In Libya, Misrata and Zintan reconciliation bypasses UN bureaucrats

In Libya, Misrata and Zintan reconciliation bypasses UN bureaucrats
Comment: The recent, locally driven reconciliation accord has upstaged UN efforts, putting Libyan leaders back in the driving seat, writes Guma ElGamaty.
6 min read
04 Apr, 2018
The cities of Misurata and Zintan reconcile after a four-year dispute [AFP]
The reconciliation meeting that took place in the city of Zintan on 28 March between the leaders of Misrata and Zintan, and the resulting agreement may prove to be a historical turning point in the dynamics of the Libyan conflict. 

It may also be a very positive step forward as Libyans strive for stability and unity while negotiating a very turbulent transitional period.

But what makes this reconciliation significant, and what will it mean for Libya?

Misrata and Zintan were the first two cities to rise up against the Gaddafi regime in the west of Libya in the February 2011 revolution, which was sparked by peaceful demonstrations in the city of Benghazi in the east. The two cities emerged as the most powerful militarily, after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, and, for almost three years, they jointly filled the security vacuum and shared strategic sites in the capital, Tripoli.

However, the mutual coexistence there did not last long and in the summer of 2014, forces belonging to Misrata joined with forces from other cities to lead a coalition, known as "Libya Dawn", who started a deadly war to evict the Zintan militias from Tripoli all together.

The premise for the war was the accusation that Zintan militias were colluding with Khalifa Haftar, who was believed to be planning to set up a military rule in Tripoli.

Reconciliation is more likely to succeed if it is internally instigated and driven

The Zintan militias already controlled Tripoli international airport and the southern half of the city, and were believed to be a crucial part of Haftar's plans. After a few weeks of bloody fighting, the Zintanis were forced out of Tripoli and the war continued for many months until they were pushed all the way back to their city Zintan - some 160km south of Tripoli.

That war of 2014 effectively split Libya into two camps and deepened the political conflict that followed.

Zintanis found themselves isolated and mainly allied with Haftar and his "Dignity" operation. They became Haftar's best chance of establishing a military presence in the west of Libya and near the capital Tripoli. Without Zintan and their strategic well developed airport, Haftar could not maintain his supply line of arms, ammunition and personnel to support his loyalists, known as the "
Tribal Army".

Nevertheless, some influential military leaders of Zintan, including former defence minister and head of Zintan military council Osama Jweili, have kept their distance from Haftar.

Retrospectively, Jweili may have been instrumental in the gradual realignment of Zintan away from Haftar and closer to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) that took base in Tripoli in April 2016.

The rapprochement came at a time when UN efforts to achieve peace on a national level in Libya were almost at a standstill

The GNA has rewarded Osama Jweili by appointing him as the commander of its western region military zone. Jweili almost immediately led a military operation in the Wirshefana area in November 2017 in which he dispersed and expelled Haftar-affiliated groups, ending any hope of Haftar using the area as a launch pad to attack the capital Tripoli.

It is with this background knowledge that the recent rapprochement between Misrata and Zintan becomes significant, and could even turn out to be a game changer in the dynamics and balance of power in the Libyan conflict.

Also of note in the Misrata-Zintan reconciliation, is that the UN had made almost no contribution to it. Indeed, the rapprochement came at a time when UN efforts to achieve peace on a national level in Libya were almost at a standstill, after six months of the latest special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame (the sixth envoy in six years) being in the job.

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The reconciliation has mainly been locally inspired and driven. It was mostly instigated and achieved by the efforts of informal local leaders and social dignitaries from both sides, who have culturally and socially rooted traditions and expertise in conflict resolution.

These well respected dignitaries and influential elders are often referred to within the Libyan society as the "White Helmets", distinguished by the wearing of traditional dress, including white hats. The culmination of their efforts and long informal contacts and meetings was a formal historic reconciliation agreement.

The final reconciliation statement had six key points. These included the commitment to not engage in war and bloodshed between all Libyans; to realise the aims of the 17 February revolution of ending totalitarianism, ensuring a civilian state and the non-return of military rule; to work towards a comprehensive national reconciliation for all Libyans and ensure the unity of the Libyan territory; to work towards the building of the state of rule of law, institutions and the peaceful transfer of power; to work towards the unification of military and security institutions in the form of the police and army under civilian control, and finally to fight against terrorism in all its forms and in all parts of Libya.

Many have interpreted some of these points as clear political messages directed at Haftar and his camp, especially the reference to rejecting the return to military rule and ensuring the building of a civilian state.

Read more: Libyan armed factions hail 'historic' reconciliation talks

Also, emphasis on the unification of the military and security institutions, including the army being under civilian control, is a clear reference to the negotiations hosted in Egypt between army officers from both sides, aiming to unite the Libyan army.

Many, including within Misrata and Zintan, have voiced concern that Egypt was trying to influence the outcome of these negotiations in favour of their ally Haftar, so that he remains in total control of the army with little accountability to a superior civilian leadership.

This message is a clear statement by both cities that they reject any kind of Haftar hegemony over a future united Libyan national army.

The reconciliation will also make Haftar realise that his military presence in the west of Libya has now literally vanished, and his objective and hopes of taking over Tripoli by force have been eliminated.

Haftar and his sponsors will realise that the only option left is a political solution

Furthermore, Haftar and, more importantly, his sponsors Egypt and the UAE, will realise that the only option left is a political solution based on a compromise and an accord between all the main political and military forces in Libya.

This reconciliation agreement is likely to be expanded by inviting other cities and towns to participate. As well as this, it proves that reconciliation is more likely to succeed if it is internally instigated and driven.

It also exposes the limitations of the UN in achieving reconciliation and delivering conflict resolution in Libya.

The UN record in other conflict-stricken countries such as Yemen and Syria is not any better, and gives little cause for optimism.

The time has come for Libyans to take reconciliation and resolving their conflict more into their own hands, rather than leaving it in the hands of UN bureaucrats, who can only be facilitators at best.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.