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Keeping a Libya Settlement on Track
Keeping a Libya Settlement on Track

Libya's Elections under Threat

With only days to go, Libya’s first national elections of the post-Qadhafi era are imperilled by armed protesters who, driven by a feeling of continued economic and political marginalisation, are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country. Rather than pretend that security surrounding the 7 July elections is under control, the authorities should engage in genuine dialogue with the protesters and address root causes of their complaints. The alternatives – calling off elections in all or parts of the east; resorting to force; or allowing violent intervention by other brigades – risk undermining an already fragile transition.

On 1 July, in a brazen show of force and direct challenge to central authorities, armed men ransacked election offices in several eastern cities, including Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 uprising. Since late May, they have massed armed vehicles and manned a roadblock at Wadi Ahmar, the symbolic border along the coastal road some 600km east of Tripoli that separates eastern from western Libya, preventing passage of government and military (and occasionally commercial) vehicles.

Their central grievance relates to what they consider the government’s ongoing neglect of the east and unwillingness to concede either greater political autonomy or enhanced financial contributions to a region that contains four fifths of the country’s natural resources. In the same spirit, they fault the government for making million-dollar deals with brigades from Zintan and Misrata, the two main western centres of armed groups. Like their countrymen in other parts of the nation, they distrust the National Transitional Council (NTC), the self-appointed interim legislative body, accusing it of lack of transparency. Although its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, comes from there, they castigate him for “betraying Barqa” – the local term used to describe the eastern region. In short, they feel virtually as short-changed today as they did under the Qadhafi regime.

Those threatening to boycott the elections are undoubtedly a minority, although many in the east sympathise with their demands. Most crucially, Libyan authorities should not make the mistake of underestimating their ability to disrupt the political process. Comprised of two leading eastern tribes and the pro-federalist Barqa Council, the anti-election group now also includes disgruntled revolutionary forces gathering at Wadi Ahmar. Some of these are troops who defected from the nascent and weak national army (jaysh al-watani); others are armed groups that were previously under the defence ministry’s formal control. Most fought against Qadhafi during the uprising.

The central authorities would make a potentially grievous mistake by resorting to force against the armed groups, however provocative they have been; by the same token, they ought to do all in their power to prevent brigades or individuals angered by these events in the east from taking matters into their own hands. Far from prompting the protesters to back down, violence would exacerbate their resentment and, in the eyes of their constituents, boost the legitimacy of their struggle for greater autonomy.

What are needed now are meaningful negotiations. Quiet talks with Abdul Jalil have been going on through mediators acting on the protesters’ behalf. However, aside from the NTC chairman, the government, which is in charge of election security, also should be part of the discussions. The government took a positive step on 28 June by dispatching Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shaqur to Wadi Ahmar to listen to the protesters’ demands. But progress still is needed with regard to the negotiations’ content. Involving the UN Support Mission in Libya or some other neutral international body in the negotiations also might help avert open confrontation.

The armed groups’ chief demand centres around revision of the formula for National Assembly seats that would give the north west (Tripolitania) a far greater share. They want equality for the east (Cyrenaica). But this demand appears, from the government’s perspective, non-negotiable – if only because it would require freezing the elections in at least parts of the east. Moreover, the NTC is convinced it already has made a significant compromise by amending Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration and establishing that all three regions would be equally represented in the 60-person committee charged with drafting the future constitution. On 28 June the NTC made another concession by stating that each regional block within the National Assembly would select its own twenty delegates. As an initial measure, the NTC and the government should provide greater visibility to these changes, announcing them publicly and directly to those who now threaten to disrupt the polls.

More broadly, the NTC, Deputy Prime Minister Abu Shaqur and eventual third-party mediators ought urgently to focus on the other five demands, which include:

  • transfer of the administrative district of Khalij al-Sidra (which stretches along the coast from Wadi Ahmar to Ras Lanuf) from the authority of Sirte, a former Qadhafi stronghold, to that of the eastern town of Ajdabiya;
  • instituting a mine-removal plan for Khalij al-Sidra;
  • reparations for war damages;
  • social development projects and greater job opportunities for local youth; and
  • medical treatment abroad for the war-injured from the east.

Such significant concessions, if implemented rapidly, could appease most protesters. With a weak central government, powerful, competing armed groups and strong regional feelings, Libya is experiencing a delicate transition. Depending on how the authorities address the most pressing immediate challenge, that transition could remain delicate – or become genuinely perilous.


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.