For Libya, 2017 was a year that brought remarkable, albeit not decisive, developments in the three-year old crisis of governmental bifurcation that continues to defy international efforts to broker reconciliation. During the foregoing year, stakeholders in the Libyan crisis at home and abroad have grown increasingly convinced of the need to push a peaceful solution instead of a military one that the commander of the Libyan Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, seems to prefer. Indeed, the rise in the level of priority attached to a diplomatic solution — despite the obstacles — is one of the salient features in the political map of 2017. Moreover, the new UN-sponsored plan, unveiled in September, has occasioned cautious optimism. The three-phase plan is expected to lead to general and presidential elections by the end of next year, held on the basis of a new and permanent constitution for the country.
Haftar entered 2017 braced with long sought-after victories in Benghazi to the east and the petroleum crescent in central Libya. This encouraged him to grant politicians a six-month grace period to reach a political solution to the crisis. The deadline ended 17 November amidst cautions voiced by the international community against taking any steps that could plunge the war-torn country back into full-scale open conflict. So far that spectre has remained at bay, although military operations and skirmishes continue. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that Haftar has already begun to rally support for his candidacy in the anticipated presidential elections next year.
The eastern strongman has begun to engage more actively in the political reconciliation process this year. He took part in a series of meetings, arranged variously by Egypt, the UAE and France, with the chairman of the Presidency Council and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj. The purpose of the meetings was to propel the peace process forward and there were, indeed, signs of a breakthrough, although they soon began to fizzle out.
Libya welcomed a new UN special envoy and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) this year. The Lebanese diplomat Ghassan Salamé, who replaced the German diplomat Martin Kobler in August, began to put into effect a plan to introduce limited amendments to the Libyan Political Accord that was signed 17 December 2015 but that has so-far remained unimplemented on the ground. Salamé’s plan seeks to help Libyans move beyond the interim phase, a goal that had begun to recede with the resurgence of tensions and the broadening gap between the disputants on the ground, while economic straits worsened and standards of living deteriorated.
To the east, Benghazi this year emerged from a long military operation to free it of Islamist militias, but crippled by enormous damage to its infrastructure. Although Haftar, in a televised announcement 5 July, proclaimed total victory in the battle to liberate Benghazi, military operations in certain parts of the city are still on ongoing. During the year, Haftar also attempted to extend his control to the west and south. However, he has been forced to recede from many of these areas which are effectively under the control of the GNA. The south, with its own set of disputes and disputants, continues to fluctuate between Tripoli and Benghazi as it searches for the most advantageous alliances in the negotiating processes, and perhaps with an eye to the electoral processes next year.
The military clashes are a counterpoint to the mediating efforts on the part of Haftar’s regional and international allies from Cairo and Abu Dhabi to Paris and Moscow which have been working to secure him a key role in the UN-sponsored political process to resolve the Libyan crisis. At one point, the UN envoy complained that too many regional and international initiatives could undermine the UN’s efforts.
Yet, a series of meetings in Cairo, the UAE and Paris culminated in a historic face-to-face meeting in July between Haftar and Al-Sarraj in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris, which had been arranged by the newly elected French President Emanuel Macron. The two sides committed to a ceasefire and to refrain from the use of armed force for any purpose apart from counterterrorism.
In the end, however, the UN special envoy’s grievance proved justified. Secondary regional and international interventions were not helping the UN overcome the obstacles. Indeed, they seemed to have counterproductive effects since the two sides, feeling bolstered by their respective regional/international backers, continue to dig in their heels and feel freer to renege on their commitments or shirk their responsibilities in accordance with the understandings and agreements they had reached. This has been borne out by the failure of the delegations from the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the Supreme Council of State in Tripoli to reach a compromise formula for amendments to the GNA in the meetings that were held for this purpose in October, in accordance with the first phase of the new UN-sponsored plan. It had been hoped that a broader government framework and changes in the composition and jurisdictions of the Presidency Council and cabinet would induce the two sides to reach agreements.
ECONOMIC DETERIORATION: In tandem with the political impasse, economic straits have worsened in the country in 2017. Sharply deteriorating standards of living and a severe shortage in cash fluidity have raised the spectre of a humanitarian crisis. According to the most recent figures announced by the Libyan Central Bank in Tripoli, public debt rose to a dangerous 71 billion Libyan Dinars (LD) at the end of October, on top of which is another LD 20 billion announced by the Central Bank in Beida. In addition, there is the crushing deficit that persists since 2013.
The Tripoli-based Central Bank attributes the economic crisis to the combined forces of the ongoing political rift, the lack of unified state institutions, the security breakdown and the waves of armed conflict that have flared in a number of Libyan cities since 2014. It also cites the forced closure of oil fields and petroleum exporting ports which caused oil revenues to plummet from $53.2 billion before closure to $4.8 billion in 2016, with a slight increase to $10.4 billion at the end of October 2017. Banking officials estimate that the decline in oil revenues has caused more than $160 billion in direct and indirect losses. To compound the economic and fiscal crisis, the national deficit has been driven up further by the bifurcation of government institutions between Tripoli and Beida and the consequent doubling of governmental administrative, social and economic expenditures.
The international community and the GNA have been working to reunite sovereign economic institutions such as the Central Bank and the National Petroleum Authority. However, their efforts continue to run up against the intransigence of Libyan factions and their bids to secure economic and political gains as a means to strengthen their hand in arrangements for a settlement.
ILLEGAL MIGRATION AND FRANCO-ITALIAN RIVALRY: Mounting European concern over illegal migration coming from Libya was another crucial development in 2017. The unprecedented rise in the rates of illegal migrants trying to make their way from Libyan to Italian shores galvanised Rome into reactivating a portion of the 2008 Libyan-Italian friendship agreement, which dates from the time of the Gaddafi regime. The agreement to reactivate it was signed in February by Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Al-Sarraj, triggering adverse reactions in both Paris and eastern Libya. France’s refusal to go along with the Italy’s burden-sharing approach to the migration crisis spurred Rome to pursue arrangements with Chad and Niger. In June, Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti and his Chadian and Niger counterparts signed agreements to create migrant reception centres in those countries. The move upset the French who regard these two countries as part of France’s historic sphere of influence.
The Italian-French tussle over illegal migration through Libya began in Sabratha in September and intensified following the broadcast of a video recording showing a Libyan slave auction of African migrants. The video, broadcast by CNN in November, led France to mobilise African public opinion against Italy and Libya, which succeeded in changing the agenda of the fifth EU-Africa summit in Abidjan on 29-30 November. The summit, which was originally to focus on “investment in youth for the sake of a sustainable future”, shifted its attention to the situation of migrants in Libya. France succeeded in persuading European and African leaders at the summit to support harsher measures against human traffickers in Libya, measures to destroy their networks and pressure on Libyan authorities to let UN agencies take part in the management of refugee shelter centres in Libya. Libyans strongly resent what they regard as French efforts to resettle African migrants in their country.
Franco-Italian rivalry over Libya, as manifested in their discord over the question of human trafficking in Libya, was not sufficient to propel Libyan factions to unite their positions on the issue. As a result, this question became a means to attack the GNA and to strengthen the French position and its attempts to compel Libya to undertake the responsibility for sheltering those people. This has been borne out in the concluding statement from the Abidjan summit that granted the migrants the right of voluntary return to their countries under a UN sponsored programme but which lacked any serious EU or African commitment to support this. In other words, Libya will probably be forced to sustain additional expenses at a time of its gravest political, economic and security problems.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly