On Monday, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied kicked off the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), bringing together 75 participants representing all segments of Libyan political and social society in a UN sponsored effort to end the years-long standstill in the Libyan peace process. However, the conflicting interests of local, regional and international players, the lack of progress in the implementation of the terms of the recent ceasefire agreement, and other impediments could obstruct the achievement of consensus over a formal political agreement at the end of the six-day conference.
President Saied, in his keynote speech, asked participants to set a deadline for holding elections that would enable the Libyan people to express their will at the ballot box. He stressed the need to collect weapons from all but the legitimate policing and military forces so as to ensure that the polls would be free and fair. He also called on those who are chosen to lead the transitional period to refrain from running in the next presidential or parliamentary elections, saying that this will “prevent tensions that have lasted too long”.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) hopes the forum, which is part of the three-track process that was adopted in the Berlin Conference on Libya in January, will inaugurate a new chapter in the Libyan political process. The event aims to turn the page on the controversial Skhirat Agreement of December 2015 and launch what will effectively be Libya’s fifth interim period. According to progress made in preparatory talks, the forum is expected to restructure the executive authorities to make them more representative. The Presidency Council will be reduced from nine members to three: a president and two vice-presidents representing Libya’s three regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan), and the government will become a separate body headed by a prime minister and two deputy prime ministers. In addition, according to the draft preliminary agreement, a copy of which was obtained by Al-Ahram Weekly, the Political Dialogue Forum is expected to emerge as a new governing body with both legislative and supervisory powers. Its role will be to monitor the work of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State (HCS) to ensure they fulfil their responsibilities as stipulated in the Skhirat Agreement and to overcome impasses if they fail to meet specified deadlines.
Also speaking at the opening ceremony of the LPDF on Monday, Stephanie Williams, acting UN special representative to Libya and head of UNSMIL, struck an upbeat note. “I am speaking to you at a time of rare optimism. After 18 months of war, and many years of crisis, I believe there is finally a glimmer of hope,” she said. The LPDF could not have been held were it not for the permanent ceasefire agreement signed by the participants in the “5+5” Joint Military Committee in Geneva on 23 October. “Every day cooperation is increasing,” Williams said, urging participants to be “guided by the principles of inclusivity, transparency, efficiency, pluralism, collegiality and patriotism,” in order to “reflect the will of the Libyan people” and “to give Libya back to the Libyans”.
In the course of the six-day meeting, participants discussed a draft political agreement which is to serve as a roadmap for the transitional period. On the second day of the event, participants discussed options for establishing a constitutional foundation for parliamentary and presidential elections and the criteria for forming a national unity government. Although in preliminary discussions participants had agreed to form a committee to revise the draft agreement that UNSMIL had submitted for discussion, the second day occasioned some disagreement among participants, especially between those who wanted to discuss the electoral law and some affiliates of the pre-revolutionary order who advocated abolishing both the 2015 Skhirat Agreement and the 2011 Constitutional Declaration.
The new draft political agreement consists of seven articles and two annexes which may contain a list of names of possible office holders in the next Presidency Council, government and proposed Political Dialogue Forum Secretariat, which is to be a five-member body chosen by participants in the conference. The articles address the governing principles and aims of the agreement, the timeframe leading up to general elections, and the deadlines and guidelines for the national political programme. They also outline how the executive will function during the forthcoming interim phase, the executive’s priorities during this phase and the authorities and functions of the proposed Political Dialogue Forum. According to the draft political agreement, the newly formed three-member Presidency Council will represent Libya internationally and act as commander-in-chief of the Libyan national army and appoint the chair and members of the National Defence and Security Council in consultation with the prime minister.
On the formation of the government, the draft document gives the prime minister designate 30 days to submit his slate of ministers to the House of Representatives which will then have 10 days to deliberate and vote on it. In light of previous experiences in obtaining parliamentary of confidence for a cabinet, the document limits this process to two rounds. If parliament fails to approve a proposed government a second time, the prime minister will submit it to the Presidency Council for approval. If that fails, the task of approving a government will fall to the Political Dialogue Forum.
Each of the three regions will nominate candidates for the three posts in the Presidency Council. The names of the nominees will be submitted to UNSMIL to ensure they meet the criteria determined by LPDF participants after which the participants will vote on the candidates. The two deputy chairs will be ranked on the basis of the size of population of their respective regions.
The transformation of the Political Dialogue Forum into a governing body for the interim period is, perhaps, the most unique and important facet the draft document of the national political programme. In addition to serving as a channel for continuing to coordinate with UNSMIL towards the implementation of the provisions of the agreement, it has been conceived as a mechanism designed to overcome impasses, propose remedies and keep the other bodies on track. Its five-member secretariat, to be elected by the 75 LPDF participants, will monitor the other executive and legislative bodies to ensure their ongoing commitment and timely and effective performance of their given functions during the interim phase.
The substance of the document and, above all, provisions regarding the newly conceived Political Dialogue Forum, reflect the hopes the UN has vested in the forum as a means to overcome years of stagnation and obstructiveness in the political process.
Among the Libyan participants themselves, many fear that the Political Dialogue Forum will rival both the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Tripoli-based HCS. Spokespersons for the two chambers stressed that they would not be circumvented in the political process. The House of Representatives drove home the point more powerfully when members of the house, which has been divided between MPs meeting in Tobruk and a group of MPs in Tripoli who have boycotted the sessions in Tobruk for years, issued a joint statement late Monday night affirming their refusal to be sidelined in the political process.
The restructuring and broadening of the executive authority also stirred some squabbling. For some weeks, the House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh has been tipped as the likely chair of the next Presidency Council. Recently, however, there has been increasing talk of rival candidates from eastern Libya for that post. There is also a body of opinion that opposes a Cyrenaica chair and insists that the Presidency Council should be chaired by someone from the capital, Tripoli. Observers see this as a bid to increase the chances that Fayez Al-Sarraj will remain the chairman of the Presidency Council.
It has been suggested that UNSMIL’s agenda for the LPDF is too intensive and that its various components require more time than allotted. Some have also voiced scepticism regarding the efficacy of international pledges to ensure the implementation of the outputs of the conference in light of previous experiences.
The Libyan activist and blogger Faraj Farkash predicted a bumpy road for the LPDF. The good thing about it is that Libyans “chose to speak through dialogue instead of through guns and ammunition”, even if some points of the draft agreement occasion heated debate. In particular he anticipated more opposition from members of both the House of Representatives and the HCS to the proposed Political Dialogue Forum entity, which he described as “a new unelected authority with powers that exceed the House of Representatives and HCS in some important areas”. Farkash also believes that some proposals on UNSMIL’s agenda in Tunisia will render reaching consensus difficult, and the implementation of its outputs more difficult yet. Still, he expects UNSMIL will continue to push for the adoption of its draft “national political programme” despite stiff opposition.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly