The third and final round of talks between delegations from the parliament in Tobruk and the Higher Council of State (HCS) on the constitutional track began this week in Cairo under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The talks will wrap up on Sunday, three days before the deadline for the end of the current interim phase. Launched by the roadmap adopted by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, the current phase has a 22 June endpoint and there are concerns Libya will return to square one if an agreement is not reached.
The third round of talks on the Libyan constitution is focused on reaching agreement on disputed articles in the draft constitution prepared by the Constituent Assembly in 2017. The atmosphere is “positive”, according to both UNSMIL and participants in the talks, with a palpable desire to reach a consensus in order to restore hope to Libyans that elections, postponed since December, will finally be held.
On Monday, Stephanie Williams, special adviser on Libya to the UN secretary-general, said the number of constitutional articles approved by the delegations from Tobruk and Tripoli in Cairo had reached 180 after 43 articles in the draft constitution were passed during the current this round. During the second round in May the two sides approved 137 articles.
The progress offers a glimmer of hope that the constitutional framework needed to hold elections can be completed. Williams told the media and participants at the start of the third round that this will be the last before she concludes her mission in Libya at the end of this month.
Williams and the delegates arrived in Cairo with promises from the leaders of parliament and HCS to support the talks in order to reach consensus and overcome the obstacles that had derailed the elections scheduled for 24 December 2021.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Saghir, a member of the Tobruk-based parliament attending the Cairo talks, stressed that both sides are intent on reaching a consensus on the remaining articles of the constitutional framework so that a “draft constitution can be put to the Libyan people in a referendum” to accelerate the electoral process.
Al-Saghir said Williams had confirmed there will be consultations on the exercise of executive power within days of the constitutional track ending, with an agenda that will cover divisions in government after the formation of a new cabinet headed by Fathi Bashagha, and the refusal of the national unity government Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibeh to hand over power.
Yet even if delegates succeed in reaching agreement over the outstanding articles in the draft constitution, the leaderships in Tobruk and Tripoli still have to approve the final outcome.
Since last week, Libya’s capital Tripoli has been a hub for European diplomats, not least special envoys from France (Paul Soler), Germany (Christian Bock) and Italy (Nicola Orlando) and from the UK which officially reopened its embassy in the Libyan capital after reinforcing its security presence.
Before their arrival in Tripoli, Soler, Bock, and Orlando met in Tunisia last week with the ambassadors of the US, UK, France, EU, Spain, and senior diplomats from Egypt, Turkey, UAE and Qatar. Williams was also at the meeting which focused on security arrangements in Tripoli. The meeting represented an attempt by the international community to avoid security tensions triggered by ongoing provocations between armed groups in the capital loyal to Dbeibeh, and their rivals who support prime minister-designate Bashagha.
Williams and the senior diplomats also met with the Security Working Group (SWG) of the International Follow-up Committee for Libya created under the Berlin process. In addition, there was a meeting of the 5+5 Joint Military Commission and the ceasefire monitoring team which includes observers from Libya and other countries. All the talks were held as part of the framework to implement the agreement signed between the two sides in Geneva on 23 October 2020, under UN auspices.
While UNSMIL and other participants did not reveal what was discussed in Tunisia, diplomats from the UK, France, Italy and Germany subsequently traveled to Libya to begin talks with key parties to the crisis. They began in the capital Tripoli where they met with the Presidential Council, the national unity government and HCS. Discussions focused on ways to reach consensus between parliament and HCS on the constitutional framework needed to hold elections, with the foreign diplomats urging their interlocutors to put aside differences, avoid escalation and engage constructively in the political process facilitated by the UN.
The European envoys arrived in Tripoli despite tensions between rival armed groups, and continuing concerns they will escalate in the coming days under the pretext that the mandate of the current government, a product of the roadmap, has ended.
Bashagha’s attempt on 17 May to enter Tripoli triggered brief clashes in the centre of the capital, damaging property and leaving one person dead and five injured. In the face of a strong reaction from the diplomatic community Bashagha turned back and announced later in May that his government would begin working out of Sirte. It is unlikely, however, that the West, which insists the current political process must be completed by holding elections, will recognise the Sirte-based government.
Meanwhile, sources in Tripoli suggest that European powers will try to mediate between Dbeibeh and the Commander of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in order to secure a reshuffle of Dbeibeh’s government that can then stay in power until the elections are held.
The map of local, regional and international coalitions over Libya has shifted markedly over the past year. Dbeibeh is supported by Turkey, the UK, Algeria and the UAE, as well as by the US which views parliament’s attempt to form a new government headed by Bashagha as undermining the UN plan.
While Bashagha desperately wants the general budget law approved so his government can access funds, this is unlikely to happen any time soon given frequent reports about back channel communications between Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Haftar on one side, and Dbeibeh on the other, aimed at reaching a settlement that will restore their own influence over the government.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.