Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Doves and hawks’

While talks are underway in Geneva, continued fighting on the ground and the kidnapping of a senior official show that Libya is a long way from ending its internal conflict, writes Kamel Abdallah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Libya’s doves are struggling to stop the civil war and reverse the polarisation in their country, pressing forward with the dialogue at the UN headquarters in Geneva.

But Libya’s hawks remain persistent, continuing their drive to have General Khalifa Haftar appointed commander-general of the armed forces. They recently succeeded in having Haftar, the leader of Operation Dignity, reinstated in the armed forces and promoted to lieutenant general.

In another development in the violence-plagued country, gunmen abducted the deputy minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, Hassan Al-Saghir, on Sunday morning. They reportedly took him to Tobruk, where the parliament is currently holding sessions.

Al-Ahram Weekly learned that the incident was sparked by “personal differences” that centred on Al-Saghir’s refusal to authorise passports for individuals from certain political factions.

A government source in Al-Bayda said that official security agencies had nothing to do with the abduction of Al-Saghir from his place of residence in the Marhaba Hotel in Al-Bayda. The source said that the kidnappers took Al-Saghir to Tobruk in the east, adding that the government official was “kidnapped due to personal reasons pertaining to his refusal to perform administrative measures on behalf of influential parties.”

Libyan Interior Minister Omar Al-Zanki said that footage from surveillance cameras at the hotel where Al-Saghir lives showed three gunmen in plainclothes dragging Al-Saghir out of the hotel.

Meanwhile, the doves from both sides have reconvened for a second round of talks at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, in the hope of reaching a solution that will reunify government structures. In addition to forming a national unity government, they hope to reconcile the legislature which, since last summer, has been rent into two: an elected House of Representatives that is currently sitting in Tobruk and a resurrected General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.

The GNC was originally due to relinquish power in February 2014 but prolonged its term until legislative elections last summer, after which some of its members reinstated the old legislative body when political and constitutional disputes flared over the parliament currently sitting in Tobruk.

The poor distribution of powers proved to be the greatest shortcoming of Libya’s new rulers in the post-Gaddafi era. The powerful “Allies of February” had dominated, in western Libya in particular, but their alliances soon began to fray and eventually crumbled while militia groups proliferated. The result was that only three years after the revolution, tensions tore the country’s tribal and social fabric and the country was plunged again into civil war.

In Benghazi, fighting continues between the forces of Operation Dignity and the forces of Libya Dawn. The central government has been forced to “temporarily” ally itself with Operation Dignity to regain its authority and prestige in the face of the GNC and the Omar Al-Hassi government that it created. The GNC, meanwhile, is officially allied with the Libya Dawn forces, made up of militias affiliated with Misrata and other urban centres in the west.

The doves in Geneva face other obstacles, most notably intervention on the part of regional and international parties, which has become a major part of the problem. Although representatives of different parties to the conflict are present in Geneva this week, the GNC had chosen not to attend.

It insists that the dialogue be held inside Libya, not abroad, regardless of the failure of the UN Support Mission for Libya’s (UNSMIL) calls for a ceasefire in order to create a climate conducive to talks.

The first deputy speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, who is heading that body’s delegation in Geneva, said that the question of changing the dialogue venue would be discussed during the second round. Addressing a press conference before leaving for Switzerland, he called for patience until dialogue participants decide whether it is possible to move the talks back to Libya.

He stressed that the parliament has underlined on numerous occasions that the dialogue should be held inside Libya. However, this has proved impossible due to causes outside the parliament members’ control, including the worsening levels of insecurity.

The second round of talks will bring on board representatives from a number of elected municipal councils from areas that fall under control of one or another of the parties to the conflict.

In spite of some encouraging signals from the warring factions last week, UNSMIL’s appeals for a ceasefire failed. Leaders from the two sides cited caveats to their commitment to a ceasefire, such as the need to sustain the fight against terrorism, a term that was then broadened to include their political adversary.

At a deeper level, it appears that the combatants continue to operate under the conviction that they are capable of defeating their adversary definitively, regardless of how unrealistic this notion is given the current disintegration and political fragmentation in the country. In addition, tensions and continued warfare in Libya is fed by a misreading of the situation in that country by regional powers.

The tendency to portray the Libyan crisis as a conflict between Islamists and their adversaries has worked to fuel longstanding tribal conflicts that have smouldered beneath the surface for years and now need only the smallest spark in order to burst into flames again.

A case in point is the conflict between the Tabu and Touareg tribes in the south. Fighting between these two tribal groups has broken out over the issue of who controls smuggling routes through the area’s mountains. Dozens of casualties were reported and still more people were displaced.

As persistent as the hawks are, they too face obstacles. In the east, Haftar’s supporters are encountering resistance to their drive to have him appointed commander-general of the army. Senior officials in the Libyan parliament have refused to discuss the subject. Al-Ahram Weekly has learned, however, that MPs who represent the Cyrenaica-based movement for a federal system and the National Forces Alliance, the largest political coalition in the country, oppose Haftar’s promotion.

They have, however, supported the promotion of Haftar’s right-hand man, the airforce commander in Operation Dignity, Saqar Al-Juyushi, to the rank of general. The pro-federalist MPs fear that Haftar’s promotion to commander-general would make him the de facto ruler of the country.

This will particularly be the case if, as expected, negotiations in Geneva conclude with an agreement that dissolves both the parliament in Tobruk and the GNC in Tripoli as a way to end the legislative duplication.

Such an agreement would require new parliamentary elections, and as it would be months before such elections could be held, especially given the current security deterioration. Haftar, if appointed commander-general, would then emerge as the sole ruler of the country.

Such an outcome would not only end hopes for a federal system but also prevent the leader of the National Forces Alliance from having a key executive role in the country.

While some observers believe that the support of regional powers could catapult Haftar to the fore, official sources maintain that such a scenario is unlikely. This, they say, is not just due to the current dynamics of the civil war but also, and perhaps more crucially, to the fact that Haftar would not be accepted by some prominent Libyan tribes, including the Warfala and those based in Misrata, as well as some of the eastern tribes that have long exerted a powerful influence in the Libyan military establishment.

Another member of the Libyan parliament in Tobruk, Al-Montasser Al-Hassi, said that the legislative body has begun to broach the question of appointing Haftar as commander-general. He stressed, however, that nothing has been resolved.

Differences between MPs over the question of the Haftar appointment point to other tensions that have begun to surface in the parliament. It appears that there is growing dissatisfaction with the performance of the current speaker of the house. There is growing support for the idea of rotating that position every three months, as opposed to every six months, as has been the case in the past.

As political tensions continue to seethe, hostilities remain unabated in Benghazi, in the area known as the petroleum crescent in central Libya and in the west of the country. A website which has been monitoring the death toll in Libya reported 113 killed in recent fighting on the various fronts.

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