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Sunday, 18 August 2019

Libya and the future of political settlement

Ziad A Akl , Friday 9 Aug 2019
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Libya appears to be on the edge of a new round of initiatives for a political settlement, with the UN largely sidelined as ineffective, writes Ziad Akl

The Libyan conflict has been going on for years without any promising prospects of success for attempts of political settlement. Tracing the history of the Libyan civil war and internal division reveals the number of negotiations that were present between warring parties, and the number of international and regional actors that exerted efforts in trying to construct a political solution for the conflict. Moreover, alliances and the process of negotiation between the different actors in the Libyan interior have witnessed several transformations. With the frequency of initiatives from various actors seeking a political settlement, the positions of the different warring parties have tended to change a lot. Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Italy and France have all been involved in providing political initiatives that would eventually lead to non-violent political solutions to the conflict. On the other hand, the UN has been trying to intervene in order to peacefully solve the conflict through envoys like Bernardino Leon, Martin Kobler, and currently Ghassan Salamé. 

Libya has been captured in a phase of lack of consensus between the domestic actors present within the realm of the conflict. Whether the parliament in the east, or the Presidency Council in the west, neither has been able to create a majority on issues of a political settlement. In addition, Libyan warring parties never reached mutual understanding related to a political settlement versus military solutions, which means that the conflict is far from over, and the chances of political solutions are becoming thin in light of recent developments within the Libyan scene. 

There are two very different scenes in both eastern and western Libya. East Libya has a legitimate coercive force under the name of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The LNA is a cohesive force that is quite institutional in comparison to all other military groupings in Libya. Besides, the LNA has proved through its victory in Derna against the Islamic State group and its expansion to the South that it is an institution capable of formulating a strategy and applying it on the ground. In the Libyan west, there is a recurring process of creating militia alliances. The west in Libya has never known an organised and an institutional armed force since the beginning of the conflict. Tribal, regional and political factors have always been influential in the military presence in west Libya. From Fajr Libya, to Al-Bonyan Al-Marsous to what is currently happening in Tripoli, militias (specifically from the city of Misrata) have been the main military actors on behalf of the political leadership in the west. Meanwhile, the initiative that Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj launched in establishing the Presidential Guard did not prove effective. 

However, what is happening now in Libya with the battle for Tripoli raises more than one question. First of all, can military action be the main solution for the Libyan conflict? Until now, and since the beginning of the clashes, both sides have not been able to exhibit military supremacy on the ground. Capacities appear to be very much equal, with neither capable of achieving a military victory over the other. It is worth mentioning that both sides are backed and supported by regional and international actors, which in turn makes the military struggle equal, despite differences within the nature of institutional organisation between the sides. 

Resorting to military action (like what is happening in Tripoli right now) puts the process of political settlement in question. Libya was promised a political roadmap by the UN after Salamé took the position of special envoy, but the map never materialised due to internal contradictions. Also, Libyan warring parties have attended conferences in both France and Italy, in addition to conferences held in Egypt and the UAE. No actual political results came out of those conferences, as eventually reflected in the Libyan conflict. The UN and Salamé in person are starting to lose their credibility within the Libyan interior. In the meantime, Haftar’s support from the Libyan east is expanding. The ability to reach Tripoli militarily has created a new legitimacy and credibility for the LNA, something evident within the space of Libyan social media. 

Then the question becomes, to where can the political settlement process go, and what is the role of regional and international actors in putting a stop to the battles in Tripoli? There is of course an integral problem with the UN losing its credibility among different parties within the conflict. It appears that the roadmap Salamé proposed as soon as he took up his position is no longer convincing to the political landscape in Libya. This means that Libya is about to go into a new phase of constructing solutions for a political settlement; ones that will probably witness actors more influential within the Libyan interior than the UN. Neighbouring countries will of course be part of that process, mainly Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Due to the internal tension Algeria is facing, it is expected that Egypt will have the leading role in envisioning a new process of political settlement for Libya. 

The Libyan conflict remains at a very difficult phase, one which does not promise to end soon. The battles for Tripoli tell us how complicated the struggle is, between what is political and what is military. It is very difficult to try to anticipate the winning side within this battle. The very nature of the Tripoli battle rules out all manner of future initiatives for a political settlement.

*The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Libya and the future of political settlement
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