2020 Yearender: War and peace in Libya

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 31 Dec 2020

A final settlement remains out of reach to the Libyan conflict despite a year of negotiations between the country’s warring factions under the auspices of the UN

War and peace in Libya

This year was another year of major political, military, and economic ups and downs for Libya, starting with the onset of an eight-month blockade of oil facilities and the initiation of the Berlin Process for a comprehensive solution to the crisis in the country.

By mid-year, the military operations initiated by Libyan military leader Khalifa Haftar in April 2019 to gain control of the capital Tripoli were forced into retreat. In October, representatives from the warring factions signed a UN-sponsored ceasefire, which made it possible for the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to organise the Libya Political Dialogue Forum.

This brought representatives from diverse segments of Libyan society together with the aim of drawing up a new roadmap for a fifth interim phase and the formation of a new governing executive to prepare the ground for general elections in 2021.

As 2020 drew to a close, a final settlement remained out of reach, however, due to disputes between the different stakeholders aggravated by growing meddling on the part of various international and regional parties in the political, economic and military tracks of the Berlin Process.

No two events epitomised the conflicting developments in Libya better than the blockade imposed by Haftar’s forces on the country’s oil terminals on 6 January and the international conference on the Libyan crisis that convened in Berlin on 19 January.

The enforced halt to the activities of the country’s vital petroleum sector aggravated an already crippling economic crisis. Haftar’s main tactical purpose was to build up the pressure on his adversaries affiliated with the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which oversees the operations of both the National Oil Company and the Central Bank and therefore controls how oil revenues are channeled.

The conference in Berlin was a landmark in long and intensive international peacemaking efforts. Conference participants adopted a 55-point list of recommendations that defined the contours of the political, military, and economic tracks of the peace process and created an international follow-up committee to monitor progress.

Immediately after the conference ended, Geneva hosted the first meeting of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), made up of five senior military officers selected by the GNA and five senior officers selected by the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by Haftar.

That track ground to a halt after two rounds because of the Covid-19 pandemic and of rapidly unfolding military developments on the ground following a massive Turkish military intervention in support of the GNA.

The heavy weaponry, military training and supervision, and predominantly Syrian mercenaries supplied by Ankara turned the battle over Tripoli in the GNA’s favour, bringing an end to the Operation Flood of Dignity launched by Haftar more than 14 months earlier.

The oil blockade ended after international pressures and various rounds of regionally and internationally brokered negotiations culminated in two separate statements issued on 21 August by Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk, and Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidency Council in Tripoli, calling for a ceasefire.

This paved the way to good-will gestures that included the end of the blockade and the resumption of oil production and export activity and culminated in the ceasefire agreement signed by the members of the 5+5 JMC in October.

There were critical junctures along the way to the historic ceasefire. In April, as the military balances shifted against him, Haftar appeared on television to declare the Skhirat Agreement, the UN-brokered deal that had laid the foundations for the GNA and Presidency Council, to be a “thing of the past” and call for the creation of a new interim executive body.

However, he was outflanked by Saleh, an ally and a rival in the east of the country, who unveiled a diplomatic initiative of his own. This involved the creation of a new Presidency Council consisting of only three members instead of the current nine, each of whom would represent one of Libya’s three main regions, Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south.

It also called for the separation of the Presidency Council and the government, in contrast to the current situation in which the chairman of the Council is also prime minister.

In contrast to Haftar’s announcement, Saleh’s initiative elicited positive responses internationally and encouraged renewed international efforts to nudge the Libyan factions back to the negotiating table in the framework of the Berlin Process. But since the battle was now going its way, the GNA rejected Saleh’s overture as the Turkish-backed GNA militias continued to press eastward.


EGYPT’S RED LINE: The next crucial juncture came in June when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi launched another peace initiative known as the Cairo Declaration, which was soon followed by his declaration of a red line in Libya from Sirte to Al-Jufra.

The moves turned the tables on the GNA’s military backer, Turkey, and imposed a de facto truce that has continued to hold.

Al-Sisi’s actions proved crucial to generating the conditions that made the ceasefire possible in October. The Cairo Declaration of 6 June was particularly instrumental towards this end, as it was based on promoting local initiatives and reconciling them with their international counterparts, thereby plugging gaps that could otherwise have obstructed progress toward the resumption of negotiations.

It simultaneously worked to defuse escalatory factors by focusing on consensual solutions to different demands and grievances.

The Cairo Declaration followed by Al-Sisi’s red line in Libya stimulated a spurt of regional and international diplomatic activity to rekindle the Berlin Process. Numerous rounds of talks hosted in Geneva, Rabat, Cairo, Tunis and elsewhere helped generate consensuses around the contours of a new interim political phase based on the goals of the Berlin Process and the Cairo Declaration, namely the reunification and restructuring of Libyan institutions, a priority focus on reversing the deterioration in the economy and standards of living, and preparations for general elections.

Yet, it was one thing to agree on the broad outlines of the process and another to come to terms over the details of how exactly to move forward. Differences over such details, especially when it comes to the mechanisms for selecting candidates for the new executive, could loom large and potentially jeopardise the ceasefire agreement struck in October.

There has been little progress in implementing the full terms of this agreement, especially those pertaining to the removal of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya and the reopening of the coastal highway.

Once direct negotiations between the Libyan players resumed in August in Morocco and Geneva, they, together with international and regional mediators, had to set priorities. Should the process start with rebuilding, developing, and reconciling existing institutions in order to provide the necessary constitutional and legal legitimacy for forthcoming arrangements?

The current House of Representatives in Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) in Tripoli would be of the essence here. These legislative and consultative bodies, which are on opposing sides of the conflict, will have to meet halfway on many issues in order to lay the constitutional and legal groundwork for political processes, restructure the executive authority, and fill key sovereign posts.

Alternatively, should the process rest on decisions reached by the participants in the Libya Political Dialogue Forum?

The first option seems almost unattainable. Speaker Aguila Saleh put the problem succinctly earlier in the year after he had unveiled his own diplomatic initiative, when he said the two bodies “have never and will never agree.” On the question of appointments to sovereign posts, he proposed that each of the three Libyan regions elect their own candidates independently of both houses.

The UN liked the idea and incorporated it into the plan to be submitted to the Dialogue Forum. This laid the seeds for the possible transformation of the forum into a third legislative body, if not a rival legislative body, to furnish a legal umbrella for the political process.

Of course, if the House of Representatives and HCS can reach the consensuses needed to move forward, it will show that the political process is on a steady keel. However, a mechanism using the Dialogue Forum to overcome impasses within or between these bodies or even to circumvent them could cause problems.

Devising a means to confer legitimacy outside of the existing legislature would require an extraordinary process that could be difficult to justify in accordance with existing legal and procedural frames of reference. Any attempt to impose one through the Dialogue Forum would most likely encounter mounting resistance from players sidelined in the decision-making, courting a repeat of the experience of the Skhirat Agreement, which crumbled after having failed to bring all players on board in the political process.


LIBYA POLITICAL DIALOGUE FORUM: The Dialogue Forum rounds that have convened since 9 November have revealed how far apart the Libyan players still are on practical issues like forming the new executive and selecting office holders.

The UNSMIL gave the impression that the forum had got off to an encouraging start when it announced that participants had approved the general interim phase agenda, the authorities and duties of the new Presidency Council and National Unity Government, and the holding of general elections on 24 December 2021, however.

But such agreements were anticipated, as the two sides have largely aligned on most of them. Now the task of filling the posts in these bodies has become one of the most critical and hardest challenges that the UNSMIL has had to deal with since 2016. 

After several weeks and a flurry of negotiations and consultations, the UNSMIL managed to get Dialogue Forum participants to narrow proposals for a selection mechanism for the executive authority down to three. These were numbered two, three, and 10, and were brought to a vote on 5 December, a process in which 71 of the 75 participants took part.

Proposal Two obtained 39, proposal three obtained 24, and proposal 10 obtained eight of the votes cast. The main difference between the three has to do with the involvement of the Dialogue Forum in the nomination and voting for the selection of Presidency Council members and the premiership, with proposal 10 entitling it to the greatest amount of involvement and proposal three the least.

The following week, the forum members convened again in a virtual consultative meeting to lay out “their views and proposals on the most suitable and consensual method to move forward with agreeing on a selection mechanism for the executive authority for the preparatory period leading to national elections,” as the UNSMIL reported on its Website.

Otherwise put, the crucial question of the selection mechanism appears to have run aground on the clash between the Libyan parties eager to get rid of people who they feel have dominated the scene for too long and international stakeholders that have based their calculations on the vested interest networks of the current political elites.

It may also be that certain Libyan parties are keen to capitalise on the current political process and may attempt to sabotage it if not assured of a prominent place in the forthcoming political arrangements.

Whatever the case, it looks as if 2020 will pass without a solution to this question. The problem is that the longer it remains unresolved, the greater the chances are that it could stymie progress on the political track which, in turn, could hamper progress on the military and economic tracks as well.

Worse still, a protracted standstill could once again jeopardise peacemaking efforts and give rise to conditions encouraging a return to hostilities. With the question of war and peace in the balance, the UN secretary-general has extended the term of his Acting Special Representative and Head of UNSMIL Stephanie Williams until February and postponed the restructuring of the UNSMIL until the newly important UNSMIL head arrives.

This is Nicolai Miladinov, who was appointed in mid-September but is awaiting his replacement as UN envoy for the Middle East Peace Process before heading to Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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