Libya Tribune

By Mattia Toaldo

There is an on-going, intensive process to mediate peace in war-torn Libya, but despite important progress, the country remains divided.

Today, Dr. Mattia Toaldo, Senior Policy Fellow at the British think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, writes about some of the challenges of peace process.

Good, as well as bad news, has recently dominated news from Libya, the North African country that, despite its proximity to the  EU (around 250 km), rarely makes the headlines. On a positive note, unlike for other conflicts in the region, there is a political agreement mediated by the UN which has led to the establishment of a Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. There are also positive military developments since the Islamic State (IS), which established one of its “provinces” around the Libyan town Sirte, has been almost completely defeated by a ground operation led by Libyan forces with the aid of US air strikes and special forces of several EU members.

Less optimistic is the fact that the country is as divided as ever, with the Tripoli-based GNA having only loose control of parts of the West and South of the country and the east being a de facto separate country under the dictatorship of renegade general Khalifa Heftar. Heftar receives support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and increasingly from Russia. Heftar is a former colonel who fought under Gaddafi until he was captured by Chadian forces in 1987. Gaddafi disowned him and he went into exil in the USA. Heftar returned to Libya in 2011 to fight against Gaddafi in the civil war.

A divided country with two governments

After the fall of Gaddafi in October 2011, the country plunged gradually into new levels of anarchy. The opposition armed groups that fought under the umbrella of the National Transitional Council (NTC) did not disarm after the war. On the contrary, they receive state salaries and this has expanded their ranks. With several assaults on the fragile Libyan institutions in 2012 and 2013, and by hoarding weapons and government money, these militias asserted their control over the state. In the spring of 2014, renegade general Khalifa Heftar led an insurgency called “Operation Dignity” with the goal of wiping Libya clean of everything that smelled of political Islam. Heftar did not hide his admiration for Egypt’s general Sisi, who rewarded him with military and political support, soon followed by his patrons in the Emirates.

In the summer of the same year, Islamists, members of the Amazigh minority and other hard-line anti-Gaddafi militias created Libya Dawn, an umbrella organisation which gained control of the capital and destroyed its international airport. The internationally-recognised government of the time left Tripoli and established itself between Tobruk and Beyda, in the eastern fiefdom of general Heftar, while Libya Dawn established its own “government of national salvation” in Tripoli without gaining the recognition of a single country.

The Libyan Political Agreement

The UN and its then-Special Envoy Bernardino Leon started a negotiation to reunify the two governments. Under the leadership of his successor, the current envoy Martin Kobler, the Libyan Political Agreement was signed in the Moroccan city of Skhirat in December last year. It established a nine-members strong Presidency Council which would oversee a Government of National Accord while one of the final stipulations called for the firing of general Heftar as head of the armed forces.

The agreement and the government had to be approved by the parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR) based in Tobruk and under the control of Heftar’s loyalists. While seven out of the nine members of the Presidency Council arrived in Tripoli at the end of March and took control of most state institutions, the parliament in Tobruk has rejected two different lists of ministers submitted by the Presidency Council while expressing its continued support for the old Beyda-based government of Abdullah al Thinni, close to Heftar.

The implementation of the agreement is therefore blocked. Negotiations are under way with the mediation of Egypt and the support of the UK, France and Italy which, in different ways, have expressed the need for Tripoli to include Heftar somehow in the new security structure and for him to serve under the civilian authority, pushing on his loyalists to approve the government in parliament.

Despite all these difficulties, the UN-brokered agreement has brought together many forces in different parts of the country, some of which have successfully defeated Isis. Moreover, the national peace process has encouraged many cities to strike local ceasefires, sparing vast parts of Western and Southern Libya from further violence. War crimes, human rights violations and terrorist attacks, while present also in these parts of the country, are more widespread in the east with the cities of Benghazi and Derna suffering the most.

Heftar benefits from the blocked implementation of the agreement

This constant state of war in Cyrenaica (the old name of eastern Libya), the external support and the shortcomings of the peace process have all conjured to support Heftar’s project of becoming the “de facto dictator of a de facto country” that, with some exceptions, extends from the city of Harawa to the Egyptian border and south to the city of Kufra. Prime Minister Thinni has been completely under Heftar’s control since the beginning of 2015 when he was repeatedly denied the right to leave the country. The HoR allows votes to take place only when they are favourable to the general, intimidating non-compliant MPs. More recently, he has established military governors in the largest cities, forbidden the remaining mayors from engaging with the government in Tripoli and, with the help of Russia, printed its own Libyan dinars – which the government in the capital has decided to accept to avoid sanctioning the split of the country.

Heftar is slowly clearing the east of Libya of his opponents and in the last months he received the decisive support of French special forces – while the same EU country was decisive diplomatically in establishing the government in Tripoli. His current strategy seems to be consolidate his firm hold on the east while sabotaging the “unity government” in Tripoli. On its part, the GNA has been so far completely unable to either provide basic services or start a nation-wide reconciliation process. While important results have been achieved in the past year, Libya could be heading soon for more divisions and more violence.

Supporting intra-Libyan reconciliation is the key to stabilisation

The division of the country can appear as a solution only if one conducts a superficial analysis. For starters, there is no consensus on where the line between east and west Libya should run and the contested area would likely be the “oil crescent” east of Sirte where most of the country’s oil resources are. Entrenching the existing split is undesirable and so is keeping the political process hostage to the east-west split.

So how can one at the same avoid entrenching the split between the two parts of Libya while allowing the part which is more or less under the GNA control to move on and function? It is a tall order, but promoting intra-Libyan reconciliation is key to the stabilisation. While elsewhere reconciliation is seen as a way to heal the wounds of the past, in Libya it is a measure to avoid further escalation.

A national dialogue initiative could be facilitated by the UN (Special Envoy Martin Kobler is already moving in this sense) and receive the logistical and financial support of the GNA while remaining independent from government control. It should support a country-wide conversation on crucial issues such as, to make a few examples, the fate of political prisoners, the distribution of oil wealth (with the goal of restarting oil production and avoiding the economic collapse of the country) or the social and political inclusion of members of the former regime without blood on their hands. This reconciliation initiative should go hand in hand with concrete moves by the GNA in Tripoli to reach out to the east, promoting decentralisation and addressing the issue of the building of a national army.

While reaching out to the people of eastern Libya and showing sincere understanding for the grievances and concerns that led many of them to support Heftar, the GNA should move on and rule the country, addressing the main concerns of ordinary Libyans such as the liquidity crisis or continued and extensive power cuts.

The US and Europe, on their side, while continuing to offer all the possible help to the GNA on these concrete issues, should also act to unlock the political process. Negotiations to include Heftar (and its external backers) into the political agreement have been ongoing for months without any significant progress. That agreement contains itself the tools that allow to unlock the process: for instance, article 16 and 17 say that the House of Representatives must become a truly neutral body and not Heftar’s political branch. It should sit in a neutral location and all members should be free to express their vote, unlike what’s happened in the past. Finally, the agreement is the only available instrument (if properly voted in a constitutional amendment by the HoR) to extend the mandate of the Tobruk parliament which expired on 20 October. Failing these conditions, it is about time that the US and Europe stop recognising simultaneously the government in Tripoli and the political branch of its rival in Tobruk.


Dr. Toaldo recently published ”Intervening Better: Europe’s second chance in Libya”. He is currently Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London where he deals mostly with Libya and migrations.


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