By Mohammed Cherkaoui
This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy.
There has been fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy in Libya. Since the summer of 2014, two battles over legitimacy have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened the UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another.
Several puzzling questions have emerged in the volatile Arab geopolitics after two major developments coincided in less than forty-eight hours in the last week of April:
First, Yemen’s main southern separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), decided to establish self-rule in areas under its control, to impose emergency statute in Aden and all southern governorates, and to take control of Aden’s port and airport and other state institutions such as the central bank.
The Saudi-backed government warned these measures would have “catastrophic consequences.” An armed unit of the STC fought to wrest control of Socotra’s provincial capital, Hadibo, from forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia.
Second, retired general Khalifa Haftar stated his Libyan National Army (LNA) had a “popular mandate” to rule Libya and vowed to press his assault to seize Tripoli.
In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, he announced “the general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.”
Haftar also declared “the end of the Skhirat Agreement,” a 2015 United Nations-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government.
Haftar vowed his forces would work “to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state.” However, he did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya would support his plans.
These moves represent two strategic shifts in Yemeni and Libyan geopolitics amidst global health concerns of the Corona pandemic and despite the religious norms of truce during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Both moves by the STC in Yemen and General Haftar in Libya imply a strong role of international linkages with certain regional powers, rather than the internal differences between local stakeholders.
The fragile balance of power seems to be moving along the strategy of some regional players, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have pursued an opportunistic type of political realism.
UAE has relied on the logic of military power by supporting their armed proxies, and ignored the international agreements and diplomatic efforts of the United Nations to reach solutions accepted by all parties in the Yemeni and Libyan crises.
UAE appears to be accelerating the pace toward exercising full control of southern Yemen and its ports, especially Aden and Socotra, to help enhance its maritime trade and expand its influence in the Red Sea region.
It also hopes to expand its political investment in the oil-rich Libya and its strategic position on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
It competes with another regional power, Turkey, which has supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli, and provided technological and tactical backing for GNA-aligned militias.
In early May 2020, armed clashes in western Libya have stopped Haftar’s forces from advancing and reversed their course of action in some strategic areas.
From a comparative perspective of the Yemeni and Libyan developments in terms of context, dynamics, and trajectory, Haftar’s unilateral Egypt’s 2013 Sissi-like-style declaration of “popular mandate” and intention of imposing some de facto authority in Libya entail serious ramifications and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years.
Haftar’s plans usher to more escalation of an open-ended crisis, which the United Nations Secretary General considers to be a “proxy war”.
Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, also known as the Skhirat Agreement,” signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco.
After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General António Guterres for ‘health reasons’ March 2, 2020.
His decision implied deep frustration in his pursuit, for more two and a half years, “to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country”.
The Trump administration has refused to vote for the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra to replace Mr. Salamé.
The U.S. mission to the UN gave no further explanation for opposing Lamamra, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister (2013-2017) and as African Union commissioner for peace and security (2008-2013).
He has also served as Algeria’s ambassador to the United Nations and the United States in mid-1990s. He is considered an experienced diplomat and has been a mediator in several African conflicts, notably in Liberia.
Since the summer of 2014, two battles over legitimacy, or two legitimation crises, have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened the UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another.
Both institutions have required separate budgets of the oil revenues for the rival entities and their respective governments, and claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world.
Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with either the United Nations or foreign governments has been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four particular figures with opposite views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.
The paper also probes into the struggle of the UN diplomacy, as it had passed its eighth-year mark September 16, 2019. It examines four main factors.
First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives in Tobruq with its government housed in Bayda versus GNA in Tripoli.
Second, the foreign interference of certain countries, like Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, and Russia, and the United States has pursued tilting the already flimsy balance of power on the ground in favor one player against another.
Third, The Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the European Union (EU).
For instance, the AU initiative opted for a non-removal policy of the Qaddafi regime; but, committed to a “reform process and a political transition.”
Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and the discourse of ‘counterterrorism’ since General Haftar has pledged to “cleanse” the Western part of the country from the perceived “terrorists”.
Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.