Sansom Milton and Abdulrauf Elgeroshi
Armed clashes in Tripoli on 28 August sparked fears that Libya was set to slide back into a war reminiscent of the battle for Tripoli in 2019. In no small part due to mediation efforts by Qatar, the country was able to step away from this reality in recent weeks.
After a frenzied period of diplomacy and visits of key Libyan players to Doha, a new proposal charting a pathway towards stability, is now on the table.
Indeed, clashes this week that killed five in Al-Zawiya in western Libya, are a reminder of the fragility of the situation and need to capitalise on the window of opportunity that recent mediation has brought about. For any peace to be durable, there is a need to take stock of previous failed mediation efforts, however.
”For almost a decade, Libya has remained locked in a cycle in which two to three years after each political agreement, questions arise over who holds legitimate power and the outcome is either a return to fighting, or a new political solution. If the new proposal gives Libyans a chance to express their will at the ballot box, then this is a positive development.”
A new political roadmap
Libya faces a complex political crisis in which two rival executives and two rival legislatures are competing for control. The new political proposal is to hold parliamentary elections prior to presidential elections.
The assumption is that parliamentary legitimacy would enable the formation of a new government, thus resolving the conflict between rival administrations of Dbeibah and Bashhaga.
The proposal was however only consented to by Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, on the condition that the creation of a new Presidential Council would be led by him and include two other members – Khaled Al-Mashri, as the head of the High Council of State from the west, and a representative of southern Libya.
Saleh, who returned from his trip to Doha energised, addressed a closed parliamentary session laying out the new political roadmap.
His proposal could be interpreted as paving the way for General Khalifa Haftar to compete for the Presidency as the new agreement removes all conditions on Presidential candidates, including disqualifying dual nationals. It only stipulates that the President must have two Libyan parents.
Haftar’s inclusion at the highest level of the political process is necessary given that he would oppose any process in which he does not have a seat at the table. Haftar views himself as a national leader and will not settle for being simply a Presidency Council member; his role as a spoiler should not be underplayed.
After all, in 2019 when faced with the prospect of a national dialogue with the possibility of a political settlement, Haftar chose the path of war and triggered the Battle of Tripoli. There is no doubt a need clarify Haftar’s specific role, but it remains important that he is integrated into any power sharing solution.
For almost a decade, Libya has remained locked in a cycle in which two to three years after each political agreement, questions arise over who holds legitimate power and the outcome is either a return to fighting, or a new political solution.
If the new proposal gives Libyans a chance to express their will at the ballot box, then this is a positive development.
Nevertheless, there are several challenges facing the prospects of a renewed political process that can forge a lasting pathway to peace in Libya.
Firstly, there is a need to ensure that elections are not just held, but also respected. Many potential scenarios could transpire from the current situation. Parliamentary elections could lead directly to Presidential elections, or a referendum could be held on the rules of each election.
Furthermore, the major challenge lies not with holding elections, but the acceptance of election results by all factions and parties.
The external legitimacy of elections is not under question. International support was offered at the last Berlin conference on 9 September, where there was a collective agreement that the only solution was a comprehensive path toward holding elections.
Strong support has also been offered by the US which issued statements over the past few weeks encouraging parties to respect the political process and commit to holding the elections.
Internally, the United Nations can play a crucial role in election monitoring which can boost the legitimacy of the process in the eyes of the political parties and factions within Libya.
Secondly, high-level political talks must confront the reality that armed groups control Tripoli, Misrata, and other cities. There is a need to bring into any agreement those who control weapons and the means of violence.
Armed groups control the war-time political economy and will fight to prolong instability unless their interests are considered.
Deals on how to divide the cake between political factions leaves an open question on how the spoils of peace are to be shared with the myriad armed groups and tribes in Libya. In previous UN-led mediation processes, focus was exclusively upon political leaders.
Agreements signed in Skhirat and Tunis fell afoul of the need to manage spoilers and command widespread legitimacy.
Thirdly, in forging a pathway to lasting peace in Libya, there is a need for an inclusive, multi-track peace process to occur simultaneously to any election cycle and top-down Track One talks.
Whilst the UN has previously engaged in mediation efforts, participation in these processes was largely confined to civil society organisations that do not have deep roots in Libyan society.
Indeed, eleven years after Qaddafi’s overthrow, civil society remains a new concept in Libya. Therefore, serious engagement is needed with armed factions, tribal leaders, and religious figures.
There is also a need to sustain dialogue with Saif al Islam Qaddafi, and towns and armed groups still loyal to Qaddafi’s legacy. The division between revolutionaries and Qaddafi loyalists is one that can be forgotten but not wished away.
On the other hand, there are a few roadblocks because whilst Saif al Islam Qaddafi has been empowered enough to enter the Libyan political scene following the 2015 amnesty law, he has an open ICC case which limits his participation due to the need to maintain international legitimacy of the political process.
Finally, there remains a question mark over Qatar’s acceptability as a third-party mediator. Qatar’s renewed role in Libya may surprise some observers given its role in the 2011 revolution.
Since 2014, Haftar and Egyptian media propagated the line that Qatar support the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism, which affected its reputation amongst parts of the Libyan public.
Doha was also previously perceived as supporting only the Serraj government, with ensured Qatar did not have the neutrality to mediate.
Much has changed in the past few years, however. In recent months, warming ties between Qatar and Turkey with Egypt opened space for Qatar’s mediation role.
In General Sisi’s first visit to Doha on 13 September Libya was presumed to be high on the agenda. There is now broad agreement amongst these key regional parties on a vision for Libya’s future.
Whilst there is clearly a marked change in perception in Qatar’s role in Libya, there is still work that needs to be done. A good start would be for Qatar to bolster its peacemaking credentials by sharing a little-known episode that took place a few years ago.
In 2015, Qatar brokered a local peace agreement between the Tebu and Tuareg groups in southern Libya -unbeknownst to the majority of Libyans.
Sharing this with the wider Libyan and regional public may just be the key, especially given that Libyans are all too aware of the deep instability in the South and would be appreciative of Qatar’s efforts.
Sansom Milton is Senior Research Fellow and the Research Lead at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
Abdulrauf Elgeroshi is the Founding Director of the Peace Studies Center in Libya.