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The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus
The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus
Interpreting Haftar’s Gambit in Libya
Interpreting Haftar’s Gambit in Libya

The Libyan Political Dialogue: An Incomplete Consensus

The preliminary political agreement that emerged from UN-led talks between Libyan rival factions at a signing ceremony in the Moroccan coastal resort town of Skhirat last week was a critical first step toward ending the Libyan civil war. Yet one side’s refusal to come on board without further amendments to the text potentially makes the agreement stillborn. Under the leadership of UN Special Representative Bernardino León, Libyan, regional and international actors should therefore put all their efforts into reaching a broader consensus on the text before proceeding to the next mileposts on the political roadmap, first and foremost the establishment of a national unity government, as well as security arrangements in Tripoli to support it.

On 11 July 2015, eighteen out of the 22 participants of the UN-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue signed a preliminary framework agreement in Skhirat, Morocco, that charts a way out of a conflict that has divided Libya into two rival sets of parliaments, governments and military coalitions since July 2014. The Political Dialogue includes four representatives from each parliament – the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and its predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli – as well as boycotting members from both sides and a number of independents, mainly former bureaucrats. The GNC delegation stayed away from the final talks in Skhirat and refused to sign the agreement, demanding further changes based on its perception that the text effectively sidelines its camp from the proposed political arrangement.

The Skhirat agreement envisions the creation of a consensus-based national unity government (“Government of National Accord”) that would have wide powers to govern from its seat in Tripoli, including foreign and security policy and oversight of state finances and institutions. It would extend the life of the HoR, the parliament elected in June 2014 and currently based in the eastern city of Tobruk, for at least another year and make it the sole legislative authority. And it would set up a separate body, the State Council, to absorb GNC members. It is the ambiguity concerning the State Council’s powers and role in the new setup that prompted the GNC’s refusal to sign on to the deal.

Giving Libyans Hope

In light of Libya’s growing chaos and fragmentation, even the incomplete consensus secured in Skhirat is an achievement, although a very limited one: it gives Libyans hope that a year-long conflict could be coming to an end. The presence of six mayors, including from the country’s three main cities (Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata), and representatives of two main political parties, the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance (Tahaluf al-Quwwat al-Wataniya) and the Muslim Brotherhood-led Justice & Construction Party (Adala wa Binaa), at the signing ceremony was further evidence that many constituencies support the deal. Other negotiating tracks, representing municipal councils, political parties and women, also signalled their backing, as did Libya’s neighbours and the wider international community.

Despite this building consensus, however, the GNC’s objections must be taken seriously ­– both because the GNC represents a significant constituency with understandable concerns and because it has the power to derail the agreement’s implementation. The GNC’s principal concern is uncertainty over how the State Council’s members will be appointed and what powers, if any, it will have. Unlike a previous draft (released on 8 June and opposed by the HoR), the text adopted on 11 July does not give the State Council any powers and indeed is vague on what specific role the institution will play. The GNC is understandably upset about this change, as the 8 June draft had raised its expectation that it would play a meaningful role in the new order, one it could defend toward its political and military backers.

The GNC has indicated it wants the State Council to have equal weight to the HoR in approving legislation and making appointments to key state positions, including the heads of Libya’s financial and oil institutions and its public prosecutor. It also demands that decisions taken by the HoR since August 2014 be invalidated. At the heart of this request is its fear that the HoR will not cancel its appointment of General Khalifa Haftar, the pro-GNC camp’s chief military opponent, as head of the Libyan armed forces. Their fears are not out of place. In a 15 July televised interview Haftar alluded to the possibility he might oppose the agreement if he sees it undermining both his authority and formal recognition of the armed forces he leads, stating that while he supported the Political Dialogue – which he said “was in Libya’s interest” – if the final agreement is not in the “interest of the Libyan people, there is no chance it can succeed”.

Some members of the GNC delegation (and many in the pro-GNC camp more broadly) were willing to accept the 11 July agreement with reservations, ie, on the understanding that after the signing the GNC’s concerns about the State Council would be taken into consideration and addressed in the agreement’s annexes. A powerful hard-line faction in the GNC, however, sees the agreement as aiming to marginalise the GNC and is therefore holding out to secure ironclad guarantees that the GNC (like the HoR) will at least have veto power over giving confidence to, or revoking it from, a future national unity government. The GNC hardliners have a key ally in GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmein, who has the power to decide whether to put a motion up for a vote. For example, Abu Sahmein refused to allow a vote on the draft agreement in early July and likewise refused to authorise the GNC delegation’s participation in the final Skhirat meeting, which led to the agreement being initialled on 11 July.

Participants in the Political Dialogue appear to have mixed views on whether the text can still be amended before it is considered final. HoR delegates say that after the signing ceremony the text became binding. Some independents closer to GNC circles, however, said they signed the document with the understanding that there would be room for some adjustments. The UN delegation has stayed ambiguous on the matter. The fact that no actual text was attached to the two pages of signatures collected in Skhirat is testament to such ambiguity.

It should be possible to amend the 11 July agreement to accommodate at least some of the GNC’s demands without subverting the HoR’s legislative authority. Both sides owe it to the Libyan people and the country’s future to show the flexibility necessary to reach a final, mutually acceptable text of the framework agreement. One way to reflect some of the GNC’s concerns would be to specify the composition and responsibilities of a new State Council in an annex to the framework agreement rather than in the main body of the text.

Avenues for Compromise

The pro-HoR camp, which opposes further revisions, should understand that the advantages of adopting a more accommodating line toward their rivals in Tripoli outweigh the disadvantages of refusing to amend the agreement. Without the GNC on board negotiations on the formation of a national unity government will be moot. Moreover, without key GNC figures backing the deal there is a real risk of a military escalation in the capital. Their continued participation is essential to ensure that the Tripoli-based militias also support it. At the moment, security forces in Tripoli control access to all government and state institutions, such as the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation. The GNC’s opposition to the agreement could therefore mean that the future government will not be able to use these buildings unless pro-agreement armed groups seize them. The calculation apparently made by some Misratan participants that a coalition of pro-agreement militias from Misrata and Zintan would be able to take control of the capital from the deal’s opponents is short-sighted and underestimates the resilience of some of the security forces present there.

For its part, the pro-GNC camp – particularly GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmein – should show goodwill toward the negotiations, end belligerent rhetoric and stop taking unilateral security decisions. (As the debate on the latest draft agreement was taking place in early July, Abu Sahmein sidelined the Tripoli-based army chief of staff in initiating an internal restructuring of the GNC-aligned army units and took the podium at a military parade in the centre of the capital vowing to resist any attempt by HoR-allied armed groups to enter the capital.) The GNC leadership must understand once and for all that the international community will not extend legitimacy to the GNC as such and should therefore grasp the opportunity to retain influence through the State Council and national unity government.

Some of the GNC’s demands – for the State Council to have equal weight to the HoR in approving legislation and for decisions taken by the HoR since August 2014 to be invalidated – are unrealistic, given the HoR’s and its backers’ absolute and explicit refusal to accommodate them. However, the State Council’s role could perhaps be fine-tuned to accommodate the core interests of both sides and thereby reach a deal. While the State Council should have the power to review and advise on legislation drafted by the HoR, its responsibility should be of a strictly consultative nature. Yet on critical political matters, such as approving a new government and making appointments to key state positions as part of the transition, the HoR and State Council should jointly reach consensus, thus giving each veto power. As for the council’s composition, the GNC should have the right to have 90 of its members join the new institution.

Moving the UN Process Forward

To move forward, the UN-led process would benefit from modification as well. Participants in the talks, the UN and international actors should acknowledge that the rush to the initial 11 July agreement was short-sighted if it was their aim to stabilise Libya through the creation of a consensus-based governing arrangement. Part of the problem has been the talks’ format. As the HoR refused direct negotiations with the GNC, all five groups participating in the Political Dialogue held separate one-on-one sessions with the UN team, which then drafted language that it showed to them for approval. From the participants’ perspective, this approach created too many surprises and thus caused unnecessary delays. Moreover, successive drafts appeared to favour once the pro-HoR camp, then the pro-GNC camp, each time prompting the losing side to accuse the UN of bias.

If talks resume on a mutually acceptable text, the best way to proceed would be for the participants to agree to hold direct face-to-face talks, with the UN as facilitator. To be effective, each side would need to empower its delegation to negotiate rather than serve as a mere conduit for proposals requiring their approval at every stage. Such a change in the negotiating process would accelerate the time needed to reach an understanding on all the pending issues and minimise the risk of eliciting destructive inflammatory reactions to each amendment.

There are good reasons to hurry, both for Libyans and for regional and international actors worried about Libya’s trajectory. The Islamic State and other jihadi groups have spread their presence in Libya dramatically since 2014, taking control of several towns in the Gulf of Sirte and carrying out a series of attacks against foreign workers, oil infrastructure and military and civilian targets in areas controlled by either of the two main camps, most recently striking twice in Misrata. Libya’s neighbours, Egypt foremost among them, are growing worried that further delays in reaching a political deal will increase security threats to their interests. The migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and the EU’s desire (backed by strong political pressure from certain member states) to find a Libyan partner to combat people smuggling has also created new urgency. An October 2015 deadline – the point at which the HoR’s term will lapse if no accord extending it is found – also looms, pushing some in the pro-GNC camp to stall for time in the hope that, after October, the international community might grant it recognition. Finally, the deadline of León’s mandate, currently scheduled to expire in September, also adds pressure, since he has been the talks’ architect.

The procedure to select the unity government’s prime minister and his two deputies will be the most critical step for the agreement’s implementation. Together these three positions will form the Presidency Council, each having equal veto power on key government decisions, most importantly in the security sector. They will then also be tasked with proposing the government line-up. The Skhirat agreement offers no agreed procedure on how such key figures will be chosen. While UN mediators have a procedure in mind, Libyan participants have many different – often conflicting – views. The UN mediator will have to convince the GNC that a truly inclusive government of national unity can be formed. Negotiations over the choice of persons to join the unity government and the appointment of the heads of contested state institutions, such as the National Oil Corporation and Libya’s sovereign wealth fund will succeed only if both the HoR and the GNC agree on some effective power-sharing arrangements.

Such agreement is unlikely to be reached unless the UN team reaches out to and engages the regional actors who have some influence on the Libyan parties, Egypt and the UAE for the HoR, Turkey and Qatar for the GNC. Pursuing a regional track should be a priority of the UN mediator.

It is also urgent to accelerate discussions of security arrangements to implement the agreement. One of the UN-led process’s main shortcomings has been the absence of a parallel security track that could have created a forum to bridge rival armed groups. While some progress has been made in creating points of contact between opposing armed factions in north-western Libya, thanks to the involvement of tribal leaders and local military commanders’ goodwill, a broader dialogue between the military coalitions in the east and west never kicked off. As for the south, no attempt has been made to even start reaching out to armed groups there.

The difficulty was in part due to the gradual fragmentation of the two main military blocks – Operation Dignity in the east and Libya Dawn in the west – and the erosion of a command and control structure that led to the absence of clearly identifiable interlocutors that the international community could use as focal points for dialogue. The noticeable deficit of security-sector expertise on the UN team (recently addressed by the addition of a EU security team), and most importantly their inability to enter Libya, was a further hurdle. Countries supporting the UN should provide greater resources to the security track.

Negotiators in Morocco, and those regional and international actors that support the process, should have no illusions that the agreement that appears within reach is just a beginning. The most difficult issues remain: how to de-escalate the conflict, implement security arrangements and create an effective unity government. Even as these negotiators sharpen their pencils to tackle these difficult issues, armed groups back home are oiling their weapons to be ready to pounce on their adversaries if and when the political process breaks down – or in order to bring it down as it lingers. It is therefore critical for all involved in the process to create the optimum conditions in which it can proceed and not start under a cloud of recrimination caused by an agreement based on an incomplete consensus.

Tripoli/Brussels

Supporters of Libyan military strongman Khalika Haftar (image) take part in a demonstration in the coastal city of Benghazi in eastern Libya, against Turkish intervention in the country's affairs on February 14, 2020. Abdullah DOMA / AFP

Interpreting Haftar’s Gambit in Libya

Khalifa Haftar, who commands forces besieging Tripoli, has announced he will replace UN-backed mediation in Libya with a new political roadmap and government. His proposal divided supporters; adversaries called it a coup. To stop a power struggle, Haftar’s regional backers should press him to reconsider.

In a short televised speech late on 27 April, Khalifa Haftar declared that he accepted the people’s “mandate” to scrap the 2015 UN-mediated Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) and empower the General Command of the Arab Libyan Armed Forces (ALAF), the military force he heads, to take charge of the country’s governing institutions.

The LPA gives international recognition to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, against which Haftar has waged a deadly war since April 2019. While neither Haftar nor the allied Tobruk-based House of Representatives and its government has recognised the LPA, they have accepted it as the basis for negotiations. In rejecting the LPA now, Haftar is implying that he is no longer committed to international efforts to mediate an end to the war – and will pursue an alternative political project.

In his speech, Haftar provided no details of what he has in mind. Instead, he repeatedly cited “the will of the Libyan people” and the “mandate” he claims they had given him. These were references to an address four days earlier, in which he had called on the Libyan people and local councils to reject the LPA and choose which institution should govern them. In the following days, a handful of local councils and tribal groups invited Haftar-led forces to take over the country’s institutions. It appears that Haftar used these calls to claim that his political proposal enjoys popular support.

Given the lack of details, it is hard to say exactly what Haftar is hoping to accomplish with this move.

Given the lack of details, it is hard to say exactly what Haftar is hoping to accomplish with this move. His principal objective may be to consolidate power in the ALAF’s hands in areas already under his control. Some of his supporters have suggested that Haftar may soon unveil a “constitutional document” that would serve as the basis for a transitional roadmap and new governing structures for these areas. Although the content of such a document is yet unknown, a political proposal that pro-Haftar politicians in Benghazi have been discussing over the past months may provide a hint. It includes appointing a military council or joint civilian-military body to replace the House of Representatives during this transitional phase and task it with appointing a new government in the east as a substitute for the current one led by Abdullah al-Thinni.

Haftar may also have been motivated by a desire to pre-empt any possible political negotiation between the House of Representatives and Tripoli – and perhaps sideline the House altogether. Although House Speaker Aghela Saleh and Haftar are allies, the military and Tobruk parliament have not always been perfectly aligned.

The most contentious issue between them appears to be a scheme suggested by Saleh on 23 April, the same day Haftar made his call on the Libyan people to “express” themselves. Saleh proposed to form a three-member Presidency Council (with one representative for each of Libya’s three historical provinces) that would appoint a new unity government to replace the current Tripoli-based council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj; the House of Representatives in Tobruk would continue as Libya’s sole legislative body, and be charged with appointing a committee to draft a new constitution.

At the time, many Libyans interpreted Saleh’s statement as an opening toward Tripoli and UN mediation efforts, and thus directly at odds with Haftar’s simultaneous announcement. In the subsequent days, however, Saleh told Libyan media that his political proposal did not contradict Haftar’s statement but rather “complemented” it. He explained that both were aimed at achieving the same result: ending the LPA and replacing the “unconstitutional”, “unelected” Tripoli-based government with a new one.

At this point it is unclear whether Haftar still hopes to turn to the House of Representatives to supply a legal basis for his own proposal, for example by persuading its members to impose martial law or by demanding that they formally adopt the new constitutional declaration when it is unveiled.

Finally, Haftar may also be trying to deflect public attention from the Tripoli battlefield, where his forces have suffered setbacks in recent weeks. Pro-Tripoli forces have managed to regain ground since early April, in large part owing to Turkish military support.

Posters of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar line the streets of the eastern Libyan city of al-Bayda, where the (unrecognised) interim government in located, November 2018. CRISISGROUP
Haftar’s move has left his allies divided.

Haftar’s move has left his allies divided. The House of Representatives, which represents about one third of parliamentarians elected in 2014 and most of whom are Haftar supporters, has not officially responded to Haftar’s announcement, and consultations between Saleh and the military appear to be ongoing. But several House members have confirmed their support of Haftar’s proposal, while others have privately expressed dismay at this apparent authoritarian drift.

Eastern Libya has seen demonstrations backing Haftar’s proposal in recent days, but it is unclear whether these are choreographed or genuine expressions of support. Other groups in the east are on the fence, largely because they fear a new form of governance that could shunt aside the House of Representatives and lead to military rule, which they oppose.

Nor is it clear whether Haftar’s initiative has the support of all the ALAF commanders. The likelihood that his rank and file will stray from his preferred course is slight, but if popular mobilisation against it grows, cracks within the ALAF could emerge.

Several government officials cited Haftar’s speech as further proof that he intends to carry out a military coup.

The Tripoli government called Haftar’s remarks “a comedic play” and reaffirmed its intention “to defeat his project and eliminate his illusion of taking over power”. Several government officials, including the interior minister, cited Haftar’s speech as further proof that he intends to carry out a military coup. Many government supporters already consider Haftar a putschist following his first appearance as a military leader, his refusal to accept the LPA and his declaration of war on Tripoli.

None of Haftar’s external backers has publicly expressed support for his proposal. Egypt’s foreign ministry issued an ambiguous statement, renewing its praise for Haftar’s contribution to fighting “terrorism” in Libya, while reaffirming its commitment to a political solution to the crisis. Yet the ministry also stressed that its support for a political solution “does not mean and should not lead to complacency in facing the extremist terrorist currents supported by Turkey or entering into negotiations with them regarding the future of Libya”, which could be read as a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo considers a terrorist group and Ankara supports.

Like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates issued a statement that stayed silent on Haftar’s call for the army to take power. Instead, Abu Dhabi reiterated its commitment to a UN-supervised political process and expressed “its categorical rejection of the Turkish military intervention” in support of the Tripoli government.

Another Haftar backer, Russia, was more explicit in distancing itself: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected Haftar’s “move to seize control of the country”, and reaffirmed his country’s commitment to a solution “through politics and diplomacy”.

France and the U.S., two countries that have previously supported Haftar but do not back his siege on Tripoli, issued relatively mild statements. The U.S. embassy in Tripoli took to Twitter to express its “regret” that Haftar had suggested that Libya’s political structure could be changed through a unilateral declaration. France likewise said no solution can be achieved “through unilateral decisions”, reaffirming its support for talks under UN auspices.

Both Italy and the UN Support Mission for Libya distanced themselves from Haftar’s remarks and again made explicit their support for the LPA and the institutions emanating from it, including the Serraj-led Presidency Council.

Turkey, Tripoli’s military ally, was most vocal in its condemnation.

Turkey, Tripoli’s military ally, was most vocal in its condemnation. Its foreign ministry declared that “Haftar once again revealed that he does not want the crisis in Libya to be resolved via political dialogue, that he does not support international efforts in this direction, including the outcome of the Berlin Conference, and aims to establish a military dictatorship”. Qatar – which also backs the Serraj government – followed suit by condemning Haftar’s declaration.

It is too early to say how Haftar’s declaration will play out on the ground, whether in eastern Libya or along the front lines around Tripoli. His ability to carry out what he proposes and to sustain the war in Tripoli will depend in large part on whether his local and foreign supporters continue to stand behind him.

In a surprise development on 29 April, Haftar’s spokesperson announced that the ALAF would cease hostilities around Tripoli for what remains of the month of Ramadan, adding that this temporary offer of truce comes at the international community’s request. The Tripoli government turned down the offer, and in a 30 April press statement affirmed its “steadfast resolve” to continue its “legitimate defence” of the city, “strike at the sources of threat wherever they exist” and “finish off the outlaw groups that disregard the lives of Libyans throughout the country”.

For Haftar’s Libyan critics, his 27 April political declaration has only reinforced the notion that he cannot be a partner in negotiations. By giving them yet another reason to continue to fight him, Haftar’s latest gambit risks further perpetuating this tragic war. His allies should quickly and forcefully press him to both reconsider and commit himself to the UN-led process.