libya.
The UN mission to Libya, who had been brokering talks also failed to address the ideological shift by regional and global powers who had not only embraced Haftar since 2016, but were willing to back him over the PC and GNA and how this would impact the conflict.
Despite the UN sanctioning a local armed group who attacked the GNA for a month in September 2018, in a move UN Security Council members claimed was “sending a clear message from the international community that acts of violence against the Libyan people will not be tolerated”, the UN Security Council failed to unilaterally condemn or sanction Haftar throughout his 15 months offensive.
The former UN special representative to Libya Ghassan Salamé hinted at an ideological shift, claiming the “international system has changed dramatically” since the revolution, in an attempt to explain why the UN sanctioned Qaddafi in 2011, a sovereign head of state threatening his civilians, but failed to sanction Haftar in 2019 who was both threatening civilians and trying to overthrow a sovereign head of state appointed by the UN.
The flaw in the UN’s endorsement of the UAE and France’s ‘Plan B’ strategy was failing to see the motive behind reconfiguring the PC.
The conflict resolution’s logic was based on the belief Haftar was seeking a meaningful political compromise with Serraj, and that the LAAF would be subservient to a unified government and future governments once the political negotiations were complete.
The reality was that Haftar was not negotiating with the state, or the LAAF’s submission to the state, he was using negotiations to wrestle control of the state, before abandoning peaceful talks in favour of a violent power grab.
The UN brokered talks have repeatedly failed to address the LAAF’s desire for an institutional reconfiguration of the PC that replaces meaningful civilian oversight and power over the LAAF at the heart of the conflict in the subsequent framework of the unification talks, instead it accommodates it.
The Berlin Process and Geneva process remains structured around ‘Plan B’, reforming the PC to accommodate the LAAF, as opposed to addressing why the LAAF is so resistant to a change in political authority.
The reason behind the LAAF’s resistance to a change in political authority can be found in the history of civil-military relations during Qaddafi’s reign, and how the former regime designed its military and embedded its authoritarian structures into it at the grass roots level – Libya’s tribes.
The Jamahiriya – Power and ideology under Qaddaf
The revolution in 2011 fundamentally transformed the old socio-political order of the Qaddafi regime, the system to distribute and divide power and privilege in society, and the ideological character of the state.
Most importantly, it established a fundamental fault line between rival networks of armed groups over the institutional structures of the state that predates the GNA and LAAF’s conflict in 2019, but is central to understanding it. Qaddafi’s 42 years in power are often misunderstood.
On the surface, the unusual and idiosyncratic ideas outlined in the Green Book – his vision for structuring the state and organising society known as the Jamahiriya are often the reference point to understanding Libya’s political and social system over the period of his rule.
However, behind the populist rhetoric and political slogans, little is understood about how Qaddafi managed power and maintained his ideological and authoritarian grip over Libyan society for so long.
Conspicuously absent in history was how the Jamahiriya’s power was established on a system of two armies; the upper tier, an elite and powerful ‘praetorian guard’ directly under Qaddafi’s command, and the second army a lower tier tribal military deeply embedded into Libya’s social fabric designed to coup proof the Jamahiriya and preserve his authoritarian rule.
In essence Qaddafi’s two tier Jamahiriya army was engineered in such a way as to guard the authoritarian regime from popular uprising and social dissidence at the lower tier whilst ensuring the lower tier army itself was too weak to challenge the upper tier praetorian guard and overthrow the regime. It didn’t begin this way.
After seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1969, Qaddafi began to systematically weaken Libya’s regular military (fearing a repeat of the coup he staged) and began quietly building his own private military, a praetorian guard directly under his control.
The praetorian guard would contain loyalist units such as the 32nd brigade led by his son Khamis Qaddafi. These armies were later known as Jaysh Mu’ammar – Qaddafi’s upper tier elite praetorian guard and Jaysh Bubakar the lower tier army after Bubakar Younes Jaber, Libya’s former defence minister.
However, after an attempted military coup in 1993 by officers from Jaysh Bubakar who predominantly hailed from Libya’s largest tribe the Warfalla, Qaddafi radically redesigned and transformed Jaysh Bubakar, its ideological form and strategic purpose in society.
In 1993, Qaddafi needed to make an example of the coup plotters in order to deter potential challenges to his rule and began rounding up dissidents. The army officers were executed, and their family members punished, but Qaddafi equally feared how this repression of the Warfalla tribe could produce widespread tribal sympathy and encourage political dissidence to his regime.
As a result, Qaddafi began working on a way in which to infiltrate and subvert Libya’s society and bind it to the regime through its tribal communities and networks. He sought to purchase tribal loyalty into his regime’s military by embedding particular tribes into Jaysh Bubakar, in order to act as a buffer against social and political forms of dissidence across Libya’s society.
The regime established the Socialist People’s Command (SPC) in 1994 under Khalifa Hneish tasked with establishing links into Libya’s tribes and transforming them into ‘guardians of the regime’. This tribal patronage system became the hallmark of the Jamahiriya and a new way for Qaddafi to maintain his authoritarian grip on power and coup proof his regime.
Tribal patronage was intrinsic to Jaysh Bubakar, not only as a means of maintaining power, but managing and accommodating power. The patronage system was first an entry point to establishing the clientelism of tribal chiefs and later embedding tribesmen into the lower tier military, purchasing tribal loyalty and establishing a tribal reliance on the regime as a source of wealth through socio-economic kickbacks and political privileges to their communities.
This served a key ideological purpose – to preserve Libya’s authoritarian system at the local level. Any attempt to overthrow Qaddafi or the Jamahiriya – by internal coup or external dissent – would also directly threaten the entire tribal patronage network’s economic interests, political privileges and their way of life at the local level.
As a result, Qaddafi’s tribes were no longer merely a surname, bloodline or a common history of people in Libya’s society, they were a tool.
Tribes became part of a political and military re-engineering of authoritarian state and society, and a means of distributing authoritarian privilege in exchange for maintaining authoritarian power of its people.
Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. He was a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector, and political Islam in Libya.