The United Nations-brokered political transition plan for Libya, known as the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) or the Skhirat Agreement, signed December 17, 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco, remains enmeshed in several political, security, and economic dilemmas.
The newest special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, and his United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) team hosted a week-long round of talks in late September in Tunis with representatives of Libyan entities as well as the two centers of power: the 2014-elected House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, which promoted General Khalifa Haftar (in September 2016) to the rank of Field Marshall to lead the Libyan National Army (LNA) against Islamist groups in Benghazi; and the Government of National Accord (GNA), which emerged in Tripoli in March 2016 under the LPA to be led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Still, Salamé gave a mixed assessment of the outcome: “After a week of joint work, we have reached consensus on a number of important issues that need to be amended so that this agreement corresponds to developments in the situation in Libya,” adding that other “points that are still outstanding” will await a follow-up meeting.
This open-ended cycle of negotiations adds to the uncertainty and frustration felt by most Libyans. It also deepens their skepticism about the “feel-good” meetings and the feasibility of Salamé’s other objectives: holding elections and moving forward to a new constitutional referendum within a year.
However, the rivalry between Prime Minister Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar is marred by disputed legitimacy and growing suspicion, especially after Haftar widened the scope of his control of the so-called “oil crescent,” including Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, and declared he would seize Tripoli by the end of 2017.
The reality is that Libya faces an uneasy distinction between a fragile state and a failed state. It has fallen between the cracks of a dispute over legitimacy, struggle for power, and control of key energy infrastructure amidst competing strategic interests of neighboring and international stakeholders.
Indeed, the international community is clearly concerned. For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron continues to be hopeful about his “cause of peace” diplomacy after hosting Haftar and Sarraj in the Élysées Palace in July, subsequent to their initial meeting in May in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The question remains whether they would honor their ceasefire commitment and pave the way to a new election in spring 2018.
Like many Libyans, most politicians are less hopeful regarding the feasibility of elections next spring. There is a sense of diplomacy fatigue after holding scores of meetings in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere; and none of the signed agreements have been fully implemented.
There have been recurring themes of “promising” dialogue and “imminent” reconciliation, proposed by five consecutive UN special envoys: Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017).
The lack of diplomatic progress showcases an ironic showdown between two lines of international recognition bestowed on leaders like Sarraj in the west and some institutions like the HoR in the east, and the exercise of power—legitimate or otherwise—on the ground.
It is noteworthy that demonstrators marching in the streets of Misrata this month called for the merger of armed forces between the east and the west, establishment of a police apparatus, and containment of armed militias.
Libya’s Complex Equation
There is an open window for renewed confrontations with the aim of “legitimate” targets under the pretext of counterterrorism imperatives. Haftar and Sarraj committed in Paris to a ceasefire and “to refrain from any use of armed force for any purpose that does not strictly constitute counter-terrorism.”
With the support of the United Nations, the Skhirat Agreement tasked Sarraj to form a unity government, a seven-member Presidential Council, and a High State Council (HSC)—an advisory body comprised of several members of the General National Congress (GNC), which emerged in Tripoli in protest against the outcome of the 2014 elections and was dissolved in April 2016. The HSC is chaired by Abdulrahman Sewehli, an influential political figure from Misrata.
Sarraj’s aspirations toward a unified Libya have been subjected to Libya’s east-west inherited animosity. He lacks a security force and his Presidential Council has not made real progress either in disarming armed groups or securing full implementation of the Skhirat Agreement, under which the House of Representatives in Tobruk remains the sole legitimate parliament that was supposed to recognize the Government of National Accord. Now, Sarraj is perceived to be driving an idle political machine.
As one Libya analyst put it, “al-Serraj and his GNA are helpless between the mighty militia blocks, with no real possibility of influencing developments on the ground.”
Haftar has the reputation as Libya’s “renegade general” with an ambitious army. He 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.
Haftar plays the role of savior of post-Qadhafi 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 has 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.”
However, criminal liability is lurking around Haftar as he eyes a presidential bid next year.
The International Criminal Court recently issued an arrest warrant against one of his close subordinates, Mahmoud Mustafa al-Werfalli, who “is alleged to have directly committed and to have ordered the commission of murder as a war crime in the context of seven incidents, involving 33 persons, which took place from on or before 3 June 2016 until on or about 17 July 2017 in Benghazi or surrounding areas, in Libya.”
In addition, there is an unsettled controversy surrounding Haftar and his military machine and the trajectory of the political and military support he has secured from countries like Egypt, the UAE, and Russia.
Libya’s Other Strong Men
The ongoing political battles in Libya should not be oversimplified and understood solely in the context of the influence pursued by Haftar and Sarraj. Other politicians in Tripoli and Tobruk still mobilize their networks of backers and orchestrate their shadow politics. Sewehli, head of the High State Council, remains proud of his legacy in opposing Qadhafi and sympathetic to his fellow members of the ex-GNC.
Although he embraced the Skhirat Agreement, Sewehli and several Misratan militia leaders are not pleased by Haftar’s expanding sphere of power, the status of the National Oil Company which wants to maintain its independence from the GNA, and other dynamics.
Sewehli has increased his international exposure as one of the movers and shakers in Libya. He is considered the strong man of western Libya in all political issues. During his recent talks in Rome with Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, the focus was on the tragedies of death in the Mediterranean as hundreds of refugees are smuggled on frail boats toward Italian shores.
In Tobruk, Aguila Saleh Issa is one of the interlocutors who have called for reconsidering the LPA. He assumed the speakership of the HoR after the 2014 election and had the authority to bestow the command of the Libyan National Army on Haftar. Both men still benefit from their political marriage of convenience, and Aguila was urged by Haftar “to prevent the ratification of the GNA — for which Saleh has been sanctioned by the United States.”
As former US envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer points out, “Everybody in Libya who’s got a position wants to maintain their position and increase the power and authority of that position without having to give anything up. That’s a zero-sum game and it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t stop people from trying.”
Mohammed Cherkaoui is scholar and practitioner of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and teaches at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution [S-CAR] in Washington D.C. He has served on the United Nations’ Panel of Experts with particular focus on the political transition of the Libyan crisis.