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Libya: Intractable tensions

Despite ceasefire declarations in Libya, the future remains fragile

Khaled Hanafi, Tuesday 25 Aug 2020
Intractable tensions
Libyan protest against deteriorating living conditions and corruption in tTripoli this week (photo: Reuters)
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The ceasefire declaration statements issued by the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk based House of Representatives have once again raised hopes for a negotiated political settlement to the longstanding Libyan conflict. But the way forward is far from easy. It requires painful concessions that conflict with the interests of obstructive forces — the network of domestic and foreign parties vested in the perpetuation of the crisis.

Although the ceasefire has staved off a clash between Turkey, which intervened on behalf GNA militias, and Egypt, which warned against a Turkish-backed offensive beyond the Sirte-Jufra line, this does not mean that conditions are ripe for a settlement. Not only is trust lacking between the Libyan players after 14 months of civil war centred on Tripoli, but there also remains a long legacy of division over all proposed political solutions from the Skhirat Agreement of 2015 through the modified UN plan, the Paris and Rome initiatives of 2017 and 2018, the outputs of the Berlin Conference in 2020 and the Cairo Declaration of June this year.

FRAMES OF REFERENCE

This legacy is mirrored in the texts of the ceasefire statements issued by House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh and GNA leader Fayez Al-Sarraj. Whereas both reaffirmed their commitment to the Berlin process, the former affirmed his support for the Cairo Declaration while the latter ignored it.

The troubled Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015, produced political entities whose composition and jurisdictions triggered bitter discord between the rival parties. The fusion between the Presidency Council and the GNA and articles that gave the GNA the power to make security and military appointments are only some examples of bitter bones of contention.

The Cairo Declaration, by contrast, proposes an elected three-member presidential council separate from the government. This council, which would be representative of Libya’s three main regions (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan), would choose a prime minister charged with forming a government that would then obtain the confidence of the House of Representatives. While most of the council’s decisions would be taken by a majority vote, others, such as decisions concerning the armed forces, would require a unanimous vote that would include that of the armed forces general commander. Under the Cairo Declaration, cabinet seats are apportioned between the three regions based on population density (nine seats for Tripolitania, seven for Cyrenaica and five for Fezzan) while the sovereign portfolios would be divided between them equally. These formulas help ensure a minimum degree of unanimity between the three regions.

ELECTIONS DILEMMA

Both Saleh and Al-Sarraj, in their statements, agreed on the need to hold elections in order to resolve the problem of rival legitimacy claims. However, while the former did not specify a date, the latter set March 2021 as a deadline for holding presidential and parliamentary elections on “a constitutional basis”. Yet, the draft constitution approved by the elected constituent assembly in July 2017 encountered stiff opposition from both eastern and southern Libya (Cyrenaica and Fezzan) and especially on the part of the federalist camp and the Amazigh, Toubou and Touareg ethnic minorities. In the opinion of these groups, the draft constitution privileged Western political forces via a heavily centralised form of government that favoured the more populous Tripolitania region and its predominant political forces.

The Cairo Declaration proposes the creation of a committee, composed of members of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State, to amend the constitutional declaration and for the election of a new national committee, representative of the three regions, to draft a new constitution that would be put to a national referendum within 90 days. The Cairo Declaration also calls for an 18-month interim period during which government institutions would be reunified and reorganised and at the end of which presidential and parliamentary elections would be held. This explains why Saleh, in his statement, did not stipulate a date for elections. Unlike Al-Sarraj, he appreciates the difficulties involved in drafting and agreeing on a new constitution in a short period of time while a constitutional framework is a key to holding elections whose legitimacy will not be questioned.

DISTRIBUTION OF OIL WEALTH

Al-Sarraj’s statement agreed with Saleh’s on the need to resume the production and export of oil and to deposit revenues abroad where they will remain until after an agreement is reached. It also agreed on the need for transparency in the management of revenues. However, it did not refer to the Cairo Declaration’s provisions in this regard and, above all, to the need for the just distribution of oil wealth.

The general convergence between the two sides, here, may have been the product of American pressure, motivated by a desire to wrest the oil card from Russian hands, especially in light of reports that Russian Wagner Group fighters have taken up positions in Libyan oil fields. At the same time, the US probably wants to wield the oil card as a means to keep the two sides at the negotiating table and to encourage them to forge alliances conducive to supporting the compromises needed for peace.

This said, there may be limitations on how far the oil card can be used as leverage. Much of the problem would reside in coming to terms over the criteria for the just distribution of oil. Should it be based on demographics, such as population density, which would favour Tripolitania? Or should it be based on geographical realities such as the fact that most of Libya’s oil reserves are located in the east and that the Libyan National Army (LNA) currently controls the majority of fields in the east and south?

LNA SUSPICIONS

The LNA harbours serious concerns over the nature and trustworthiness of the dialogue process at a time when Turkey continues to pour military support and mercenaries into western Libya. The LNA has rejected US Ambassador Richard Noland’s proposal to transform Sirte-Jufra into a demilitarised zone. It suspects that the proposal is merely a ruse in order to hand the area to Turkey without a fight. The LNA deeply mistrusts the GNA and fears its intentions once oil production resumes. LNA Spokesman General Ahmed Al-Mismari last week called Tripoli’s ceasefire initiative a “PR initiative”.

The LNA’s stance conflicts with both Al-Sarraj’s and Saleh’s positions on a ceasefire, although the two men disagree over the status of Sirte and Jufra. Saleh would like to make Sirte a temporary headquarters for the new Presidency Council that would be protected not by the LNA but by a police force drawn from all regions, whereas Al-Sarraj supports the creation of a demilitarised zone protected by a security force drawn from eastern and western Libya.

Although Russia, which backs the LNA, supports the ceasefire, it is probably just as uncomfortable with the US-European proposal to turn Sirte-Jufra into a demilitarised zone. Certainly, the proposal would limit Russian influence in Libya and, above all, Moscow’s ability to pressure Turkey and bargain with the US/NATO presence in the southern Mediterranean. According to various reports, there are Russian warplanes and other arms in the Jufra military base.

THE MILITIA DILEMMA

There have been indications of mounting inter-militia tensions in western Libya since the freeze in the Tripoli war. Some observers fear another outbreak of inter-militia violence similar to that which erupted in the summer of 2018 between rival militias battling for control over Tripoli. This, too, could jeopardise talks and prospects for a settlement.

Among the signs of mounting tensions are accusations of corruption levelled by the Tripoli Protection Force (a consortium of the four most prominent militias in Tripoli) against the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. The accusations appear a response to the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to dominate the National Guard Force that the GNA intends to revive as a means to gain control over the Tripoli militias. The GNA is backed in this by the Turkish-Qatari axis which, while backing the recent ceasefire call, is rapidly working to consolidate its influence in western Libya. The Tripoli based militias fear that any political settlement will undermine their influence by means of plans to disarm them and/or assimilate them into official security forces.

Perhaps the most complex and intractable factors are the tribal and regional tensions that have grown even more intense since the battle for Tripoli began over a year ago. Until the causes of these tensions are addressed and remedied by means of a national reconciliation process, a lasting ceasefire and peace-making efforts promoted by outside powers will remain on shaky grounds.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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