Can the Libyans Close a Peace Deal?


On Sept. 16, the Department of State warned U.S. citizens against travelling to Libya and reiterated that all Americans in the country should leave immediately. The development was likely a reaction to intelligence indicating an imminent attack on the few foreign nationals remaining in the country. Yet there has been relatively little focus on recent political developments inside Libya, despite the prominence that the September 2012 Benghazi attack continues to have in the U.S. media. Nonetheless, the instability in the country has been a major factor in Europe’s migrant crisis, has led to the spread of the Islamic State into Libya’s central Sirte area, and threatens to further destabilize the wider North Africa region. Clearly the country’s post-revolutionary trajectory remains important to both regional and European stability, not to mention the facts that the United States, United Kingdom, and France supported the revolution against the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and that Libya has vast oil reserves.

Meanwhile, violence inside Libya has continued. The Islamic State brutally put down a Salafi rebellion in Sirte in August, after which the Arab League subsequently authorized individual member states to conduct airstrikes against the group inside Libya. Nevertheless there have been few signs of a concerted air campaign by Egypt, the UAE, or Jordan, all of whom have previously bombed jihadi groups in eastern Libya. Islamic State affiliates have also claimed responsibility for a multiple suicide bomb attack on Tripoli’s only functioning airport, Mitiga airbase, which left three local militia members dead. In the last two weeks, the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for three minor bomb attacks in the capital, indicating that the group’s capabilities in Tripoli are on the rise. To the south, tribal clashes have erupted again in Kufrah leaving at least 30 dead while in the east, the rogue secularist Gen. Khalifa Haftar has declared “Operation Doom” in Benghazi. This aims at reinvigorating his military offensive against hardline Islamists in the city with further air and attack helicopter strikes to support his “Dignity” ground troops in a bid to finally liberate (what remains of) the central and south-eastern districts of the city. Clearly, from a security-sector reform perspective, things could not look much bleaker.

At the political level, on Sept. 15, the internationally recognised Libyan legislature (the House of Representatives) announced that it was withdrawing its delegation from talks aimed at producing a government uniting competing secularist and Islamist administrations. The House of Representatives said that it would not accept the latest demands of its rival — the Islamist, Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) — to amend the fifth Draft Agreement on Political Transition in Libya proposed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). While House of Representatives President Ageela Salah reiterated that his camp only rejected the GNC’s proposed amendments and not the entire Draft Agreement it signed in July, he also said that it was withdrawing its delegation from the talks in Skhirat, Morocco, to regroup for consultations in Tobruk.

At first glance, it would seem that the House of Representatives’ decision has left the peace talks hanging in the balance, especially as UNSMIL head, Bernardino León, had set Sept. 20 as the deadline by which an agreement to form a Government of National Unity should be reached.

However, this is merely the latest move in a long waltz that is still more likely than not to end in some sort of deal. First, León’s deadline was rather arbitrary; previous cut-off dates have been extended to allow further talks to take place, and it is likely this could happen again. A much more important date is Oct. 21, when the House of Representatives’ mandate is due to run out and after which the GNC’s claims regarding the illegitimacy of its rival would gain credence. Secondly, it is important to note the circumstances that led to the House of Representatives’ decision. On Sept. 8, in a bid to maintain its internal cohesion and placate hardline militia commanders on whom it relies for military support, the GNC proposed nine new amendments to the Draft Agreement. While León said only “four or five” were “important,” they in fact boil down to two major issues that have dogged the process from the start.

The first of these relates to the GNC’s status in the new legislature. The latest draft agreement proposes a 120-seat upper house, called the State Council, to which the GNC would contribute 90 members. Crucially, the State Council does not have the power to veto House of Representatives legislation. The GNC is demanding that the State Council be comprised entirely of its own members and that it share the power of veto over legislation with the House of Representatives — a position, according to sources close to the negotiation process, driven in large part by the concerns of many GNC members that the proposed State Council would deprive them of vital jobs and status.

The second issue is the demand that the controversial Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army Gen. Haftar and his Chief of Staff Abdul Razzak Nazhuri be removed in return for GNC militia support for a deal. This issue has significant implications for the cohesion of the House of Representatives, as Haftar has been largely responsible for uniting the eastern, pro-secular militias into the army’s command structure and for taking the fight to hardline Islamists, including the affiliates of the Islamic State in Benghazi. While Haftar is a highly divisive character — with previous links to the CIA — whom many Libyans believe has his eyes set on attaining full political power in Libya, the House of Representatives also depends on him to provide security in the east. His removal is thus a very delicate subject, with some in the House of Representatives even favoring him to lead a military council that would rule the country if there is no deal before the legislature’s mandate runs out. Indeed, Haftar’s announcement of Operation Doom was likely a timely reminder to the House of Representatives about who holds real power in the east. Thus, the recent moves by both sides should therefore be understood in the context of their need to maintain internal cohesion.

León — who has shepherded the talks for nearly 12 months — thinks a deal is still likely. Indeed, on Sept. 16 he said, “The closer we are to the possibility of a final agreement the more we will see tough positions. … It doesn’t mean that we will not reach agreement.” A day after his deadline expired, on Sept. 21, León declared that the agreement as it now stands is final and called on both sides to accept it by Oct. 20 at a final round of talks scheduled for after Eid al Adha, which ended last week.
But what will a deal signify? On the one hand, even if the issue of Haftar can be resolved (perhaps by appointing him as the eastern forces’ commander), the UNSMIL Agreement is likely to result in a cumbersome political structure that will make it difficult to make key decisions, resulting in delayed legislation. Moreover, Libya’s new constitution still needs to be presented and accepted. On the other hand, the creation of a Government of National Unity would, most notably, be conducive to greater international support for institution-building and security-sector reform in Libya. This importantly includes the possibility of international peacekeepers being deployed to secure government and oil facilities and to help in the fight against Islamic State affiliates and human traffickers. Sources indicate that European powers are actively planning for such a dual-focus mission at present. Nevertheless, while a deal (if struck) will not be a panacea for Libya’s myriad political and security problems, it will certainly be a significant step in the right direction


Patrick Bury is a former infantry captain currently undertaking his PhD at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. His views are his own.


Photo credit: Ben Sutherland