Libya’s stalled transition

Ziad A Akl
Sunday 22 May 2016

Will Libya’s political agreement prove capable of surviving the various challenges it is facing? Grave would be the consequences if it doesn't

Nearly six months have passed since the signing of the Libyan political agreement in Morocco last December.

After a wave of international and regional celebrations, promises of aid and assistance, several rounds of negotiations and hopeful future plans, Libya is still in the very same place.

The transition from a status of multiple sovereignties to a status of a single unified government is still not possible. What is more alarming is the ongoing persistence of the same points of contention without any considerable breakthroughs.

Moreover, the actions taken by the different parties inside Libya are further deepening the state of polarisation and consolidating the process of factionalising. Therefore, the question now becomes whether Libya’s political agreement will be capable of survival in the face of the various challenges it has to confront and the obvious lack of political will to implement it on a platform of mutual interests and common goals between Libya’s different factions.

The situation inside Libya is not much different than it was before the agreement, in the sense that the division between the East and the West is still in effect.

While there seems to be a considerable degree of cooperation between the newly formed Presidential Council and the General National Congress in Tripoli, this cooperation is not a sign of a successful political transition as long as the House of Representatives in Tobruk keeps rejecting the unity government proposed by the Presidential Council.

So far, the set of interactions between the Presidential Council and the two warring entities in the East and the West is causing nothing other than further polarisation of the conflict.

What is more alarming is how the fundamental points in the East-West conflict in Libya are still the same without any noticeable development. The struggle over legitimacy remains a central issue despite the signing of the political agreement.

No clear signs of political inclusion were demonstrated in this regard until today; the House of Representatives still believes that the agreement will legitimise the General National Congress after transforming it into a State Council, which will in turn undermine the influence of the House of Representatives and terminates its monopoly over legitimate international recognition.

On the other hand, the General National Congress in Tripoli saw in the agreement a golden opportunity to bring itself back to the realm of international recognition and legitimacy, albeit without legislative functions.

In the midst of those conflicting interests, the Presidential Council was willing to side with any party that would acknowledge its legitimacy and allow it to practice its political and administrative functions, and the faction in the West was willing to play that role.

While this process of political pushing and pulling goes on, armed groups and military formations continue to operate on the ground under different political banners.

The Libyan National Army operates under the command of the Tobruk House of Representatives; the Libya Dawn militias are still effective under the command of the General National Congress (though with some internal divisions); and recently, the Presidential Council decided to launch a third military faction, the Presidential Guard, operating under the banner of a state institution.

Until now, there are no signs of military cooperation between those different entities in issues of mutual interest, like fighting ISIS (the Islamic State group), and no proof of political coordination vis-à-vis military action is to be found between the different parties.

So far, internal political dynamics in Libya are incapable of reaching a minimal level of coordination to actually allow the political agreement to be implemented. At the same time, the Presidential Council is absent from the scene in the East and is practicing mere existence in the West without tangible political influence.

The domestic political situation in Libya is a combination of an imposed political agreement lacking mechanisms of implementation and political elites that do not possess the political means of conflict resolution.

Therefore, the realisation of the various articles of the Skhirat political agreement is dependent on decisive military action or on regional and international pressure and mediation. Neither option will swiftly materialise.

Decisive military action, one that is sufficient to change political and strategic balances, seems to be impossible at the present moment. On one hand, the various military formations are not in possession of the necessary equipment and sufficient training to tilt the balance to their favour, and any attempt to empower or capacitate any of the different factions will be done in breach of the imposed arms embargo.

On the other hand, the lack of political/military coordination between the different factions, and sometimes within the same faction, makes it very difficult for coalitions to emerge.

Therefore, changing political realities via military action in Libya will require either foreign intervention or a long process of on-and-off armed confrontations that will deplete the capacities of all parties equally.

Needless to say, both options will have dire consequences for the fragile stability of Libya, the Middle East and North Africa's regional security, and first and foremost the Libyan people.  

The situation is not very promising both regionally and internationally. All the different regional actors have declared their support for the political agreement, but their actions are not very reflective of that support.

Egypt has repeatedly stated its support for the political agreement, but did not play any role or exert any effort in materialising political concessions between the different parties inside Libya. Algeria’s position is not much different from Egypt’s, except in choosing the party with which it is allied.

Egypt and Algeria, the two most important regional actors in the Libyan crisis, are trapped between their initial support for the international community’s will, exhibited in the political agreement, and their concern for their regional security policies and which Libyan allies best serve those policies.

Similarly, France, Italy, the UK and the US have no interest in intervening in Libya except to fight ISIS. However, they believe that without the minimal degree of unity among Libyan factions, such an intervention would be a waste of lives and resources.

Contrasting international and regional interests have made implementation of the political agreement much more difficult than it already is.

In light of these observations, it seems that the most appropriate course of action is international and regional political pressure on the various parties inside Libya. The most important dimension in such pressure should be that dedicated to coordinating between the Presidential Council and the Libyan National Army.

Coordination efforts must be accompanied by further sanctions and international persistence on acknowledging the sole legitimacy of the Presidential Council.

Internal political dynamics in Libya have proved to be incapable of implementing the political agreement. Therefore, international and regional actors, the ones that pushed for signing the political agreement in the manner it was signed, should keep up the pressures for its implementation.

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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