1.3 After 2015’s Skhirat Agreement, the U.N. Tries to Forge Ahead
While fighting went on in Benghazi and further afield, U.N. mediation managed to bring together representatives from Libya’s eastern and western power centers. In December 2015, in Skhirat, Morocco, these parties signed the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA).
In substance, the accord included the following compromises: part of the GNC, still convening in Tripoli, was to be remade into an upper legislative chamber called the High State Council (HSC).
The HoR, elected in June 2014, meanwhile, was to continue receiving the U.N.’s recognition as Libya’s legitimate lower chamber (a body akin to the House of Commons in the United Kingdom).
Executive partition, finally, was to be done away with through the formation of a new Government of National Accord, which was to be led by the U.N.-appointed Fayaz al-
The Skhirat Agreement quickly ran into a significant problem: the HoR refused to ratify the LPA and refused to recognize Serraj’s government. Instead, Speaker of the HoR Aqila Saleh issued a protocol making him Libya’s rightful head-of-state.
By consequence, when Serraj arrived in Tripoli on March 30, 2016 to begin his tenure as prime minister and head-of-state, many of the institutional divides which the LPA had been meant to resolve, persisted.
That no progress would be made towards the constitutional referendum called for by the LPA’s Article 23 — even though an assembly of 60 previously-elected Libyans had proposed a draft constitution in July 2017 — only added to the mixed character of the LPA’s scorecard.
From Haftar’s viewpoint, this level of confusion and dysfunction meant he could consolidate his own power in Cyrenaica — Libya’s eastern province — and utilize that as a platform to challenge and undermine the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli in hopes of co-opting it or replacing it with another more subservient to him. Toward this end, a few weeks before the LPA was meant to expire in December 2017, pro-Haftar partisans circulated a petition meant to reveal the public’s desire for a government led
by the field marshal himself.
A similar maneuver, including the use of an unverifiable petition, had been deployed by the supporters of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi in 2013 before he seized power. In this
instance, Haftar brandished the “results” in a bid to come across as a reluctant though willing national leader.
He was, in his words, a man with a “popular mandate” and one who was prepared to seize power in Tripoli “if all classic mechanisms for a peaceful power transition via free and democratic elections were exhausted.”
At around the same time, the U.N. inaugurated a new strategy. Taking the LPA as its starting point, the goal of the strategy was to cultivate an inclusive political dialogue which could “address the conflict’s fundamentals by working with all Libyans,” recalled a former diplomat who participated first hand in the U.N.’s efforts.
Operationally, this was advanced first via the holding of dozens of local workshops across the country in 2017 and 2018.
These sessions ultimately yielded ten consensus points. Perhaps the most significant was the widespread agreement that military forces needed to “maintain a distance from all political and civilian affairs” — a principle incompatible with Haftar’s claim to national power20. Having secured buy-in from across Libya’s vast geography, the U.N. then proceeded to organize a high-profile National Conference for April 2019 in Ghadames.
On that occasion, it was hoped that more than 150 relevant stakeholders previously consulted would agree to a comprehensive road map akin to what was achieved by Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet in 2013.
The would-be roadmap was to include an electoral process. On the constitutional question, though, U.N. leadership made sure to remain flexible. The situation was not one wherein the U.N. could simply exhort Libyans to organize a swift referendum on the July 2017 document.
The draft constitution produced by the aforementioned 60-member body in 2017 had alienated the Amazigh in the west and the autonomists in the east, as well as other communities, such as the Tebu and the Tuareg in the south.
For that reason, the organization’s chief diplomats deemed it prudent to keep other options open. Moving on a separate track from the U.N.’s efforts were those of France. The spring prior to the holding of the would-be National Conference in Ghadames, the government of Emmanuel Macron hosted a high-profile Libya summit which gathered Field Marshal Haftar, the Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayaz al-Serraj, Speaker of the HoR Aqila Saleh, and the President of the HSC, Khaled al-Meshri.
Though no agreement was signed in the end, the Élysée Palace declared that the summit had achieved consensus amongst the principals on the necessity of holding parliamentary and presidential elections on December 10, 2018.
Macron’s government also asserted that attendees agreed that the constitutional issue was to be resolved by September 16, 2018. No aspect of France’s plan came close to being implemented. Key in this regard was resistance by HSC head Khaled al-Meshri and his opposition to the constitutional referendum law issued by Aqila Saleh.
in late 2018. Combined with Saleh’s own lack of good faith, Meshri’s rigidity ensured continued immobility on the constitutional question. In the interim, just as France’s plan for elections was quietly dying on the vine, Haftar was busy preparing a military advance into western Libya.
1.4 Haftar Attacks Tripoli
Ten days before the scheduled start of the U.N. hosted Ghadames conference — and at a moment when U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres was actually on the ground in Libya — Haftar launched a large-scale military advance on Tripoli, accusing the U.N.-recognized government there of being linked to extremist groups and under the influence of unruly militias.
His offensive was materially and diplomatically aided by the UAE, Russia, Egypt, and France, with the latter’s involvement drawing into question how honest its 2017- 2018 mediation attempts in Paris had actually been. Diplomatically, the kickoff of Haftar’s Tripoli campaign also enjoyed the blessing of the White House.
Haftar’s campaign lasted fourteen destructive months, though without delivering any significant territorial gains. In part, this can be attributed to Turkey’s intervention, which dispatched significant assets into the Libyan theater for the ostensible purpose of defending theTripoli-based government of Serraj.
In the spring of 2020, forces aligned with the Tripoli government and backed primarily by Ankara overcame Haftar’s brigades in northwestern Libya, putting an end to his protracted siege on the capital. Haftar’s Russian partners, too, helped force the field marshal to abandon his offensive on the greater Tripoli area, preferring to turn their focus to deepening their own entrenchment in the rest of Libya and establishing a defense line, which, among other things, protected their client now retreated to the east and south.
Turkey, meanwhile, leveraged its local victory to double down on its material presence. For its part, the UAE — hitherto Haftar’s most aggressive sponsor, by far — suspended its support for any attempts by the eastern-based commander to control Tripoli. The lull in fighting which prevailed in Libya thereafter has been attributable to the tacit modus vivendi reached between Ankara and Moscow as much as anything else.
Taking in the new balance of power, Washington — faced with the issue of permanent Turkish and Russian military presence — decided to let the U.N. promote elections first, assuming that the removal of foreign forces could be addressed later.
Jalel Harchaoui is a political scientist specialising in North Africa, with a specific focus on Libya. He worked on the same topics previously at The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a Geneva-based NGO, as well as at the Clingendael Institute, based in The Hague. His research has concentrated on Libya’s security landscape and political economy. A frequent commentator on Libya and Algeria in the international press, he has published in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Politique Étrangère, Foreign Policy, and Small Arms Survey. An engineer by trade, Jalel holds a master’s degree in Geopolitics from Paris 8 University.