The final countdown for peace in Libya?

The final countdown for peace in Libya?
5 min read
29 May, 2015
Comment: Warring parties have until the start of Ramadan to sign a UN peace agreement, one which will decide Libya's future, says George Joffe.
Militias are battling for control of Libya [AFP]

Bernardino Leon, the United Nations special representative for Libya, sounded a little desperate when he spoke to journalists on Wednesday in Brussels. 

A fourth draft of an agreement to reconcile the rival Tobruk and Tripoli governments will soon be ready, as divisions inside the country grow deeper day-by-day, he said. 

The United Nations' deadline for agreement on 17 June - coinciding with the start of Ramadan - is fast approaching.

If an agreement is not reached, the Tobruk government will only be considered legitimate until October, when its 18-month tenure in office comes to an end. A new round of elections would be extremely difficult to organise in the current circumstances. 

Not that that seems to have worried the Tripoli goverment, which has continued to operate, even though its tenure ended in February 2014. 

Going past these dates would mean that the United Nations would have no-one to negotiate with in Libya - except illegitimate governments who would, in theory, represent nobody but themselves.

The reality on the ground

Leon went on to say that nobody believes that there is a military solution to Libya's problems. 

Still, the conflict rages on between Libya Dawn, the Misrata-based militia coalition, and Libya Dignity, its rival, led by Khalifa Haftar, the former commander of the Libyan army.

   What's been going on in Libya?

The General National Congress was the Islamist-led elected body ruling Libya for two years following Gaddafi's ousting and death. After its 18-month deadline to form a new constitution passed in January 2014, the body resolved to extend its mandate.

General Khalifa Haftar, a senior figure in the forces that toppled Gaddafi, called on the GNC to disband. In May, Haftar led troops against Islamist militias in Benghazi and the GNC in Tripoli in an offensive named Operation Dignity.

Amid the chaos, an election was held to form the House of Representatives, which took power from the GNC in August. With rival militias ruling Libya's streets, the election turnout was just 18 percent. Islamist militias then launched Operation Libya Dawn to fight Haftar's troops.

With the lack of security in the capital, the House of Representatives hired a Greek car ferry harboured in the eastern city of Tobruk as a temporary legislature.

In late August, a group of GNC members reconvened in Tripoli and claimed legislative authority over the country, effectively replacing the House of Representatives as Libya's parliament. The Tobruk-based House of Representatives remains the internationally recognised government, though its actual authority on the ground in Libya is limited.

Libya's Supreme Court, based in Islamist-held Tripoli, ruled in November that the formation of the House of Representatives was unconstitutional, legally dissolving the Tobruk-based legislature and nullifying its decisions.

The Tobruk-based parliament refused to accept the court's ruling, saying it was made "at gunpoint".

Libya remains torn between the rival parliaments and the heavily armed militias that support each. Allegiances between the militias change frequently, which only adds to the instability, violence and danger faced by ordinary Libyan citizens.

The economic situation is disastrous, with the central bank governor - still serving both sides in the conflict impartially - warning he would soon be unable to pay public sector wages, which includes the wages of the militias. 

The humanitarian situation is grave, emphasised Leon, with more than 400,000 of Libya's 6.5 million population internally displaced, and an estimated one-to-two million Libyans exiled abroad, mainly in Egypt and Tunisia. Lack of confidence in a successful outcome had, he stated, grown in recent months.

Frederica Mogherini, the head of the European Union's foreign policy arm, echoed these concerns. She went on to emphasise that Europe wants to resolve the humanitarian crisis, protect the country's infrastructure, build up its political institutions, and control its borders. 

However, for that to happen, she warned, Libyans would have to make it happen - and the first step would be a reconciliation agreement between all the parties involved - Leon's proposal, presumably. 

She did not mention one potential problem with European help, the EU's proposal to intervene militarily to end the people-smuggling, a campaign to which both Libyan governments and parliaments are vehemently opposed.

Rays of hope?

In fact, things may not be quite as gloomy as Leon fears. 

Firstly, the two sides are said to have agreed on 80 percent of the content of the reconciliation document. 

Then, to general surprise, Mohammed Sowan, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Justice and Construction Party, which is close to Qatar, last week called on Tobruk to respect Leon's United Nations Support Mission in Libya(UNSML) reconciliation process. 

This has been something which, until now, he has treated with scepticism and dislike, because it would have downplayed the future role of the Tripoli government.

This change of heart could be the beginning of genuine reconciliation, even on terms which, according to the document Leon has prepared, might disadvantage Tripoli of its Islamist supporters and its allied militias.

     Leon went on to say that nobody believes that there is a military solution to Libya's problems

Sowan's intervention followed on from an outbreak of public protests in Misrata the week before. The protests reflected popular resentment at an attempt to replace the locally elected municipal council by an appointed Islamist shura council instead. 

Interestingly enough, the town's militia coalition did not intervene, no doubt both because it is not Islamist-dominated, as is often claimed, and because it has been very busy elsewhere. 

The protesters also demanded that Misrata and Tripoli should continue to participate in the UNSMIL reconciliation process and their demands strongly suggest that public opinion in Tripolitania is increasingly out-of-step with the Tripoli government.

UNSMIL can also report two small successes. It has been able to organise a conference of mayors and leaders of Libyan local councils in Tunis, with a view to creating an over-arching council to look after municipal interests despite the failure of central government. 

It has been able to arrange reconciliation between Misrata and the leaders of the 40,000-strong exiled population of Tawergha, a town to the south of Misrata whose population was unfairly taxed with having supported the Gaddafi regime during the civil war in 2011.
Perhaps the most surprising development has been news that Libyan Dawn and Libyan Dignity have been collaborating in attacking the Islamic State's redoubt in Sirte. It suggests a belated recognition of the awareness of both sides of a common danger, that of an extremist threat that would ultimately be directed with equal ferocity against both of them.

If armed enemies can find common ground, it should not now be too difficult for their political counterparts to do the same.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.