Libya: Understandings but no guarantees

Kamel Abdallah , Thursday 3 Dec 2020

Talks between the two sides of the Libyan political crisis continue in Tunisia and Morocco, but little is emerging in the way of actionable plans

Understandings but no guarantees
Talks between the two sides of the Libyan political crisis continue in Tunisia and Morocco, but little is emerging in the way of actionable plans, writes Kamel Abdallah

By Monday, the two committees representing the Libyan parliament in Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) in Tripoli will have met for a second time in Morocco, at the end of a consultation meeting of 130 MPs in Tripoli and Tobruk in the Moroccan city of Tangier between 23-28 November. It was another attempt to close ranks of the divided parliament and find consensus on a new agenda in pace with political and on-the-ground developments in Libya.

This is part of a series of meetings that began in Morocco in late July between Libyan rivals in an attempt to rally support within Libya’s political institutions to implement the political track of the Berlin Process, in preparation for launching what the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) calls the “preparatory stage for a comprehensive solution”. 

The UN has been trying to extract consensus on political arrangements from several figures in the Libyan conflict. Libyan leaders began meetings in Rabat between Tobruk’s Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Tripoli’s HCS Chairman Khalid Al-Mishri, though not sitting face to face, under the auspices of Moroccan Parliament Speaker Al-Habib Al-Malki. Even though Al-Malki failed to get the two men to meet in the same room, these talks paved the way for members from both entities to meet later.

This began with the 5+5 meeting in Bouznika between 6 September and 6 October during two rounds, and concluded in the Bouznika Understandings. Representatives of both bodies agreed on how to choose appointees to the top seven positions in the country, based on Article 15 of the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Skhirat in late 2015.

Meetings in Bouznika between the two sides, dubbed 13+13, began before the start of the Political Dialogue Forum sponsored by UNSMIL. The two rounds of talks this month began with direct meetings between 9 and 15 November, and the second via online conferencing last week — the first time an overwhelming majority of MPs met together for consultations in Tangiers.

Throughout these talks, the two sides only agreed on the sole subject of not adopting any political agenda without the approval of both entities. This is seen as an attempt to obstruct the implementation of the “political programme of the preparatory stage for a comprehensive solution” which UNSMIL is trying to extract at the Political Dialogue Forum that includes independent figures and members from both entities.

Other than this indirectly announced agreement on both sides, the meetings resulted in little more than “understandings” that do not provide ideas to overcome challenges if implemented on the ground. These include convening a united “consultative” parliament for the first time in many years in Tangiers. On Saturday, participants said they intend on holding a consensual session in the western city of Gadames as soon as they return to Libya in order to end divisions in parliament and enable the legislative body to carry out its duties.

Although MPs agreed to hold an official parliamentary session in Gadames and participants in Tangiers said the meeting will take place this week, the leadership of the Tobruk parliament responded to these claims in a statement Sunday asking the joint military committee 5+5 to decide where to hold the unified meeting of parliament inside Libya. Also, to make arrangements to guarantee the safety and security of MPs who would discuss “the outcomes of the political dialogue without contradicting the Constitutional Declaration and its 11 amendments.

They would also form a committee to prepare a consensual proposal to amend procedural rules. When there is a need to change the presidency, the constitution, laws and procedural rules must be consulted.”

The statement clearly indicated the opposition of the Tobruk leadership, in the person of Saleh, to what MPs agreed to in Tangiers. It also challenges the ability of MPs to pass their consensus through the speaker’s office, which has controlled procedures since this parliament was formed in 2014.

Meanwhile, the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF) welcomed the agreement reached in Tangiers to close MP ranks and urged them to hold meetings in the capital Tripoli. It also rejected “recycling political garbage”, in reference to rumours that certain figures in power will be nominated to new executive positions. This indicates a deep rift among local forces about where best to meet inside Libya and refusing to meet at locations that either side views as a stronghold of the other.

UNSMIL was unable to extract consensus during the Political Dialogue Forum on the mechanism of choosing members of the new executive power, even though four models were suggested. Participants viewed them all as controversial. UNSMIL decided to postpone forum meetings until new ideas are proposed, although fierce opposition is anticipated once candidates are nominated to take charge of the next phase.

The outcomes of meetings organised by Libyan players and UNSMIL lack practical guarantees to address the challenges facing implementation on the ground; obligating parties to accept procedures, and securing regional and international support for implementation.

This would advance progress on the political track of the Berlin Process, which requires consensus among influential players, political entities and a legal framework to prevent it from falling apart, especially in light of continued polarisation, stalemate and obvious inability of local, regional, international forces or UNSMIL to break long years of political stalemate in Libya.

A lack of real consensus, distrust among Libyan players, an absence of tangible regional and international support for the political process is an opportunity for local forces that are excluded from plans by the UN, parliament and HCS to challenge the outcomes these parties want to implement.

They could argue that these outcomes lack an acceptable legal framework.

Meanwhile, a quarrel in Tripoli was brewing last week between the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Central Bank of Libya, after the latter questioned data from the NOC and accused it of not paying more than $1 billion to the National Treasury. This was in response to NOC Chairman Mustafa Sonallah claiming that the Central Bank is withholding oil revenues until a comprehensive settlement is reached.

In a letter addressed to the Audit Bureau, the highest supervisory body in the country, published by the NOC, Sonallah said that freezing oil revenues is part of an agreement between Chairman of the Presidential Council Fayez Al-Sarraj and Parliament Speaker Saleh until a settlement is reached and guaranteed by countries involved in the Berlin Process. Sonallah threatened to transfer oil revenues to an account overseas if the Central Bank continues to block proceeds.

Diplomatic sources revealed that the EU is preparing a blacklist that includes dozens of commanders of armed groups across Libya who are involved in human rights violations, and undermining the political process and stability in the country. This is part of a series of sanctions to guarantee that upcoming political arrangements will proceed without obstruction.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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