Libya: Peace at hand?

Libya: Peace at hand?
Comment: So near, but yet so far. Now one government has signed up to the UN's unity deal, its rival must follow suit, writes George Joffe.
6 min read
16 Jul, 2015
Libya has been torn apart by rival governments and their allied militias [Getty]

On July 11, in the Moroccan seaside town of Skhirat, to general surprise, delegates from the House of Representatives (HoR) - Libya's internationally recognised government based in Tobruk - finally signed the unity agreement laboriously negotiated by the United Nations special representative, Bernardino Léon.

The surprise was the fact that the United Nations had followed through on its promise - that the agreement would be signed before the end of Ramadan, whether or not both sides agreed to do so.

Discord in Tripoli

In the event, representatives from Tobruk's rival government, based in Tripoli - the rump of the old General National Congress (GNC) - did not participate, although a majority of its members are believed to have wanted to do so.

     The United Nations followed through on its promise - that the agreement would be signed before the end of Ramadan

There is, however, powerful opposition to the agreement from some quarters in Tripoli - which will lose considerable power if a national unity government, as stipulated by the agreement, is achieved.

Opponents include the powerful GNC president, Nouri Abu Sahmayn, who will certainly not be included in any new body - as the HoR considers him to have been among the prime movers for its own marginalisation by Libya's Supreme Court last year.

He is supported by the Islamist leader and former head of the Tripoli military council, Abdulhakim Belhaj, and the Grand Mufti of Libya, Sadiq al-Ghariani - a fervent GNC supporter who believes that Libya's Islamist movements were unfairly marginalised during the June 2014 elections.

For him, the unity agreement is "un-Islamic".

Then there is Salah Badi, leader of one of the largest militia coalitions in Tripoli, and the founder of the Sumoud ["Steadfastness"] Front, which brings together the remnants of what used to be the Misrata-led Libya Dawn movement.

The opponents of the proposed accord have used various tactics to disrupt the Skhirat process.

They have organised demonstrations opposed to it in Tripoli, to intimidate those GNC members - probably a majority - who support the deal.

   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.

There was, for instance, a major demonstration on July 1, designed to coerce the GNC delegation from returning for further negotiations at Skhirat and a parade by the Soumoud Front's military wing in Tajoura the following day.

Then there were demands for the agreement to be redrafted in ways that would be unacceptable to the HoR; Abu Sahmayn, for example, insisted that the Supreme Court ruling which delegitimised the HoR would have to be formally recognised in the agreement.

Badi, meanwhile, demands that the proposed parliamentary upper chamber have a significantly increased GNC representation.

Ranged against them, however, are others from Tripoli who do want to see an end to the splits that have bedevilled the political process.

At least two made an appearance at Skhirat - Mohammed Sowan, the head of the moderate Islamist Justice and Construction Party, and Mahdi al-Harati, the mayor of Tripoli.

What is more, they both signed the unity agreement document as witnesses, thereby indicating their support for the reconciliation process. Nor was Mohammed Sowan acting in a personal capacity - as his party issued a statement a week earlier, calling for a unity government and endorsing the UN reconciliation process.

The scene on the ground

This discord among the politicians is reflected at the level of the militia coalitions as well. Libya Dawn, originally led by the powerful militias of Misrata, is beginning to fragment - and the recent creation of the Soumoud Front is a symptom of this.

The driving forces behind this have been twofold.

Misrata is increasingly focusing its military might on the new threat of the Islamic State group, which is thought to be pushing westwards along the coast towards Misurata itself.

At the same time, the Zintani and Warshafanna militias - which sympathise with the Libyan Dignity militia coalition, based in Cyrenaica - have been quietly regrouping south of the Libyan capital.

They have also been able to reconcile themselves with local tribes and towns, thereby securing their hinterlands.

     Misrata is increasingly focusing its military might on the new threat of the Islamic State group

There have not been dramatic changes in the military environments, however, and the two opposed groups seem to be anxious to avoid major clashes.

This seems due to the fact that Misrata is now far more concerned about the IS threat, as its units probe the strength of the town's defences, while the Soumoud Front lacks the confidence to take on Zintan by itself.

The upshot is, however, that the cohesion of Libya Dawn, on which the GNC depended, is seeping away and, despite its opponents in Tripoli, the unity agreement looks an increasingly attractive way out of the impasse in which Libya finds itself.

Nonetheless, the continued opposition to the agreement in Tripoli does mean that, until the GNC also signs along the dotted line, it will remain a dead letter, even if political and military unity in Tripolitania is breaking up.

The UN's Léon, however, is determined to keep all pathways open to a change-of-heart, and will continue to engage with the GNC delegation in the hope that its members can be persuaded to join in.

Already names are being put forward to fill a future premiership in such a planned unity government - with Ahmed Maetig, a former nominee for the post in February 2014, heading the list.

Perhaps, finally, the political and military fragmentation in Tripoli might portend the beginning of the end of the misery of the past four years.