The second round of dialogue between the Libyan High Council of State and Tobruk-based House of Representatives took place as scheduled in Cairo in mid-May, and in a speech opening the first session, UN Special Advisor on Libya Stephanie Williams reminded participants that the dialogue was their last chance to respond to the Libyan people’s aspirations for political stability and democratic elections.
Ahead of the session, Williams met with House of Representatives (HoR) Speaker Aguila Saleh. During the meeting she stressed the need for the HoR and High Council of State (HCS) to reach an agreement on a constitutional framework for holding national elections as soon as possible. HoR Spokesperson Abdullah Belheeg reported that Saleh and Williams discussed the “constitutional process” and “efforts to amend the controversial points in the draft constitution” during the meetings in Cairo.
He also said they discussed recent developments in Libya, the executive authority, the national budget proposed by the cabinet headed by Fathi Bashagha, and plans for the HoR to convene officially in Sirte to support the work of the government in an environment free of pressures from militia factions and other groups. Belheeg did not disclose further details on the meeting.
A group of HoR members, however, announced that they intended to ask the UN secretary-general to relieve Williams of her mission in Libya. Sources familiar with the situation believe the MPs would not have made the announcement without first coordinating with Saleh who opposes UN-facilitated efforts which conflict with the roadmap approved by the HoR in February.
The UN has expressed reservations on the HoR’s February choice of Bashagha as prime minister, to replace Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh who has headed the Government of National Unity since March last year and has refused to step down. While Saleh, according to the sources, does not believe that Williams wants to meddle directly in the problem of the return to parallel governments, she is likely to oppose the transfer of the seat of government to Sirte which would deepen the rift and constitute a tacit recognition of the Bashagha government.
HoR members also say the speaker met with his HCS counterpart Khaled Al-Mishri and that the two men agreed to take steps to facilitate the discussions between their respective delegations in Cairo. Sources close to Mishri denied the meeting took place.
A reliable source who met with Mishri after his meeting with Saleh told Al-Ahram Weekly that the denial was intended to underscore mutual mistrust, and that if the meeting had been confirmed, Mishri and Saleh would have been under pressure to disclose its substance which could have led to premature commitments. The source added that Mishri asked Cairo to be the guarantor of any agreement between the HoR and HCS and Cairo, for its part, stressed the need for the two sides to commit to the outputs of the dialogue.
On the second day of the dialogue, Williams said she was pleased with the progress made towards consensus on significant parts of the draft constitution, especially sections relating to the judiciary and legislature. While such progress was important, she made it clear that the delegations were in Cairo not to discuss the controversial draft constitution approved in 2017 by the Constitutional Drafting Authority, but to focus on the provisions pertaining to elections given their main task is to enable national polls to be held as soon as possible.
According to a source familiar with the discussions, the participants did address the matter.
Abdel-Qader Howeili , a member of the HCS delegation, said that the most significant differences between the two sides concerned the “system of government”, though he provided no additional details.
Other sources say the differences relate to the bicameral legislature: the HoR wants both houses to be based in Benghazi, while the draft constitution provides for the second chamber — the Shura Council (currently the HCS) — to remain in Tripoli.
There are also disagreements on whether the Shura Council elections be modelled on HoR elections which are based on a constituency system, or on a regional representational system in which the number of representatives of a particular region is demographically weighted. According to sources with whom the Weekly spoke on Monday, the participants were due to discuss these and other issues further and that there is “cautious optimism” that they will complete their task by 28 May.
Meanwhile, on Sunday tensions spiked in Tripoli when rival militias clashed in Janzour, a densely populated neighbourhood. According to reports, Dbeibeh ordered drones to be deployed over the capital to monitor the situation and prevent a security breakdown.
By dawn on Tuesday, however, Bashagha had secretly entered the capital, precipitating further militia clashes. A Libyan source told the Weekly by phone from Tripoli that gunfire could be heard in different parts of the capital though the main source was the area where pro-Dbeibeh Ghnewa Kikli’s support militia was based. He said the Ghnewa exchanged fire with the Nuwasi Brigade which hosted Bashagha’s visit. The source said that the sound of gunfire had subsided by early morning and he had no further information on what was happening. According to Libyan news reports, Bashagha left the capital where he had planned to deliver a statement, leading to speculation that Bashagha must have received some cautions from abroad.
On her Twitter account Williams underscored “the fundamental need to preserve calm on the ground and to protect civilians.”
“I urge restraint,” she wrote, “and insist on the absolute necessity of refraining from provocative actions, including inflammatory rhetoric, participation in clashes, and the mobilisation of forces. Conflict cannot be solved with violence, but with dialogue and mediation, and to this end, the good offices of the United Nations remain available to all parties who believe in helping Libya find a genuine, consensual way forward towards stability and elections.”
Despite the cautious optimism, progress in the negotiations between the two sides is sluggish. A full accord will probably remain out of reach because the HoR remains set on perpetuating the Bashagha cabinet and the roadmap it adopted in February which envisions a two-year interim period, in contrast with the UN-sponsored vision for facilitating elections and ending the interim phase this summer.
While it is difficult to imagine a major breakthrough in Cairo as long as the two sides remain so far apart on core issues, this does not rule out the possibility of understandings emerging on the structure of the government, the budget and other constitutional issues raised during the dialogue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.