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.


Foreign manipulation defies the wisdom of envisioning a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. All international diplomatic gestures need to be aligned via the UN platform, with a well-defined trajectory, rather than any zero-game equation or realist calculation.

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.”

He 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. 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).

This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy.

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.

This part 2 of 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”.

Libya’s International Linkages

As the famous idiom goes “too many cooks spoil the broth”, the Libyan conflict is a good example of how the scope of differences and the extent of geopolitical external interests in the country cannot be contained or overcome.

I have often argued if internal stakeholders in Libya, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere could free themselves up from foreign manipulation and focus on figuring out a sustainable solution on their own terms, the prospects of finding a compromise, by either their own initiative or the UN mediation efforts, would be rewarding.

The interference of certain regional states, as well as superpowers, has solidified the stubbornness and obduracy of these conflicts. Prime Minister Serraj has stated foreign interference “is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution.”

The role of Haftar has attracted increasing bids of support by several Gulf and European states, and recently Trump’s White House, for various reasons.

The Libyan bazaar has displayed the rise of Islamist groups, threats of Jihadi militias in Derna, the fight over the Oil Crescent, waves of sub-Saharan migration, and possible future arms deals should Haftar succeed in becoming minister of defense, or possibly leader, of new Libya.

Between June 14 and 25, 2018, The United Nations noted a collation of armed groups attempted to seize control of oil facilities in the Oil Crescent. The Libyan National Army announced it would transfer management of the oil facilities to a non-recognized national oil corporation.

These developments have prevented some 850,000 barrels per day from being exported and causing a loss of more than $900 million for Libya.

The UN Panel of Experts received independent, corroborated reports from multiple confidential sources that “Egypt has conducted air strikes against targets in the oil crescent to support the recapture by LNA of a number of oil terminals.

Egypt denied that the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out these strikes.” Steven Cook of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations explains how certain states have decided in investing in Haftar’s military power in the field; “Thus the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability.

For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.”

During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, the welcoming ceremony for Haftar was “like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials.”

Putin’s Kremlin adopted a two-part strategy: empowering Haftar and providing logistical and technical support for his National Army, while avoiding any apparent violation of the U.N. arms embargo.

Some reports have revealed Moscow “could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces.”

Turning west, President Trump’s position on Libya has shifted from downsizing the United States Libya policy, or as he stated in April 2017 “I do not see a role in Libya” except “getting rid of ISIS. We’re being very effective in that regard.”

Two years later, he decided to highlight the Haftar factor in more than area of counterterrorism and geopolitics during their famous phone call April 15, 2019.

According to the call readout issued by the White House, Trump and Haftar spoke about “the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” and the president “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and… discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

This personal interaction between the two men amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.”

The political silhouette of General Haftar gained more significance as well in the eyes of the military establishment in Washington. Then-acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan underscored “a military solution is not what Libya needs,” and supported Haftar’s “role in counterterrorism” and that Washington needed Haftar’s “support in building democratic stability there in the region.”

In the same week, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya.

One can argue Haftar’s claim of combatting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Libya has been an oversold narrative for several European, U.S., and Gulf states in justifying the support of his armed campaign to capture the capital Tripoli.

When the battle of Sirte escalated against ISIS, Haftar’s rivals, Misrata Brigades, fought along with the national unity government while Haftar refusing to join.

French President Immanuel Macron hosted more than one meeting between Haftar and Serraj in Paris. He made several calls for an unconditional ceasefire, but rejected by Haftar.

After the talks between the three men in November 2018, Macron’s office said the President reiterated France’s priorities in Libya: “Fight against terrorist groups, dismantle trafficking networks, especially those for illegal immigration, and permanently stabilize Libya.”

The dominant view in the French government circles is that strongman solutions are “the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.”

The French position seems to go along the objectives of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia not only in military of economic dimensions, but also as part of a regional ideological battle within the large calculation of the uprisings of 2011 and 2019 across the region.

Steven Cook notices, “None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos.

They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey—enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.”

The irony of the UN high-and-low diplomacy in Libya entails the defiance of field commanders in the military and armed militias of the negotiated political agreements in foreign capitals.

One good example is the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Skhirat in Morocco December 17, 2015. Four years later, Ghassan Salamé has cautioned repeatedly against the interference of more than regional and international power in the Libyan conflict.

As he told the 15-state member Security Council, “More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores.”

He also bemoaned that the weapons delivered by foreign supporters are “falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them… This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.”

As I wrote in a previous publication, Haftar remains a powerhouse in the militarization of the conflict and a bulwark against Islamist groups with growing external support.

He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his army equipment despite the UN arms ban on Libya. He has positioned himself as the savior of post-Gaddafi Libya with the trajectory of assuming the presidency, while maintaining a pivotal role in any peace or war proposition.

He has also positioned himself as the key figure in confronting migration, and implied the possibility of a deal with the Italians. “For the control of the borders in the south,” he proposed, “I can provide manpower, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.”

In his rebuttal, Serraj maintains it is not a war between Libya’s east and west; “It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.”


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.



Related Articles