The sluggish political process in Libya combined with the poor performance of the rival, yet internally divided, legislative and executive institutions in the country; the rush of military developments on the ground combined with the ongoing security vacuum and intense political fluidity; the lack of unanimity between the regional and internal stakeholders in the Libyan crisis over a formula for a settlement combined with the sharpening acrimony in the international arena between the West, led by the US and Russia, which aspires to make a comeback as a superpower and is taking advantage of the lack of a firm Western stance on the current crises in the Middle East, including the Libyan crisis; and the inability of the UN to promote the implementation of the provisions of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) that was signed in Skhirat, Morocco, in December 2015, combined with the dispute between world powers over the person to succeed the current UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, are all factors that have contributed to the current impasse in Libya and that have stimulated the search for a new formula for a breakthrough.
During the past week or so, a number of developments in Libya appear to propel in this direction. Foremost among them is the decision on the part of the speaker of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives to resume negotiations over amendments to the LPA. The decision reverses an angry revocation of the House’s recognition of the LPA taken in the wake of an attack by the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) against Libya’s petroleum crescent and oil terminals in early March. Eastern forces under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar succeeded in recapturing the strategic area and facilities two weeks later.
A second and more important indicator was UN Envoy Martin Kobler’s announcement, following a meeting with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita in Skhirat, in which he hinted at a possibility of extensive amendments to the LPA so as to take into account developments on the ground. In a press conference he expressed his concern over military developments and noted that the military solution cannot solve the Libya crisis and obstructs progress in the political process. Simultaneously, he stressed that the Skhirat agreement was still “the basis and the framework of the political process in Libya,” adding that there were realities and developments that could be incorporated one way or another into this framework.
Kobler’s remarks came in the context of the flare-up in tensions in southern Libya between forces affiliated with the Government of National Accord (GNA) and forces affiliated with General Haftar in the areas of Al-Jafra, Barak Al-Shati, Wadi Bouwanis and Sebha. Haftar’s forces are trying to expel GNA forces from these areas. GNA forces consist of militias affiliated with Misrata, and especially the brigade known as the “Third Force”, which former prime minister Ali Zeidan had charged with restoring security in the south in February 2014 following the eruption of conflict between the Tabu and Awlad Suleiman tribes at the time.
Italy has recently succeeded in brokering a peace agreement between the two tribes in which it has committed to help both tribes recover from the damage, a move that has been seen as a means to strengthen Italy’s influence in Libya and secure the help of local parties in stemming illegal immigration from African countries south of Libya.
A shift in the stances of both House of Representatives speaker Aguila Saleh and General Khalifa Haftar towards Kobler is the third important indicator. Previously, the two Libyan officials had refused to meet with Kobler for reasons related to the UN’s support for the Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord, bodies that were created in accordance with the LPA. The shift follows recent brief visits by Saleh and Haftar to the UAE.
The UN envoy received a rude welcome when he attempted to meet Saleh in Tobruk in November. Saleh refused to meet him, compelling first deputy speaker Emhamed Shoeib to receive Kobler in the arrivals hall at Tobruk airport. Outside, demonstrators shouted chants against both Kobler and Shoeib. Haftar has spurned Kobler’s requests to meet him several times during the past year, forcing Kobler to ask third parties to help convince the general to meet with him.
But suddenly, Haftar had a change of heart. On Thursday, 13 April, he met Kobler in his home in Al-Rajma district of eastern Benghazi to discuss impediments to the implementation of the LPA and ways to move forward, according to a posting on Kobler’s personal Twitter account. Before the meeting, which had not been announced beforehand, Haftar issued a statement to the effect that he had no objection to working under a civilian leadership elected by the Libyan people. This was the eastern general’s first response to previous remarks by the Chairman of the Presidency Council and Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj accusing Haftar of refusing to work under a civilian leadership.
In Tripoli, the Presidency Council has begun to implement security measures to secure control of government buildings that have been recovered from militia groups affiliated with the self-declared National Salvation Government (NSG) headed by Khalifa Al-Ghweil. The measures are intended to underscore the Presidency Council’s control of the capital; however, they have had a negative impact on the interests and positions of major supporters of the Presidency Council, most notably Misrata and the GNA Ministry of Defence, which is under Al-Mahdi Al-Barghathi. According to recent reports, Al-Sarraj cut off budgetary allocations to the Defence Ministry after a dispute between him and Al-Barghathi over military developments in southern Libya.
Al-Sarraj has also been working to enhance his profile among his international partners. Recently he announced a redistribution of powers and jurisdictions between the National Petroleum Authority and the cabinet. In spite of the opposition of the NPA, he granted the authority powers to conclude contracts pertaining to the oil and gas sectors.
In Misrata, meanwhile, sharp tensions between the municipal and military councils of the city have surfaced due to conflicting positions on recent military and security developments in the country. Angry protests have been staged in front of the municipal council premises in which demonstrators pelted the building with stones and called for municipal elections in order to bring in a new council. The demonstrations manifest the mounting disputes between key players in Misrata, which is considered the strongest power in Libya, politically, economically and militarily.
The abovementioned developments could undermine and eventually abort the LPA, especially given that Saleh’s and Haftar’s return to dialogue and the political process are unlikely to yield fruit as quickly as needed. Forming a negotiating team to represent the House of Representatives in the new dialogue committee will not be as easy as some imagine. Divisions within the House are deep and likely to impede the selection process. In like manner, the Council of State, the new name for the General National Congress (GNC), which was party to the Skhirat negotiations and accord, is also divided.
In addition, the LPA articles to come under review for amendment have not been identified yet. More generally, the performance of the political actors is slow and outpaced by military developments on the ground. Such factors, combined with the fluidity of the situation and the rise of new alliances and alignments, may give rise to new and influential actors who will need to be taken into account in any forthcoming settlement process.
Of course, under the current climate, the very convention of negotiations could trigger breakups in alliances if some parties gathered around the negotiating table decide to assert themselves as independent players. In other words, the fluidity in political alliances is unlikely to end in the absence of a genuine process to reach a national reconciliation in Libya.