By Wolfgang Pusztai
There are some good reasons, why the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) is in a dead-end road.
Several things went wrong in negotiating and implementing the agreement from the very beginning. The delegates participating in the so-called “Libya Dialogue” in Geneva and Skhirat, Morocco, were not representative for the parties on the ground, in particular not for the powerful militias.
Various facts were ignored, like the strong influence of armed groups, of tribal leaders and of Marshall Khalifa Heftar, who is the controversial Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), appointed by the House of Representatives (HoR), Libya’s international recognized parliament.
Fayez al-Serraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council (PC) and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), as well as several other members of the PC are in Libya widely considered a choice of Bernardino Leon, that-time UN Special Representative, and not of the Libyans.
Serraj and the PC/GNA moved to Tripoli at the end of March 2016, where they still rely today on local, partially Islamist-leaning militias for security. In fact, Libya’s international recognized government is quite powerless. Not even the capital is under its control.
According to the LPA, the agreement itself and the GNA must be endorsed by the HoR to gain legitimacy, but this has not been the case yet. There are two main reasons behind all the arguments officially brought up.
Firstly, the HoR does not want to give the Supreme Command over the LNA into the hands of someone who is appointed by the GNA. Secondly, most people in the east do not want to submit to a government which is on the mercy of the various militias in Tripoli.
As long there is no endorsement by the HoR, the legitimacy of the GNA can be contested. But to make it clear, even if the HoR and Heftar would endorse the GNA, this would change (almost) nothing on the ground in northern Tripolitania, as both have next to no influence there.
Heftar has an important role, but his influence outside of northern Cyrenaica is frequently exaggerated.
According to the LPA itself, the agreement expires at the latest two years after it entered into force on December 17, 2015. This fact was ignored by the GNA and its international supporters, following the argumentation, that the two years of legal force of the agreement have not even started, because it has not yet been voted into law by the HoR.
Notwithstanding that this can be certainly argued correctly, it leaves the question open, how a government can be recognized, while claiming that the agreement establishing the very same government has not yet entered into force. It is doubtful, that there is any legal justification for this.
Current UNSR Ghassan Salamé designed an Action Plan to unblock the process and end the transition phase after the revolution. Unfortunately, the plan is as perfect on the paper, as it is unrealistic on the ground.
The first step is modifying the LPA through negotiations between delegations from the HoR and the Supreme State Council, the Tripoli based advisory body implemented by the LPA.
This step should have been concluded last December. Unfortunately, for the time being there is no agreement by the Supreme State Council to modify the LPA. Negotiations are stuck.
The second step is convening an inclusive national conference after the amendment of the LPA to agree on a charter of common standards and behavior. Originally planned for March, it should convene now without an LPA amendment in place. The process is delayed, but not yet completely abandoned. Such a conference would be certainly beneficial for the peace process.
The third step is approving the draft of the new constitution by referendum. The current paper is very weak, leaving many crucial questions open. It seems not to be suitable to provide the foundation for stabilizing Libya. The process is significantly delayed anyway. There is no referendum law yet. Such a law must be adopted by the HoR. Finally, the outcome of an eventual referendum is highly uncertain. A 2/3 majority would be required.
The fourth step is general elections, but the country is not ready for elections in any sense, neither political, nor organizational nor security-wise. Only if there is a very high voter turnout and a landslide winner, elections could contribute to the stabilization of Libya, but, as the last two elections show, both are not very likely.
Keeping the low number of expected voters in mind (already optimistic is up to 1,2M out of 2,4M registered voters from a population of 6,5M), it is highly likely, that the outcome’s legitimacy will be strongly and violently contested. However, it must be feared, that the elections will take place anyway later in this year.
The LPA is in place since more than two years, but the GNA itself achieved next to nothing on the ground. Positive developments like the increase of oil exports or the defeat of the Islamic State in Sirte cannot be attributed to Serraj and his government. Unfortunately, the process is in a dead-end road. It is highly unlikely that it will lead to the stabilization of the country. International actors, who unconditionally support the LPA and reject any alternatives, have somehow lost credibility on the ground.
One must be also aware, that several groups and individuals are profiting heavily from the current mess. They have no real interest in a change. Furthermore, a true reconciliation between the major warring factions is not realistic for the time being, in particular not when keeping the Arab understanding of history in mind.
On the other side, migration is significantly lower since last August for several reasons. Although figures will increase again as soon as the weather is better, and more NGO ships are present off the Libyan coast – if those dare to return – they will not reach the level before last summer.
Marshall Heftar’s poor health condition
further complicates the situation. It is not clear, if the Chief of Staff of the LNA, Major General Abdul-Razzaq Al-Nadouri, would be accepted as a successor. Another contender would be Brigadier Abdessalam Mahmoud al-Hasi, ex Saiqa Special Forces officer and currently in charge of the operations around Derna.
Anyhow, the future Commander of the LNA does not only need the support of the military, of associated militias and from the tribal leaders, but also from the HoR to gain legitimacy. Khalifa Heftar’s sons Khalid and Saddam don’t have the trust of the tribal leaders and probably also lack support of the senior military officers. There is no reason to assume, that the GNA appointed Chief of Staff, Abdul Rahman al-Tawil, would be able to become the Commander of the LNA.
Regardless, how the Marshall’s current health condition really is, the assassination attempt on Al-Nadouri on Wednesday, April 18, 2018, with a huge truck bomb, made clear, that Heftar’s life is always in danger. Therefore, a deputy and successor needs to be designated. If this is not the case and Heftar passes away for whatever reason, the LNA could break apart.
A very bloody struggle for the succession could take place. This could be the starting point for a major civil war, which is exactly an aim of the radical Islamists, a stepping stone for assuming power in Libya.
The monotonous testimonies of international support to the UN Action Plan and some limited practical aid to the Libyans on the ground by western nations are not enough to stabilize the country.
Much more should be done, even-handed in all parts of Libya, to shape the environment for a peace process, facilitate stabilization efforts and build-up credibility.
Yes, Libya is a country in chaos with three governments and two parliaments, each of whom can somehow claim legitimacy. It is considered by some already a failed state. However, there are several more or less stable cities and regions with elected local councils. In theory, a rather normal life would be possible there.
This local stability should be rewarded by investments, working preferably through the municipalities to enhance efficiency and limit corruption.
Humanitarian support is not only about migrant camps. The health care situation in most parts of Libya is for various reasons dire and deserves higher attention.
There is a risk of a spread of infectious diseases like tuberculosis.
Keeping the deadly threat by left-over mines especially in Sirte and Benghazi in mind, all kinds of activities related to demining should have high priority, in particular training and equipping EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Teams.
Mediation activities, like those of the Italian Sant’Egidio Community and the Italian Government in southern Fezzan and other locations, should be emphasized, finding local solutions for local problems and contributing to local stabilization.
A full deadlock of the current LPA process, where no further significant progress can be achieved, is possible, even likely. Acting responsibly, it is essential to prepare for such a situation or an eventual aggravation of the conflicts after the elections.
There is the very concrete danger of a Somalization of Libya, which could eventually break-up in an uncontrolled way. This would make it even easier for the various radical Islamists to use parts of the country for their expansion strategy well outside of its borders and unleash illegal migration to Europe.
Therefore, there is an urgent need for some prudent contingency planning.
A new strategy must be developed, based on the achievements of the LPA. The EU should prepare to take the lead for the stabilization of Libya in coordination with UN.
Wolfgang Pusztai – Freelance Security & Policy Analyst; Chairman of the Advisory Board / National Council on US-Libya Relations.