The UN is planning to launch a new political process for Libya in October, according to a diplomatic source. In a meeting “in the form of a summit” between the international stakeholders in Libya held on the fringes of the inaugural ceremonies of the 74th UN General Assembly session in New York in September, the UN Special Representative and head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salame, is expected to present a “modified” version of his plan for Libya which has included a broad-based National Conference to chart a roadmap out of Libya’s eight-year long crisis. The source expected the UN meeting to approve a kind of Libyan national “forum” that would “bring together Libyan figures and representatives of countries that would guarantee the outputs”.
The diplomatic source, in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, explained that the purpose of the international meeting at the UN was “to support UNSMIL’s efforts to relaunch the political process between the key players in the Libyan crisis and to furnish effective and serious guarantees to enable all sides to commit to the obligations agreed upon in the international meeting and the national forum that would follow directly afterwards”. He added that the envisioned “Libyan dialogue” would be “broader and more representative”. Salame had hoped to convene the long-awaited National Conference in April, but this proved impossible due to the eruption of fighting over Tripoli. More recently, during his briefing to the Security Council on 29 July, the UN envoy outlined a plan calling for a humanitarian truce on the occasion of the Eid Al-Adha holiday, followed by efforts to sustain the ceasefire and measures to rebuild trust between the opposing sides, such as prisoner exchanges and releases of detainees, preparatory to a resumption of negotiations.
The diplomatic source also predicted that the agenda of the envisioned dialogue process in October would be “bigger” and include such major questions as the composition of the executive, the redistribution of oil revenues, the bodies that manage this wealth (the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority), and the management, oversight and reunification of the Central Bank which, in 2014, bifurcated into one based in Tripoli and another in Beida in Cyrenaica. These issues have been constant sources of concern to the regional and international parties involved in the Libyan crisis since the outset of the battle for the capital, but they have also remained central to the unbridgeable gap between the Libyan antagonists and their foreign backers.
In a previous interview published in the Weekly, Salame said that resolving these basic issues formed the core of the peace process on the Libyan crisis since the purpose of the process was to remedy the actual causes of the conflict and eliminate the sources of tension between the various components of Libyan society.
During his last visit to Moscow in May, Salame told Tass news agency that he hoped to foster a dialogue that would bring together “10 to 15 or even 20” Libyan figures who represent different segments of Libyan society so they could contribute to laying the foundations for a genuine settlement process. He said he was not convinced in the idea of limiting the parties to the crisis to only two — the eastern based commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the western based Chairman of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord Fayez Al-Sarraj. These two men did not represent all the major Libyan parties concerned, he said.
Observers believe that the war raging in the southern outskirts of Tripoli in April has changed domestic power balances and that these should be taken into account carefully in any political settlement. They note, in particular, that the various alliances of militia forces, whether on the side of the LNA General Command, or on the side of the GNA, have grown increasingly independent from their official political umbrellas.
According to Libyan sources, the practice of politics in the country has become more and more influenced by tribal and regional allegiances than by ideological affiliations. They maintain that reducing the conflict to an ideological clash creates a cover for foreign intervention in the crisis as a means to influence and shape local balances of power.
After five months of the military stalemate in the vicinity of the capital, the international community is stepping up its appeals for an end to the fighting and the resumption of negotiations. Nevertheless, repeated calls for a return to the political process on the part of such powers as the US, Russia, France and Britain have fallen on deaf ears among the warring parties in Libya.
During his recent visit to Malta, Salame reiterated his belief that a military solution to the Libyan crisis is an “illusion”. Since April, warfare around the capital has wreaked a toll of at least 1,000 dead, hundreds wounded and tens of thousands driven from their homes. “Peace in Libya can only be achieved through a political process,” the UN representative to Libya said in a joint press conference with Maltese Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela on 21 August. He urged the international community to cease being “passive” towards the situation in Libya and to be stricter in the enforcement of international laws and regulations in dealing with Libya. Echoing this position, Abela said: “The international actors supplying Libyan stakeholders with weapons should act responsibly, and adhere to and sustain the arms embargo in place.”
To aggravate the situation further, the geographical scope of the armed conflict has broadened. The fighting in the southern town of Murzuq between the Toubou tribes and rival Arab tribes has claimed more than 100 dead since the beginning of August, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Observers fear that the spread of hostilities and militia violence to other parts of the country is generating an environment that extremist organisations are taking advantage of, in order to regroup and re-establish strongholds to use as staging points for attacks against vital targets at a time when security is already fragile.
On the other hand, the appointment of Richard Norland as the US’s new ambassador to Libya has raised hopes for renewed and “more serious” negotiations in Libya, according to some observers. With the US Senate’s confirmation of his appointment this month, Norland has become the first US ambassador to present his credentials to the government in Tripoli in two years.
Upon assuming his new post on 14 August, Norland contacted numerous political figures in the country, including Al-Sarraj, Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala, Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha and Field Marshal Haftar, stating that he “welcomes the opportunity for dialogue with all Libyans”, the US Embassy in Libya announced on its Facebook page, adding: “The [US] ambassador looks forward to meeting additional Libyan representatives in the coming days and weeks in support of efforts to achieve a resolution of the crisis.”
France, too, is continuing its drive to mobilise international support for the resumption of a political process in Libya. On 23 August, the French Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting of the P3+3 countries (France, US, UK, Italy, Egypt and the UAE) to evaluate the security and economic situation in Libya. The meeting was attended by Salame in order to discuss his plan for promoting a resumption of the political process.
Prior to that meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bregancon Fort to discuss a range of issues which included Libya. Macron in the summit stressed the need to “rebuild order in Libya”, a formula that Putin would reiterate in Paris a few days ago.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly newpaper