Could talks that recently resulted in a cease-fire and set a date for an election finally help push dangerous international players out of Libya?
During the latest round of talks on Libya’s future, the acting UN special representative Stephanie Williams warned this week of the dangers posed by the presence of 20,000 foreign fighters in the country and the 10 military bases occupied by them.
“You may believe that these foreigners are here as your guests, but they are now occupying your house,” Williams told the 75 participants at the second round of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum on December 2, held online. “They are pouring weapons into your country, a country which does not need more weapons,” said Williams, who heads the UN Support Mission in Libya. “They are not in Libya for your interests: They are in Libya for their interests.You have now a serious crisis with regard to the foreign presence in your country.“
The foreign fighters Williams is talking about come from Syria, Sudan, Chad and Russia, and are there at the behest of their international paymasters. These include Turkey, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all of which are pursuing their own agendas in Libya, by supporting one of the two rival factions that want to control the country.
At stake in Libya are huge reserves of oil and gas. The country is also an important transit point for migrants heading to Europe, as well as a refuge for extremists and terrorists.
Proxy fighters are in Libya despite the fact that international representatives at the Conference on Libya held in Berlin in January 2020 had agreed to commit to an arms embargo and, as their joint post-meeting communique said, refrain “from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya.”
Clearly that hasn’t happened. At the same time though, there has been some positive news. An October cease-fire between the two groups trying to control the country appears to be holding.
Since the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two opposing factions have vied to govern Libya: one headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, a former architect and leader of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, the other led by the rebel military commander Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army had, until recently, controlled much of the country.
Haftar, who is based in eastern Libya, is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia; al-Sarraj is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy.
‘Interests in Libya’
UN-led talks in Tunisia in November to set up a transitional government resulted in an agreement to hold elections in December 2021.
Could that mean that Libya is finally — after over six years of continuous fighting and nearly a decade of armed conflict — inching closer to peace, or at least some sort of peaceful resolution between the domestic factions and the external influences?
Unfortunately not, said Tarek Megerisi, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, who has monitored the conflict for the past decade.
“From the outside, the situation in Libya never seems that bad, especially if you compare it to somewhere like Syria,” he told DW. “But it is a deteriorating cycle. The Libyan crisis has this remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.“
A full-blown civil war is now unlikely, but, Megerisi said, “that doesn’t mean there will be peace.” Over their various meetings, the participants in the conflict have often reached more general agreements on policy, Megerisi said, “but it all breaks down when discussing operational details.“
The researcher, who worked in Libya from 2012 to 2014, agrees with the UN’s Williams that the presence of foreign fighters is an issue. But, Megerisi said, even more problematic are the countries that support them.
Those countries “have very particular interests in Libya, which they are ring-fencing,” he said. “That stops a solution being found because then it has to be about pleasing those countries. In the case of Russia, in particular, it is currently in their interests to keep the parties divided. So how do you deal with that?” he asks.
Oil Corporation’s clout
Tim Eaton, a senior researcher at Chatham House and the author of a report on the evolution of Libya’s war economy, isn’t quite as pessimistic.
In late November, Libya’s National Oil Corporation announced that it would withhold funds from the sale of petrol — the country’s only significant source of income — from the Central Bank until there was a political resolution to the fighting.
“The glass-half-full version is that this is a time of opportunity, to break Libya out of its status quo,” Eaton said. It was always hard to find ways to motivate regional actors to settle their differences.
“Will this combination of an emergency and the political process provide an opportunity to shift the needle a bit?” he asked.
On the other hand, Eaton said, the looming financial emergency could also cause Libyans who feel that their interests are threatened to become more unwilling to come together.
And, Eaton said, this isn’t just about the money: There are clearly the competing international interests to consider, as well as the fact that the National Oil Corporation is currently holding the country’s leadership to ransom.
“This moment we are at now — where a national corporation is trying to move the political process forward — shows the extent of the dysfunction in the system,” Eaton said. “The checks and balances that did exist in Libya have really eroded now. That’s the result of long-term fragmentation. So I think it is unclear where we are going at the moment.“
Foreign fighters a ‘serious crisis’ in Libya
The 20,000 foreign fighters now in Libya represent “a serious crisis” and “a shocking violation of Libyan sovereignty”, UN Acting Special Representative Stephanie Williams said on Wednesday, during the latest meeting under the country’s political dialogue forum.
Seventy-five people from across the social and political spectrum of Libyan society are taking part in the forum, aimed at establishing a transitional body that will govern the country in the lead-up to elections next year.
“You may believe that these foreigners are here as your guests, but they are now occupying your house. This is a blatant violation of the arms embargo”, said Ms. Williams, who also heads the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
“They are pouring weapons into your country, a country which does not need more weapons. They are not in Libya for your interests, they are in Libya for their interests. Dirou balkom (take care). You have now a serious crisis with regard to the foreign presence in your country.”
Chaos, ceasefire and dialogue
Following the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, Libya descended into chaos, resulting in the country being divided between two rival administrations: the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the west, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), located in the east.
The sides agreed a ceasefire in October in Geneva, after mediation led by Ms. Williams. Provisions included the withdrawal of all military units and armed groups from the frontlines, and the departure of mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.
The ceasefire paved the way for the start of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), with a first round of talks held in Tunis from 7- 15 November.
The outcome was a roadmap to elections on 24 December 2021: the 70th anniversary of Libya’s independence.
Women participants also issued a statement outlining a series of principles and recommendations for improving women’s participation in the political process and governance.
The second round of talks began last week, with Wednesday marking the third virtual meeting of the parties.
Corruption, misgovernance and ‘political tourism’
Ms. Williams highlighted ongoing challenges in Libya, pointing out that some 1.3 million citizens are expected to need humanitarian assistance in January.
She also reminded participants of the country’s “terrible” electricity crisis, stating “I am not pointing fingers. This is a crisis in the west and in the east. You have a crisis of corruption. You have a misgovernance crisis, and now you have only 13 of 27 powerplants that are functioning.”
Although around $1 billion is needed immediately to avert a complete collapse of the electrical grid, she said “this is very difficult now because of the divisions in the institutions, and because of the epidemic of corruption and this kleptocratic class that is determined to remain in power.”
Meanwhile, human rights abuses are a daily reality nationwide, with reports of kidnapping, arbitrary detentions and killings, and estimates indicate that there are nearly 94,000 cases of COVID-19, though the actual number could be higher.
“While there is a lot of political tourism going to different countries and capitals, the average Libyans are suffering, and the indications of improvement for their situation are not there,” said Ms. Williams.
‘Time is not on your side’
For the UN envoy, the LPDF is the best way for Libya to move forward. Underscoring that there is “a direct cost for inaction and obstruction”, she warned participants that the clock is ticking.
“I know that there are many who think that this whole dialogue is just about sharing power, but it is really about sharing responsibility for future generations”, she said.
“This is my ask of you as we have the discussions today in going forward, because, and I will say it again, time is not on your side.”