Arturo Varvelli

In recent months a number of events in Libya seem to be taking the country to a new evolution of the crisis.


General Haftar’s forces and the process of international political mediation

Since instatement of the Serraj government, Haftar has been an obstacle to reunifying the country under the GNA, contributing to paralyzing the Tobruk parliament, the only one officially recognized by the international community.

The Tobruk parliament’s recent rej to a new phase of conflict between the two hearts of the country. Haftar basically seems to be trying to create in the eastern part of Libya a system inspired by al-Sisi’s Egypt.

The progressive replacement of various mayors of Cyrenaica towns – the result of local elections in recent months – with faithful military personnel, seems to be a clear strategy for taking full control of the region.

In the Libyan chaos and in the weakness and fragmentation of central institutions, in fact, the municipalities had assumed an important role in the political transition process as legitimate representatives of local communities. In mid-September Haftar launched a very important military mission.

The Libyan National Army (LNA, as per the ambitious definition the general himself gave to his own variegated military contingent) won control of the four oil ports in central Libya, occupying the oil terminals serving to export most of Libyan crude and removing the Petroleum Facility Guards.

A new military escalation occurred in March 2017 when Libyan factions were once again fighting for control of key oil installations in the Gulf of Sirte’s “oil crescent”.

The clash between Haftar’s forces and the Islamist groups risks reducing Libya’s oil production and is undermining efforts to broker a peace deal.

In fact Haftar’s goal does not seem to be military escalation, since none of the armed forces involved seems able today to militarily overcome the others, but rather to exert blackmailing power on the entire political process.

Controlling oil resources in Libya makes it possible to wield influence over the central bank and Libyan National Oil Company (LNOC). In fact, Haftar swiftly made a political move, declaring that he had consigned infrastructure management to the LNOC, implicitly demonstrating that the occupation was an act benefitting “all Libyans”, as requested by Serraj.

It is obvious, however, that this act was a political victory for Haftar, who demands revision of the power relations in the GNA and

wants to undermine Serraj’s leadership. Haftar seems to aim de facto at a commanding role no longer just circumscribed to the Cyrenaica area.

Taking advantage of the ambiguity of the transition process headed by the UN (which recognizes Serraj’s Presidential Council as the highest authority but considers the Tobruk Chamber of Representatives the legislative authority), Haftar seems to have time on his side because indefinitely postponing the Tobruk parliaments’ approval of Serraj’s government forces the international community to acknowledge Serraj’s failure and evaluate other options.

Haftar seems to have initially succeeded. The EU, for example, has officially asked Serraj to think about a more inclusive cabinet, while the US and Italy – right from the Vienna conference last April – have been trying to be mediators in integrating Haftar’s forces into the structure of the future government.

Nonetheless, the most important foreign actor in the Libyan crisis is still Egypt, which, backed by the United Arab Emirates, is Haftar’s biggest supporter.

Egypt has obvious strategic motives: General Haftar has made himself a go-between in the fight against “Islamists” in the broadest sense, including in this definition the forces tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo accuses of being a terrorist organization.

It is easy to see that a part of the population (and not just in Cyrenaica), exasperated by the non-existence of a Libyan state, looks ever more benevolently on the general’s “pacifying” role.

Thanks to internal and external support, Haftar clearly aims to play

an increasingly important role, one at the same time in alternative to Serraj. Egypt’s interest in influencing Cyrenaica and the ambiguity of France and Russia about supporting Haftar are contributing to creating an international context of informal support for Haftar’s cause and one certainly unfavourable to stipulating a compromise between the major parties involved.

In this context the mediation of the United Nations, guided by German diplomat Martin Kobler, seems rather ineffective and lacking in any real bargaining power.

Overcoming the deadlock. Some policy options

Different interpretations exist on how to address the Libyan crisis. Some scholars point the finger at the fragile Libyan identity and ascribe the ungovernability of the country to its intrinsic fragmentation due to tribalism, localism and regionalism.

Another interpretation attributes responsibility for the prolonged crisis to a process of political polarization between secular and Islamist forces.

Both points of view might be fascinating, but both of them are partial and incomplete as they leave out a deep understanding of the international scenario surrounding the North African country and the crucial role of external actors in the Libyan theater.

Currently in the international system, and particularly in the MENA region, the hierarchy of power and prestige seems to rapidly change and its continuous evolution represents a key driver of insecurity.

The assertiveness of regional players and the increasingly influential role of Russia seem to be emblematic of the changeable nature of

international political alignments, i.e. the status of alliances, partnerships and informal cooperation.

Even the first steps of the new US administration seem to confirm the reorientation of US foreign policy, which is trying to balance commitments and resources, leading to further changes in the region.

In light of this framework, the enlarged Mediterranean appears to be the epicenter of global disorder and the Libyan crisis arises as one of the main chapters. In Libya the intervention of regional powers significantly contributed to the growing polarization between the two fronts.

Foreign interference has made it even more difficult to launch a genuine national reconciliation process. At present the international context seems to negatively impact on the Libyan crisis.

Broader geopolitical rivalries are evident in the Libya policies of many among the international and regional players: the competition between the UAE and Egypt versus Turkey and Qatar over political Islam; the opposition between Russia and the US over Syria and the regional outlook; various influences over North Africa.

At the Vienna Conference (April 2016) it was decided that the international community and the UN Mission would work to include Gen. Khalifa Belqasim Haftar in the structure of the new government while trying to avert the division of the country.

However, during the last year, a negotiation with Gen. Haftar has been discussed several times, on one condition: to accept his role within the UN-backed government, while limiting his hegemonic ambitions over Libya.

Recent events are making this option more and more remote, and the international context is weakening the chance of success of such a mediation. The UN’s bottom-up approach has failed because the local actors are not provided with incentives to pursue mediation.

The Libyan crisis has been more and more perceived by the international and regional powers as part and parcel of a bigger crisis. Many of these actors continue supporting one Libyan contender or the other according to their own interests.

Rival countries in the region keep carrying their weight, thus hindering the UN initiative. Diverging interests among conservative Arab countries, Egypt, the US, Europe, and Russia create contrasts and contradictions.

An anything but trivial fact is that the solution to the crisis in Libya can be pursued only through a preliminary agreement among the most influential international and regional actors based on the application of the concept of “regional ownership”.

It is necessary if not essential to include in this process the countries supporting the Libyan factions, Egypt and Russia included, as premium Haftar supporters. This attempt to achieve “broad agreements” could contribute to convincing every international actor that the process is in their best interest and foster a process of internal reconciliation. Who could be able to launch such an initiative? A EU intervention would be desirable. A European initiative could be the testing ground for a revamp of a foreign and defense policy that – in the Trump era – is becoming more and more necessary.

It should be stressed that Haftar will be integrated into the government structure only provided that his ambitions are contained. For example, the legitimacy of the Tobruk parliament should be reconsidered, since according to existing political agreements and to the constitutional declaration it should have been dissolved by now.

According to International Crisis Group, the Presidential Council should negotiate with the HoR on a new unity government.

Mediation could be intensified on the levels of civil society, local representatives, and economic elites; nevertheless new negotiations involving especially key security actors are crucial.

In parallel, the international community should strengthen the Presidential Council’s (and new unity government’s) capacity to address the economic issues on the table (i.e banking liquidity, electricity and health care.), fostering, for example, the US-led initiative to prevent the Libyan economy from collapse after recent World Bank warnings of the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The Presidential Council should be encouraged to adopt a policy to selectively allocate funding to the militias, in an attempt to establish a closer connection between financial support and the internal reintegration of the new national powers.


Source: The Libyan reconstruction process – Socio-political, security and economic scenarios.

INSPIRATIONAL PAPERS, organized by Center of Research on the Southern System and the Wider Mediterranean (CRiSSMA), Catholic University of the S. Heart, Milan Promoted and supported by Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI), Directorate General for Political Affairs and Security (DGAP) and Graduate School of Economics and International Relations (ASERI) Catholic University of the S. Heart, Milan.

Related Articles