By Tarek Megerisi
Europe’s competing policies on Libya have resulted in its mismanagement of the conflict, contributed to an acute crisis in its neighbourhood, and created an image of European incoherence and weakness.
A frail process
While the ceasefire agreement was welcome, it has key weaknesses that have been clear from the outset. Most importantly, there is considerable doubt about the parties’ commitment to the agreement. Both Haftar and Russia appear to be using the JMC as cover to strengthen their positions.
For his part, Haftar seems uninterested in demilitarisation, given that ending the conflict would mean giving up his ambition to rule. Indeed, Libyans across the political spectrum do not trust him to abide by any settlement.
Since the signing of the ceasefire agreement, an influx of mercenaries and Salafist militias has reinforced his defensive positions around Sirte, while he has also sought to strengthen his position in southern Libya.
At the same time, Russian mercenaries that control Sirte’s Ghardabiya airport prevented the GNA delegation from landing there to participate in the JMC meeting.
This was widely seen as a power play by Russia, and an indication that the country would continue to prioritise its own interests without paying heed to Libyans or any political process – as it has at other strategically important sites, such as Sirte’s naval port and Jufra’s military airbase.
In this context, the ceasefire agreement’s language on the primacy of Libyan sovereignty appears to be hollow, at best. The agreement was also damaged by its unrealistic headline pledges to relocate all local forces away from the frontlines and to send all foreign forces back home within three months.
These problems have led to a renewed focus on the political track as a means of establishing a broader vision that political, security, and international actors can buy into – something that is particularly important given that there are some indications that Turkey and Egypt, at least, want to prevent further escalation
Following the Sirte ceasefire, the UN convened the LPDF as a lightweight version of the National Conference format, which aimed to forge a Libyan consensus on the way forward but which Haftar scuppered last year by attacking Tripoli days before the conference was due to start.
The LPDF sought to simultaneously secure the support of the Libyan political elite and wider popular legitimacy, countering the perception that Libya’s future was being shaped by corrupt political horse-trading behind closed doors.
The LPDF met on 9 November, convening a mixture of representatives of the elite, low-level politicians, and members of civil society. The process was intended to secure backing for a new road map and create a unified executive that would ratify a new constitution and hold elections.
This executive authority would be made up of two institutions – a Presidency Council that had representation from each of Libya’s three regions, and a unity government whose prime minister would be appointed by the LPDF.
But the UN’s apparent desperation for a deal contributed to a chaotic process over which it quickly lost control. As the road map’s objectives lacked substance, the political elite quickly felt emboldened to push for greater control, using their representatives to gum up the process through bribery and intimidation.
Eventually, a battle over the internal voting mechanism for filling the top political positions caused the process to break down. On 13 January – more than two months after the opening of the LPDF, and following the failure of several online meetings intended to end this dispute – the UN convened a slimmed-down, 15-member advisory committee in Geneva.
The hope was that this could finally overcome this unexpected obstacle, allowing the LPDF to resume the highly controversial job of appointing figures to the top positions.
Despite the UN’s triumphal early announcements about securing a consensus on the road map and the election schedule, the process teeters on the brink of collapse or, worse still, irrelevance.
Much as with the JMC, an agreement on high-level principles belies a lack of operational detail or a consensus on substantive issues around sharing power, stabilising the country, and holding free and fair elections.
The intense difficulties in obtaining an agreement on the internal voting mechanism laid bare the flaws of the process and sapped it of momentum and local credibility.
The underwhelming reality of the LPDF has made many Libyans even more cynical about the political process. This sentiment was exacerbated by the dysfunction of the forum, including the credible allegations of bribery in the votes on presidential and prime ministerial candidates – allegations that have triggered a formal investigation.
Russian and Emirati disinformation networks have fed further discord, ramping up their media campaigns to discredit the talks, its participants, and the UN’s work more generally.
Overall, the current situation is strongly reminiscent of the aftermath of the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in 2015. Back then, under pressure to secure a deal between Libya’s warring factions, the UN finalised a deal that was based on the lowest common denominator and that did nothing but set the stage for Libya’s corrupt elite to engage in ruthless competition with one another for control of state resources.
The LPA’s failure to clearly outline a viable power-sharing model or clarify the responsibilities of different offices disincentivised factions from working together. It encouraged them to try to monopolise power, resulting in widespread acrimony, boycotts, and governmental collapse.
In 2015 both the UN and Libyan parties were unwilling to resolve the core issue – Libya’s unity – and instead sought to create new institutions to ensure that everyone retained a piece of the pie. This only deepened the division between east and west, exacerbating the country’s core problems.
The lack of a clear mandate for the government or any accountability mechanisms meant that those in power only looted the state while public services atrophied.
Armed groups and their international backers were able to ignore the LPA, imposing their own reality on Saleh’s parliament in the east and Sarraj’s GNA in the west.
Today, there is a risk that history will repeat itself as everyone jostles for power rather than focusing on the structural problems driving ongoing division and conflict.
Saleh approached the LPDF under the assumption that he was entitled to become president as payment for his role in marginalising Haftar (who, nonetheless, still seeks power).
In response to the LPDF’s failure to immediately help him fulfil his ambitions, he has since begun a rapprochement with the field marshal.
Meanwhile, two Misratans – the Turkish-backed Bashagha and the Russian-backed Maitiq – are engaged in a political melee for the office of prime minister.
As such, the leadership of the two institutions of what was intended to be a unifying executive authority was cleanly divided between east and west from the start.
This has only heightened the risk that the country will become more divided – as has Saleh’s widely acknowledged intentions to relocate the seat of the presidency to eastern Libya.
The creation of two executive institutions that are divided and that have an ambiguous delineation of responsibilities will only further complicate Libya’s messy landscape.
And these divides will create new avenues through which external actors can gain further influence. Here, powerful foreign states are doing little to indicate a true commitment to the political process.
Just as Russia and the UAE have used the current pause in fighting to cement their positions, so Turkey and Qatar have signed new military agreements with the GNA in Tripoli.
Egypt is pushing to host its own security and diplomatic meetings in an attempt to cannibalise the process.
Ultimately, little effort seems to have been made by the UN, the US, or European states to secure pronounced commitments to the diplomatic process from these key external actors.
Many hoped that the introduction of Mladenov as special envoy could turn the corner and extract the necessary agreements on a lasting compromise: he had long regional experience and a mandate more empowering than that of the former special representative of the UN secretary-general.
Alas – following a diplomatic campaign to accuse him of being too close to the UAE and Egypt, and efforts to slander him across Libyan media networks – he resigned from the position on 22 December.
Although UN Secretary-General António Guterres quickly moved to nominate a career diplomat, Jan Kubis, to try to steady the ship, the UN’s authority in Libya has been severely undermined at a critical juncture and those who spoil the process with impunity have been emboldened.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has worked on Libya’s transition since 2012 in a variety of capacities.