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Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government
Keeping a Libya Settlement on Track
Keeping a Libya Settlement on Track

Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving toward Legitimate Government

The longer Libya’s military conflict persists, the more it risks jeopardising or undermining the anti-Qaddafi camp’s avowed objectives. Civilians are figuring in large numbers as victims, both as casualties and refugees. The country is de facto being partitioned, as divisions between the predominantly opposition-held east and the predominantly regime-controlled west harden into distinct political, social and economic worlds.

As a result, it is virtually impossible for the pro-democracy current of urban public opinion in most of western Libya (and Tripoli in particular) to express itself and weigh in the political balance. All this, together with mounting bitterness on both sides, will constitute a heavy legacy for any post-Qaddafi government.

The prolonged military campaign and attendant instability likewise present strategic threats to Libya’s neighbours. Besides fuelling a large-scale refugee crisis, they are raising the risk of infiltration by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose networks of activists are present in Algeria, Mali and Niger. To insist on Qaddafi’s departure as a precondition for any political initiative is to prolong the military conflict and deepen the crisis. Instead, the priority should be to secure an immediate ceasefire and negotiations on a transition to a post-Qaddafi political order.

Unlike events in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the confrontation that began in mid-February between the popular protest movement and Qaddafi’s regime morphed into a civil war from a very early stage. This owes a great deal to the country’s history and chiefly to the peculiar character of the political order Colonel Qaddafi and his associates set up in the 1970s.

Whereas Egypt and Tunisia had been well-established states before Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali came to power in 1981 and 1987 respectively, such that in both cases the state had an existence independent of their personal rule and could survive their departure, the opposite has been true of Libya. As a result, the conflict has taken on the character of a violent life-or-death struggle.

Eight years after overthrowing the monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi instituted the Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses” -- a jerry-built state that is very much a personal creation largely dependent on his role. A constitutive principle of the Jamahiriya is the axiom, proclaimed in Qaddafi’s Green Book (1975), that “representation is fraud” and that no formal political representation is to be allowed.

Whereas all other North African states have at least paid lip-service to the right to political representation and have permitted political parties of a kind, however unsatisfactory, in the Jamahiriya there has been none at all, and attempts to create them have been considered treason.

The consequence of this radical refusal of the principle of representation has been to stunt the development of anything approaching effective, formal institutions or civil society. Notably, the articulation of diverse ideological outlooks and currents of political opinion, which other North African states have allowed to at least some degree, has been outlawed in Libya.

A corollary of this low level of institutionalisation has been the regime’s reliance on tribal solidarities to secure its power base. Strategic positions within the power structure -- notably command of the security forces’ most trusted units -- have been held by members of Qaddafi’s own family, clan and tribe and of other closely allied tribes. At the same time, and especially as of the late 1980s, the regular armed forces have been kept weak, undermanned and under-equipped, the object of Qaddafi’s mistrust.

These various features of Qaddafi’s political order help explain why the logic of civil war set in so quickly after the first demonstrations. The protest movement’s early demand that Qaddafi leave unavoidably implied not simply his departure and regime change, but rather the overthrow or collapse of the entire order that he established. The distinction between the state on the one hand and the regime on the other, which was crucial to enabling the Tunisian and Egyptian armies to act as neutral buffers and mediators in the conflict between people and presidency, was impossible to make.

There can be no doubt that the Jamahiriya is moribund and that only a very different form of state -- one that allows political and civic freedoms -- will begin to satisfy the widespread desire of Libyans for representative and law-bound government. Yet it was never going to be an easy matter to find a way out of the historic cul-de-sac of Qaddafi’s creation.

The character of the Libyan crisis today arises from the complex but so far evidently indecisive impact of the UN-authorised military intervention, now formally led by NATO, in what had already become a civil war. NATO's intervention has saved the anti-Qaddafi side from immediate defeat but has not yet resolved the conflict in its favour. Given its mounting political and human costs, complacent assessments that simply sustaining the present military campaign or increasing pressure will force Qaddafi out soon enough reflect a refusal to reconsider current strategy and envisage alternatives.

In any event, it would be reckless to ignore the possibility that, should the regime suffer swift military defeat, the outcome might be not a transition to democracy but rather a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis.

The revolt and its subsequent military efforts have been comparatively unorganised affairs. While the Interim Transitional National Council – the institution designed to govern opposition-controlled territory -- has been making some progress in developing political and military structures in the east, it is most improbable that it has or can soon acquire the capacity to take on the business of governing the country as a whole.

The assumption that time is on the opposition's side and that the regime will soon run out of ammunition or fuel or money (or will be overthrown by a palace coup) similarly substitutes wishful thinking for serious policy-making. Although such predictions might turn out to be true -- and it is difficult to assess in the absence of reliable estimates of Qaddafi’s resources -- time almost certainly is not on the Libyan people’s side.

As the military confrontation draws out, casualties and destruction mount, the country’s division deepens, and the risk of infiltration by jihadi militants rises. Economic and humanitarian conditions in those parts of Libya still under regime control will worsen. Nor should the cost to Libya’s neighbours of a prolonged chaotic, unstable situation at their borders be overlooked.

If some way cannot be found to induce the two sides in the armed conflict to negotiate a compromise allowing for an orderly transition to a post-Qaddafi, post-Jamahiriya state, the prospect for Libya but also North Africa as a whole and the Sahel countries (Chad, Mali and Niger) will be ominous.

A political breakthrough is by far the best way out of the costly situation created by the military stalemate. This will require a ceasefire and unfettered humanitarian access to all areas within the country, implementation of which should be monitored by a UN-mandated international peacekeeping force. It must be accompanied by immediate, serious negotiations between regime and opposition representatives to secure agreement on a peaceful transition to a new, more legitimate political order.

Such an outcome also necessitates involvement by a third party trusted by both sides -- actors currently in short supply. A joint political proposal by the Arab League and the African Union --the former viewed more favourably by the opposition, the latter preferred by the regime -- is one possibility to lead to such an agreement. But this cannot happen without the leadership of the revolt and NATO rethinking their current stance.

Their repeatedly proclaimed demand that “Qaddafi must go” confuses two quite different objectives. To insist that he can have no role in the post-Jamahiriya political order is one thing, and almost certainly reflects the opinion of a majority of Libyans as well as of the outside world. But to insist that he must go as the precondition for any negotiation, including that of a ceasefire, is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and maximise the prospect of continued armed conflict.

To insist that he both leave the country and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting. Ultimately, only an immediate ceasefire is consistent with the purpose originally claimed for NATO's intervention, that of protecting civilians.

The claim that Qaddafi has failed to deliver a ceasefire ignores the fact that no ceasefire can be sustained unless it is observed by both sides. The complaint that Qaddafi cannot be trusted is one than can be levelled at any number of leaders on one side or another of a civil war. The way to deal with the issue is to establish the political conditions -- by mobilising through concerted diplomacy a strong international consensus in favour of an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and serious negotiations -- that will increase the likelihood that he keeps to his undertakings.

The present conflict clearly represents the death agony of Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya. Whether what comes after it fulfils Libyans’ hopes for freedom and legitimate government very much depends on how and when Qaddafi goes.

This in turn depends on when and how the armed conflict gives way to political negotiation allowing Libya’s political actors -- including Libyan public opinion as a whole -- to address the crucial questions involved in defining the constitutive principles of a post-Jamahiriya state and agreeing on the modalities and interim institutions of the transition phase.

The international community’s responsibility for the course events will take is very great. Instead of stubbornly maintaining the present policy and running the risk that the aftermath will be one of dangerous chaos, it should act now to secure a negotiated end to the civil war and facilitate a new beginning for Libya’s political life.

Keeping a Libya Settlement on Track

Keeping Libya’s fragile peace process on track requires redoubled efforts by external stakeholders eager to see the conflict end. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to support the UN-led economic dialogue and the creation of a Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism.

Ten years after Muammar Qadhafi’s regime fell, the Libyan civil war that ensued remains far from resolved. If there is reason for hope, it is that the year-long assault on the capital Tripoli by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces ended with their withdrawal in June 2020. Haftar’s retreat prompted a realignment of factors that points to the possibility of a peaceful settlement. In September, the field marshal and his allies lifted a nine-month oil export blockade, providing temporary relief to the country’s oil-dependent economy. In October, officers of the two main military coalitions signed a ceasefire agreement. Then, in November, politicians from the two rival sides started a dialogue under UN auspices. Foreign backers of Libya’s warring factions, while still working to cement their influence in the country, have toned down their bellicose rhetoric.

Yet there is also much reason for concern. Implementation of the ceasefire terms is lagging, with each side accusing the other of continuing to receive foreign military support. In such a volatile environment, any mishap – such as one side moving weapons around, and the other side interpreting the activity as mobilisation for an assault – could spark renewed fighting. Another reason to worry is that the UN-backed political talks, which comprise 75 representatives from a broad array of political and tribal groups and which the EU is helping finance, have thus far produced no consensus behind a new interim unity government. The various factions agreed on a voting mechanism to appoint top officials, but while paying lip service to a transparent vote they remain dangerously divided on who they want to see lead the country. All, furthermore, have the means to spoil the process. On the economic front, although hydrocarbon exports resumed, a dispute over management of oil revenues has led to a temporary freeze of hydrocarbon income, impeding economic recovery. 

Keeping the peace process on track will be an uphill battle requiring redoubled efforts by those external stakeholders eager to see Libya’s conflict come to an end. Events are increasingly driven by those outside actors who are providing military assistance to one Libyan side or the other, in particular Turkey, the Tripoli-based government’s main backer, and Russia, the Haftar-led coalition’s chief ally. Rival Arab countries that for years helped turn Libya into a proxy battleground are still pursuing their agendas as well, but for now by non-military means. The easing of the Gulf crisis might, over time, have a positive knock-on effect in Libya. Europe, as a party concerned to make peace, can still do a great deal to advance that goal, notwithstanding its diminished leverage.

The EU and its member states should intensify their efforts along the following lines: 

  • Support the creation of a Libya Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism, which Libyan military officers from both sides negotiated and which the UN secretary-general called on Security Council members to adopt; deploy to the UN Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) monitors from European states accepted by Libyan parties.
     
  • Extend the mandate of the EU’s maritime operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI so that it can help uphold the ceasefire monitoring. Despite being unable, for legal and logistical reasons, to block the transfer of weapons to Libya, the operation’s vessels and satellites are helpful in monitoring the flow of arms to the country in violation of the UN embargo and in deterring some transfers. The operation can support the Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism’s work by providing UN monitors with information about suspected violations and military movements. 
     
  • Support efforts to reach consensus among Libyan parties on the need to hold parliamentary elections, if delegates to the political dialogue do not reach agreement on an interim government. Europe should also provide funds and technical support to the institutions that will have to ensure elections are credible and inclusive, including of women. 
     
  • Support the UN-led Libyan economic dialogue and continue to engage with the UN, the U.S. and EU member states to find a lasting settlement to the economic and banking disputes, especially regarding the allocation of oil revenues, that continue to hinder economic recovery.

Steadying a Shaky Ceasefire

On 23 October, the Libyan National Army – led by Haftar and supported by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia – and the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, signed a ceasefire formally ending a battle that had been raging on the outskirts of Tripoli and elsewhere since April 2019. The fighting had killed some 3,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Turkey’s direct military intervention to aid Serraj in early 2020 reversed what had been Haftar’s advantage and forced the withdrawal of Haftar’s forces to central Libya along a new front line. 

The ceasefire was an important step toward political talks but remains fragile, as efforts to fully implement several of its provisions are sputtering. Haftar and Serraj committed to withdrawing their troops from front lines, expelling foreign fighters and ending all foreign military training. Yet both sides have backtracked on the original agreement. Their forces remain deployed on the front lines; foreign military cargo planes continue to land at their respective air bases, suggesting that outside backers are still resupplying their allies; Turkish officers are training GNA forces in plain sight; and Russian private military contractors remain part of Haftar’s forces. 

To bolster the ceasefire and press the parties to honour their commitments, the UN is backing a Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism to be established in central Libya, where the GNA and Haftar’s coalition continue to position their troops. Libya’s rival factions requested the mechanism, and UN officials are discussing what it will entail. Libyan officers from both sides appear to have greenlighted deployment of a small group of unarmed international civilians “under UNSMIL’s aegis”, in the relevant UN report’s words, to work alongside monitoring teams established by both sides. 

The EU should push the UN and Libyan military negotiators to negotiate an updated version of the October ceasefire agreement that reflects a more detailed consensus on controversial points

The EU should support this effort. It should push the UN and Libyan military negotiators to negotiate an updated version of the October ceasefire agreement that reflects a more detailed consensus on controversial points, such as the departure of foreign fighters and the repositioning of armed groups, that the original agreement referred to only in vague terms, and press for full UN Security Council backing of that new agreement. It should also support a scalable monitoring mechanism that the UN secretary-general presented to Council members in December 2020. European governments should consider providing monitors from those EU member states to which the Libyan parties signal they would not object, to be deployed within UNSMIL’s framework – the only one accepted by both parties. The EU can provide additional support to ceasefire monitoring by expanding the mandate of its maritime Operation IRINI to report any troop movement that may threaten the ceasefire and inform the UN monitors accordingly, in addition to reporting on detected violations of the UN arms embargo.

Toward Reunified Governance

The EU and member states could also assist in resolving Libya’s governance crisis. To do so, they will need to make tough, perhaps counterintuitive, decisions. European and other states face a conundrum: should they keep supporting the faltering UN-led dialogue aimed at naming an interim unity government, which would prepare the ground for elections at the end of 2021? Or, should there be no progress in the coming weeks, should they instead endorse calls to hold elections without waiting any longer for Libyans to form an interim government?

The chances of agreement on an interim government appear quite slim. And the threat of EU targeted sanctions, which some European officials appear to be considering, is unlikely to increase the odds. Since November, the 75 delegates, who comprise representatives of Libya’s two rival assemblies as well as several UN-selected independents, have been meeting in person and online. They agreed in general terms on the need for a new three-man Presidency Council to replace the one headed by Serraj and a separate prime minister. They also approved a voting mechanism to select these top officials. But despite this apparent progress, Libya’s numerous competing factions remain profoundly divided on who they want to see leading the country. Any one camp could easily trigger controversies or spoil the vote to prevent an outcome it perceives as unfavourable. 

With regard to elections, the delegates of the UN-backed political dialogue have succeeded in setting a date for elections but failed so far to decide on anything else. If Libya’s rival legislatures fail to draft a legal framework for elections by late February – little suggests they will be able to – then the 75 delegates are supposed to take over. But delegates remain divided on what they consider to be the best electoral roadmap, whether elections should be only parliamentary or also presidential, and whether a referendum on a draft constitution is also required. 

In these circumstances, Europe’s best course of action is 1) to encourage Libyans to hold only parliamentary elections in December 2021, even if the UN-backed dialogue fails to reach agreement on an interim unity government; and 2) to urge the 75 delegates to agree on a legal framework for elections as soon as possible, should Libya’s rival legislatures fail to produce one by late February. The EU and European capitals should communicate unequivocal support for this course of action and urge other powers, particularly Egypt and Turkey, to accept the elections’ outcome. It is obviously risky to hold elections in a highly polarised country – one camp controls the west and another the east – where weapons are abundant and corruption is ubiquitous. But absent a negotiated solution to reunify the country’s governing institutions, attempting to forge consensus on a new vote for a single parliament appears to be the best – albeit inevitably risky – way out of the untenable status quo of rival legislative institutions and governments.

Settling a Financial Feud

Europe should also keep supporting UN efforts to settle the squabble over the country’s financial institutions and continue to back the economic dialogue, alongside the political and military ones, as a pillar of the UN-led peace process. Over the years, the financial feud has manifested itself in different ways, ranging from division of Libya’s Central Bank into two rival branches to a national banking crisis to oil sector blockades. 

Europe should keep supporting UN efforts to settle the squabble over the country’s financial institutions and continue to back the economic dialogue.

The most recent iteration is a controversial arrangement proposed by the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation and accepted by the Haftar camp to temporarily freeze oil export revenues, which constitute almost the totality of government income, until a new unity government is formed and the Central Bank of Libya unified. This arrangement, which enjoys U.S. and UN backing, was put in place in September as part of a deal aimed at ending Haftar’s nine-month oil sector blockade. Pursuant to the deal, the Tripoli government and National Oil Corporation modified how oil revenues were to be managed, ordering export receipts to be kept “temporarily” in a National Oil Corporation account from which they cannot be spent rather than being transferred automatically to the Central Bank, as used to be the case. This set-up was supposed to last only 120 days – the period that negotiators thought necessary to reach agreement on a new government that could revert to standard allocation procedures. 

Without such a government, the country will need alternative arrangements for oil revenue allocations. Freezing revenues is untenable in the medium to long term. The EU and its member states should make their collective voice heard on the matter, calling on all Libyan parties to reach a new agreement – one that strikes a balance between, on one hand, providing Haftar and his foreign backers guarantees that oil sales revenues will not fund their Tripoli rivals’ military build-up and, on the other, using oil revenues now to cover public expenditures throughout Libya.