The Libyan crisis, eight years on

Kamel Abdallah , Wednesday 20 Feb 2019

A breakthrough in peace-making remains elusive in Libya, but tentatively the landscape may be clearing

Men carry Libyan flags during a celebration of the eighth anniversary of the revolution, in Benghazi, Libya, on Sunday 17 February, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

On Sunday, this week, Libyans celebrated the eighth anniversary of the revolution that ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after more than four decades in power.

It took eight months of fierce battling between regime forces and Western-backed opposition forces to overthrow the regime. In the aftermath, the country was left a dismantled state with no functioning governmental institutions, which deepened socio-political divides and aggravated the security breakdown that facilitated the proliferation of militia entities.

The anarchy has defied international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis which, in 2014, escalated into civil warfare between opposing factions, with the result that the military and political situation remains fluid and volatile eight years after revolution erupted 17 February 2011.

Despite this, Libyans appeared determined to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. This was particularly the case in the east where Revolution Day celebrations had been skipped for three years because of military operations in Benghazi, Derna and the petroleum crescent.

In the centre of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, crowds poured into Martyrs Square to take part in festivities that included artistic performances interspersed by speeches by various political leaders.

While political differences had, for the most part, been set aside for the occasion, some of the speakers did take jabs at the commander of the Libyan National Army in the east, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

To the east, Benghazi, the “capital of the revolution”, also hosted commemorative activities, although the turnout was not as large as in celebrations in the capital.

Still, the return of the anniversary celebrations of the revolution to Benghazi and elsewhere in Cyrenaica signals the return of the February Revolution Movement which appears to realise how formidable the political competition is from the camp of Field Marshal Haftar after the success of Operation Dignity which he launched in May 2014 and which he had billed as a “revolution”.

The albeit cautious revival of this movement reflects the fears of some political groups affiliated with the Libyan Revolution that they will be sidelined in future political arrangements that are expected to emerge from the anticipated Libyan National Conference.

The conference, which UN special representative and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salame had described as the last stage of the “working plan for Libya”, which he unveiled in September 2017, had been tentatively scheduled for January but had to be deferred.

The National Conference was his “last bullet,” he said, and he was not going to fire it until he was sure that it could hit its target.

The eighth anniversary celebrations of the Libyan Revolution coincide with the success of a military campaign that Field Marshal Haftar launched in January in the Jezzan region in southwest Libya.

The success was as much political as it was military. Haftar reached a number of understandings with local tribal authorities that made it possible to assert control over important petroleum facilities and to neutralise effective political forces in the region from the competition between him and rivals in the capital, most notably in the internationally recognised Presidency Council.

Haftar’s success in bringing the south under control could poise him to march on the capital, Tripoli, which he had been unable to reach in February 2014.

How easy such a venture would be is difficult to say, but it would certainly require widespread acceptance among the major regional and international powers that are keen to secure lasting political and security arrangements to help steer the country out of its long crisis.

UNSMIL chief Salame continues an intensive flurry of communications with regional and international parties in the hope of building a momentum of unified support behind his drive to convene a successful National Conference.

While attending the Munich Security Conference last week, he met with many diplomatic officials from European and Arab countries in order to discuss ways to lend fresh impetus to the UN-sponsored peace process in Libya.

He also received an official invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Moscow which hopes to steer international diplomatic efforts in Libya after the US withdraws from the Middle East arena.

The Presidency Council and other political forces in Tripoli are eager for the US to continue its role in Libya.

Last week, Fathi Bashaga, interior minister in the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and Khaled Al-Mishri, speaker of the Higher Council of State (HCS), flew to Washington to meet with officials there while the Chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj, met with General Thomas Waldhauser, commander of US Africa Command, on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference.

Russia, for its part, has been working to open official channels of communication with diverse political forces in Libya, including Gaddafi’s son, Seif Al-Islam and his supporters who aspire to make a political comeback in Libya.

However, in her press briefing Thursday, 14 December, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova denied that her country’s contacts in Libya were “biased or imbalanced in any way”.

She stressed that the Russian position on the peace process in Libya remained unchanged and extremely consistent. “We proceed from the premise that efforts to restore the Libyan state must be based on a broad national dialogue, consensus and conciliation.

Russia seeks to facilitate this process through mediation efforts, and maintains dialogue with all the interested structures that want this country to recover.”

Western powers are leery of Russian intentions in Libya. They fear that, despite Moscow’s claims of impartiality, it wants to steer the mediation process in a way that supports the Haftar camp.

This could cause the situation in Libya to deteriorate further, especially given the determination of the Tripoli-based forces to strengthen ties with Western powers.

However, these forces face number of problems in this regard. At one level, Western powers are not of one mind regarding how to handle the Libyan question and the UN-led peace making drive in particular.

A significant part of this problem stems from the complexities of the situation in the capital where militias still remain in control despite arrangements to introduce a national police and security forces to assume their functions.

To make matters worse, political forces in the capital are eying the rising influence of Haftar in Fezzan and elsewhere in the west, which may affect their positions with regard to the militias and arrangements in the capital.

At a larger level, as fluid as the situation is in Libya, armed conflict there now remains within certain bounds and appears unlikely to spiral out of control as severely as it has in Yemen and Syria.

For this reason, Libya is not currently a central focus of attention for Western powers which tend to act only when their vital interests, such as oil and gas, are at stake.

Meanwhile, the UN remains unable to persuade local forces to lay down their arms and return to the political process.

Still, as its actions following the 30 day flare up of violence in the capital in September 2018 and in the international conference on Libya in Palermo in November indicate, the UN is not putting all its eggs in one basket.

This is a reflection of the complexities of the Libyan crisis and also an omen of a possible return to warfare before UN efforts succeed in brokering a genuine peace in Libya.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Eight years on

Short link: