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Members of the Libyan army stand after a fire broke out at a car tyre disposal plant during clashes against Islamist gunmen in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on 23 December 2014. AFP/Abdullah Doma
Report 157 / Middle East & North Africa

Libya: Getting Geneva Right

After six months of worsening clashes, Libya is on the brink of all-out civil war and catastrophic state collapse. All parties must press the two rival authorities to join a national unity government, resolutely uphold the UN arms embargo, and persuade regional actors to stop fuelling the conflict.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.

Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.

As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.

The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.

The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.

Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.

In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:

  • de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
     
  • be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
     
  • devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
     
  • keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
     
  • consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
     
  • protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.

Tripoli/Brussels, 26 February 2015

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) walks with French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (2nd L), Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (R) and General Khalifa Haftar (L), commander in the Libyan National Army (LNA), arrive for summit. PHILIPPE WOJAZER / POOL / AFP

Making the Best of France’s Libya Summit

Four main Libyan leaders meet in Paris on 29 May to sign a roadmap to peace, including 2018 elections with united international backing. But with Libya’s UN-backed peace process at risk from the meeting's format and the accord that France has brokered, the sides should instead commit to a broader declaration of principles. 

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What’s new? On 29 May France will host a summit on Libya bringing together the country's four principal competing leaders to sign an agreement on a roadmap to new elections in 2018. The event’s stated purpose is to unite international actors behind a single roadmap and ensure Libyan leaders adhere to it.

Why does it matter? If successful, the meeting could signal the rival leaders’ willingness to compromise and inject new momentum into a sputtering peace process. Yet both the meeting’s format and the accord that France has brokered have stirred significant controversy both in Libya and abroad.

What should be done? France should revise the draft agreement and consider presenting it as a declaration of principles on political, security and economic steps, without necessarily compelling the four Libyan leaders to sign it. This would avoid causing resentment among those constituencies not represented in Paris and undermining the UN-led peace process.

Overview

France’s decision to host Libya’s main political and military leaders on 29 May is both audacious and risky. If Paris pulls it off, it will be unprecedented and signal the rival leaders’ willingness to compromise. But the proposed draft accord circulated thus far is problematic and, if not appropriately modified, could unintentionally undermine UN-led, consensus-based peacebuilding efforts currently underway. Reaching an accord could generate a brief moment of enthusiasm but risk being followed by recriminations when signatories – facing opposition by some of their allies back home – renege on their pledges. French organisers should avoid imposing too rigid a framework and consider not seeking a signed agreement for now. Instead they could use the event to push Libyan leaders toward compromise and a divided international community toward greater convergence through a broader declaration of principles on political, security and economic steps that would help stabilise and unite the divided country.

The Paris Summit

On 29 May, France is scheduled to host a meeting in Paris bringing together Libya's four principal competing leaders to endorse a roadmap for the country’s stalled peace process, which is to be sanctioned by key external stakeholders, including the UN. The proposed draft agreement, as circulated to international partners days prior to the event, calls for Libya to organise elections by the end of 2018, support adoption of a constitutional framework, reintegrate military forces through the ongoing Egypt-led security dialogue and reunify financial institutions.[fn]Document titled “Draft Accord Libya Conference”, version 7, 22 May 2018, circulated by France to foreign states invited to the event. This document, which contains thirteen points, was leaked to the Libyan and foreign media and was widely discussed inside Libya. A copy of the draft accord is available on the website of Italy’s La Repubblica daily newspaper, https://bit.ly/2sk9YRa. French officials say the draft agreement is under ongoing revisions following further consultations with international and Libyan stakeholders and is only likely to be finalised “at the very last minute, just prior to the meeting”. Crisis Group phone interview, French diplomat, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

France’s intentions are clear. The meeting, which President Emmanuel Macron will host, is designed to gather international and regional actors around a single agenda, put an end to individual, uncoordinated peace initiatives and press Libyan leaders to fall in line. French officials say the moment has come for a concerted push to hold elections later this year. They argue that successful voter registration to date shows there is popular demand for this even if some Libyan leaders appear keen to maintain the political status quo.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, French official, Paris, 26 May 2018. The official said France sought a binding agreement, negotiated with Libyan parties, that would hold them accountable.Hide Footnote

Such a fresh initiative could inject much-needed adrenaline into a sputtering peace process and should therefore be welcomed in principle. Yet both the meeting and proposed accord have stirred significant controversy both in Libya and abroad.[fn]Several Libyan interlocutors expressed dismay at the draft accord’s content. A Benghazi-based politician said: “This document is just wrong in every respect. It is so categorical”. Another from Misrata said: “What a disastrous draft agreement. It just shows such a superficial understanding of Libya’s problems and solutions”. Crisis Group phone interviews, Benghazi and Misrata, 26 May 2018.Hide Footnote Many Libyans are concerned that the initiative will subvert the UN-led process, which has been the lodestar of international efforts so far, and short-circuit its outcome.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, Libyan politicians, Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, 23-26 May 2018.Hide Footnote A Misratan politician said:

We don’t see where the UN fits in all of this. What is the link between what the French are doing and what the UN representative has stated he wants to do? Is the agreement to be signed in Paris supposed to replace the Action Plan?[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Misrata, 23 May 2018.Hide Footnote

The UN-led process is based on the Action Plan unveiled in September 2017 by Ghassan Salamé, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Libya, who is conducting consultations in preparation for a national conference comprising a broad range of Libyan political actors as an essential building block for elections, a constitution and the country’s institutional unification. However, French officials say this event is aimed at supporting the UN’s efforts, not at supplanting them, and takes place under the UN’s aegis.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, French officials, Paris, 25-27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Libyan political actors also have expressed concern over who will be attending the Paris event and who will be left out (including by staying away). Libyan invitees include Faiez Serraj, head of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli; Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, which controls much of eastern Libya; Aghela Saleh, speaker of the House of Representatives elected in June 2014 and based in the eastern city of Tobruk; and Khaled Mishri, the recently elected head of the High State Council, a Tripoli-based chamber intended to play an advisory role under the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement. Each will be accompanied by a four-person delegation.

A number of other Libyans have been invited to attend on the margins but will not be asked to sign the agreement.

A number of other Libyans have been invited to attend on the margins but will not be asked to sign the agreement. This two-tier approach has caused resentment among some Libyans. A delegation from the city of Misrata, a key military and political constituency in Libya’s west, refused to travel to Paris when informed they would not be treated on par with the other four delegations.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Misratan politician, Misrata, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

As Crisis Group has argued, negotiating through individual personalities without ensuring a broader consensus across the political and military spectrum is likely to be counterproductive.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°57, Libya’s Unhealthy Focus on Personalities, 8 May 2018.Hide Footnote In the past, this approach has obstructed peace efforts, as France knows very well: a July 2017 meeting Macron hosted between Serraj and Haftar produced a photo-op but both men abandoned most of their commitments quickly afterward.[fn]The 25 July 2017 meeting between Serraj and Haftar held in La Celle Saint-Cloud, outside of Paris, resulted in a joint declaration but most of the commitments the two men made they failed to implement. See “Libya-Joint Declaration (25 July 2018)”, French ministry of foreign affairs, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/libya/events/2017/article/libya-joint-declaration-25-07-17.Hide Footnote While the four invited leaders and the institutions they represent are critical to achieving peace, Libya remains a fragmented polity with multiple potential spoilers. These four individuals do not capture the ideological, tribal and political rifts that run through the country, and indeed have done much to deepen them. A number of armed groups from towns around western Libya have issued a statement that they do not consider the Paris meeting to represent them.[fn]Declaration by fourteen Libyan armed groups from western Libya, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Representatives of the UN, EU, African Union, Arab League and fifteen member states will also attend. Among these are countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and Egypt and Turkey, that are in open conflict with one another elsewhere in the region. For France to persuade these states to attend the summit is a signal achievement and a hint of possible international convergence on Libya.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, French official, Paris, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote But some Western countries, including ones with an important role in the diplomatic process in Libya such as Italy, the U.S. and UK, have expressed scepticism over what a European diplomat labelled a French “display of stubbornness”, referring to the Elysée’s insistence that the event go ahead on the scheduled date despite their misgivings.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, European diplomat, Tripoli, 23 May 2018. Several Western diplomats said the meeting was insufficiently prepared and advised the French government to take more time to refine the document. Only three weeks elapsed between the time the idea of the summit first emerged in early May and when it will take place. These foreign officials view France’s determination to host the summit as driven by Macron’s need for a foreign policy success after having failed to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump not to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal. Crisis Group phone interviews, Western diplomats, 24-26 May 2018.Hide Footnote One of Libya’s neighbours feels the meeting reflects French priorities only, and as such could not produce international consensus. An Egyptian diplomat said:

We are very much in favour of elections and putting an end to this interim period as soon as possible. But it has to be done right and we do not understand why France is precipitating things. If the electoral process is botched, it will leave behind a great vacuum.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Egyptian diplomat, Cairo, 24 May 2018.Hide Footnote

The Problems with the Proposed Agreement

The latest circulated draft that France wants Libyan leaders to sign states four goals: elections before the end of 2018; support for adopting a constitutional framework; bridging deep rifts inside security institutions; and uniting equally split financial institutions. These are laudable objectives in principle, but the elections in particular are linked to an arbitrary and probably unachievable deadline. It would be difficult to hold elections this year because Libyan parties have yet to agree on which elections (presidential and/or parliamentary) to hold and in what sequence. Some want presidential elections at all cost and as soon as possible, while others say elections would be too divisive in the current polarised climate, and still others prefer to preserve a status quo favourable to their hold on power.

Most importantly, setting a deadline for elections without due preparation and at least the parties’ public commitment to respect the results is certain to raise tensions.

Staging elections this year is unrealistic from a strictly technical perspective as well. Neither the legal nor the constitutional framework is in place – hurdles that may prove impossible to overcome within a short timeframe. Most importantly, setting a deadline for elections without due preparation and at least the parties’ public commitment to respect the results is certain to raise tensions. French officials say they are considering rephrasing the reference to an elections deadline in the final accord to state that they should take place “preferably” before the end of 2018.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, French official, Paris, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

The stated objectives also give too little attention to conditions required for success. The proposed accord is vague on the timeline for approving the draft constitution, which the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) completed in 2017. Yet the elections will require some constitutional framework that defines the powers and responsibilities of elected officials. Libyan actors have yet to decide whether to amend the 2012 interim constitutional declaration, put to a referendum the (contested, especially in the east and by ethnic minorities) CDA draft, or revise the latter before a referendum. At the heart of the debate stands the unresolved question of whether a nationally approved constitution – rather than certain constitutional guidelines – will be needed prior to holding elections.

The draft agreement’s proposed solution for addressing security rifts is problematic as well. It calls on Libyan parties to commit to support the ongoing Cairo talks – an Egypt-led effort to unify the country’s fragmented military apparatus. This dialogue – the only security track in the peace process for the moment – has gathered officers of Haftar’s Libyan National Army and a few high-ranking officers from the west loyal to the internationally recognised government. It excludes many others from across Libya’s fragmented security landscape. France, which has backed Haftar militarily in the east in the past, declared its support for the Cairo dialogue in March.[fn]Statement published on the Facebook page of the Embassy of France to Libya, 26 March 2018, https://www.facebook.com/AMFRLI/.Hide Footnote But both Libyan and international actors have openly questioned whether Egypt is the best-placed facilitator for the security track, given its pro-Haftar bias. It would be better to launch a wider discussion on the best way to establish a viable, more inclusive security track, and bring to the forefront what role the UN can play in aiding Libya’s efforts to restructure its security apparatus.

Finally, the proposed agreement’s provisions on economic issues likewise are inadequate. The last circulated draft provides few details apart from calling for the “immediate” unification of relevant technocratic institutions vital for the functioning of the economy. There is wide agreement in Libya and among external stakeholders that the Central Bank and other state institutions that split when the current conflict began in 2014 need to be reunified, but not on how this should be done and who should be in charge of each. Libyans also readily agree that economic governance needs to be boosted through concrete steps that address endemic matters with a direct impact on people’s lives – cash shortages, soaring living costs, corruption and speculation between the official and black currency markets. French diplomats say they are adjusting the language of the agreement on this point, so as to offer a more concrete solution to Libya’s financial and economic woes.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, French diplomat, Paris, 27 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Conclusion: Broaden Support and Work out the Principal Details Before Seeking a Binding Agreement

Much work remains to be done for a peacebuilding effort to succeed, especially reaching agreement on how to establish a viable and integrated political, security and economic strategy to which a wide range of Libyan actors and their international backers can subscribe, and how to operationalise it. The French initiative does not offer this prospect, yet it has the ambition of establishing timelines and requesting commitments that would require broader support and more substantive operational depth if they are to be implemented.

If Libyans see the Paris summit as the latest exercise in international pageantry culminating in an unimplementable signed accord, it could backfire by creating unrealistic expectations.

For this reason, France should substantially review the draft text of the agreement and ask its four invited guests to commit to but not sign a more open-ended declaration of principles on the required political, security and economic steps – instead of requesting that they sign an accord – and use the declaration of principles as a platform to start forging consensus in coordination with the UN-led effort. This would entail launching a debate on a political roadmap and focusing on the need for criteria before setting a specific deadline for an important political milestone such as elections. It would also entail openly reviewing both the potential and limits of the Cairo security dialogue and pressing for a realistic and incrementally implementable economic strategy for Libya.

As elsewhere, perception counts for much in a deeply fragmented Libya. Allowing the four main invited guests to sign an agreement could give the impression that other important constituencies not present in Paris are being deliberately left out, which would only serve to position them against its contents. If Libyans see the Paris summit as the latest exercise in international pageantry culminating in an unimplementable signed accord, it could backfire by creating unrealistic expectations that, when dashed, can only harden competing, mutually exclusive narratives and further inflame tensions. A declaration of principles would also have an element of spectacle, but would be less contentious, particularly if the four Libyan leaders invited to Paris pledge support for but do not sign it. It would allow the Paris conference to meet its primary goal of infusing new energy and focus into the Libyan peace process without prejudging outcomes and giving time for securing buy-in for a more concrete agenda.

Brussels, 28 May 2018

Contributor

Senior Analyst, Libya