Main Image Credit Courtesy of Nasser Nouri
A UN-sponsored political dialogue on Libya’s future has begun. Although clearly a positive step, it is unlikely to provide the solution to peace.
The resumption of the UN-sponsored Libyan political dialogue that will culminate in a forum in Tunisia on 9 November has raised hopes that after almost a decade of conflict, Libya may finally be on the path to peace. This return to the negotiating table certainly reflects a new spirit of compromise that has manifested over recent weeks through a series of advisory peace talks, the lifting of the oil blockade, and most important of all, the signing of a ceasefire agreement on 23 October in Geneva. Although this ceasefire deal is thin on detail and littered with potential pitfalls, it represents progress and shows a new willingness to re-engage.
This new spirit of compromise is partly down to intense diplomatic efforts, especially by the US. But it is also driven by the recent realisation on both sides of the conflict that neither is strong enough to win this war. In particular, Khalifa Haftar’s failed attempt to seize the capital between 2019 and 2020 prompted an understanding that subjugating the west of the country was impossible. More importantly perhaps, both sides came to the understanding that foreign intervention had reached such heights that the country’s future was no longer its own – Libya needed to wake up and do something to regain control over its destiny.
Yet while expectations for the Tunisia meeting in just over a week from now are high, the chances of translating any deal which emerges into meaningful peace are still slim. While participants may end up agreeing on another roadmap for Libya, the UN is in danger of repeating past mistakes, while the political formula that looks set to be endorsed could lay the foundations for deeper problems further down the line.
According to the UN, the aim of the Tunisia meeting is to ‘generate consensus on a unified governance framework and arrangements that will lead to the holding of national elections in the shortest possible timeframe in order to restore Libya’s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions’.
Yet there are already serious questions surrounding the legitimacy of this gathering. Notably, there is no clarity on the criteria by which the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), created in the aftermath of the Libyan Civil War, has selected the 75 participants. While UNSMIL may have sought to bring together a broad cross section of Libyans, these invitees appear to represent a mishmash of activists and personalities who have been on the scene since 2011, along with a token handful of figures linked to the former regime. On what basis these individuals have been chosen to approve the next phase of Libya’s transition is unclear. This list is already causing consternation, especially in the east, where, predictably, there are charges that it is stuffed full of Islamists and individuals linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UN has also stipulated that participants must recuse themselves from political and sovereign posts in any new executive arrangement. This pre-condition has prompted concerns that attendees will not have the necessary clout to deliver. With the real powerbrokers absent, this gathering could turn out to be a talking shop that will end up creating another artificial government that is lacking in legitimacy. This risks leaving Libyans feeling as though a solution has been imposed upon them from above, as occurred in 2015 when the Presidency Council was established with disastrous results.
Carving up the Country
So far, it looks as though this ‘solution’ will involve agreeing to a formula whereby power will be carved up along geographical lines. This will include a reformulation of the country’s Presidency Council to comprise a head and two deputies, each drawn from one of Libya’s three regions, as well as a new national unity government. It is also likely to include the redistribution of sovereign institutions – something that was set in motion at the Bouznika talks held in Morocco – with key national bodies shared out between the three regions. Indeed, this approach goes beyond simply dolling out posts to towns and regions, as has occurred since 2011, and represents an attempt to divide power by shifting a number of key institutions such as the Central Bank of Libya and the Supreme Court away from the capital.
This approach is a direct response to the decades-long marginalisation of the east and the south. Muammar Qadhafi ran a highly centralised state in which power, national institutions and oil wealth were all concentrated in Tripoli. Despite the 2011 revolution starting in the east and despite the east’s longstanding calls for Benghazi to regain its historical importance, this imbalance has yet to be redressed. Thus, while post-Qadhafi Libya has fragmented into a myriad of competing towns, areas and tribes, the conflict has morphed into a struggle for control between the east and the west, as encapsulated in the standoff over Sirte.
Yet while rebalancing this equation could hold the key to breaking the current impasse, carving up power in this way could end up formalising and deepening existing divisions between the three regions. Libya has long struggled to forge a real sense of national unity, with regional identities often trumping national ones – dividing up power according to geography risks emphasising these regional fault lines at the expense of the country.
There is another, more immediate problem too. While such a deal may satisfy the east, there are powerful forces in western Libya that will not relinquish control easily, especially if that means losing their grip over key institutions such as the Central Bank, which has allegedly been earmarked for Benghazi.
Furthermore, these forces remain resolutely opposed to Haftar and will not accept any arrangement they believe will strengthen his hand. Some of these groups, which along with Turkey believed (wrongly) that the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) defeat in Tripoli had buried Haftar, are already complaining that the ceasefire deal has breathed new life into him. These forces fear that the Tunisia talks will give Haftar further space and that his ambition to rule the country will rear its head again at a later stage. While the east may be able to deliver on what is agreed in Tunisia, therefore, there are powerful constituencies in the west that will resist.
Moreover, while elements in the east may be tempted by a power sharing deal, this is unlikely to be sufficient in the long run for Haftar, who is clearly still reluctant to really engage with all groups in the west. The LNA is still unwilling to accept that Islamists form an important component in the west and for peace to be struck they will need to be brought on board. The LNA’s unwillingness to deal with political Islamists also masks the fact that Salafists, who comprise key components of the LNA’s forces, have been granted an almost free rein to impose their rigid ideology over the religious space in the east. As such mistrust still runs high on both sides.
Furthermore, the spectre of Turkey and Russia will continue to loom large. Neither is likely to stop supporting their Libyan proxies and neither will pull its forces out of the country within the three months specified in the ceasefire deal. Turkey is already arguing that its forces do not constitute foreign mercenaries and is still consolidating its presence, while Russia shows no signs of leaving Libya. While the UN Security Council may threaten sanctions on those obstructing the ceasefire agreement, its efforts to uphold the arms embargo on Libya have proved an abject failure. This time is unlikely to be any different.
While the new spirit of dialogue may result in a new roadmap, the Tunisia forum is unlikely to break the endless cycle of mistrust. Worse, it could end up creating another governance structure that is lacking in clout and legitimacy and that will be viewed by Libyans as another cynical move by the international community to force a solution that will not serve the country’s best interests.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.