The UN-brokered peace process in Libya has stalled, leaving unresolved pressing issues like worsening living conditions, control of oil facilities, people-smuggling, and the struggle against jihadist groups.
New negotiations are needed to engage key actors who have been excluded so far. The full report (The-Libyan-Political-Agreement: Time to a Reset )
III. A Widening Divide
From early 2016, unresolved issues turned into institutional hurdles to the deal’s implementation. The gap between its supporters and foes increased and triggered military mobilisations, while international fractures reasserted themselves.
When signed, the accord’s most stalwart Libyan supporters were politicians, militiamen and businessmen from western Libya, especially Tripoli and Misrata. The Tripoli-based heads of the Central Bank and National Oil Corporation, key institutions for the viability of any unity government, were also on board. More generally, there was broad support among ordinary people in the west for any deal that produced a more effective government that would end division and violence. International supporters treated the west as more immediately important, because of the necessity of establishing a government in Tripoli, the capital.
Even so, there were some important opponents in the west other than the GNC leaders, including Mahmoud Jibril’s Tahaluf, the National Front Party and militias and politicians close to Abdelhakim Belhaj, head of the now-defunct Libya Islamic Fighting Group. Each had often opportunistic reasons to oppose either the agreement or council line-up. Jibril considered the power-sharing set-up unworkable. Armed groups from Zintan, important military stakeholders despite being kicked out of Tripoli in 2014, were divided, with some prepared to support the deal in exchange for sharing security responsibilities in the capital, others dead-set against and openly coordinating with Haftar’s forces in the east. Islamists of various stripes opposed the council initially as foreign-picked. Even some of the accord’s proponents and those backing the process found UN stewardship problematic.
Despite opposition from these groups and the GNC leadership, the UN and several foreign capitals felt there was enough militia and political leader support in the west to proceed. Last-minute support from Abderrahman Swehli, a Misratan with ties to his city’s armed groups, changed the force balance in the deal’s favour.
The president of the Presidency Council, Faiez al-Serraj, surprised many when, on 30 March, he and six other council members arrived in Tripoli from Tunisia aboard a Libyan navy frigate and set up operations inside the naval base. This called the GNC leadership’s bluff: there was no substantial military opposition, and several local armed groups rapidly declared support. Many western municipalities were also quick to recognise council authority, as did the main financial institutions in Tripoli. On 5 April, Khalifa Ghwell, prime minister of the pre-existing Tripoli-based “government of national salvation”, who had threatened to arrest Serraj if he came to Tripoli, was reported to have fled. (He later denied this, and continued to run a rump cabinet in the capital and in October again declared himself in power). That the arrival in Tripoli went smoother than expected was in part because it co-opted groups by allowing them to retain influence and financial leverage. This demonstrated the council, once marginal in Tunis, could gain control over key state institutions.
Momentum was short-lived, however. In early April, the decision by former GNC members (per the accord’s roadmap) to convene the High State Council prior to an HoR ratification revived tensions, particularly as a State Council majority voted to appoint the controversial Misratan politician Abderrahman Swehli as the body’s president. By late May, it was clear Serraj’s control of Tripoli was tenuous, and tensions were brewing among militias there and elsewhere. The risk of open confrontation was real on multiple fronts. Several armed groups in the capital’s outskirts continued to oppose the council but refrained from open confrontation fearing European navies or because they were waiting for the Supreme Court to declare the council and proposed unity government illegitimate. The boycott of two of the council’s nine members was another source of tension, as it gave their factions ammunition to argue the council was acting outside its legal framework, especially regarding security sector decisions, since according to the agreement these had to be taken unanimously by Serraj and all five deputies.
On the eve of a 16 May ministerial in Vienna, Serraj felt confident enough to announce that the unity government would begin functioning that week. Though the HoR had not approved his cabinet, he called on ministers-designate (a new group of thirteen ministers plus five ministers of state, in addition to the nine-member Presidency Council) to take office. A handful began to work as de facto ministers, but at least four refused without HoR endorsement. Only one full cabinet meeting has taken place since, in June.
The Presidency Council’s control of the capital and so of ministries was limited. Several ministries, particularly those outside the downtown and east-central Souq al-Jumaa area, remained controlled by the Ghwell government or anti-council militias. Initially, only the ministers-designate for foreign affairs, local governance and interior could work in their own buildings. The council itself continued to operate for some months from the naval base. Until July, the building housing the prime minister’s central Tripoli office was controlled by an armed group that said it would allow the council to enter if it remained in charge of security there; some council leaders claimed the unit had left, but it appears to have only rebranded and affiliated itself to the interior ministry. Serraj gave a press conference there in July but otherwise continues to hold meetings at the naval base (though his deputies work from the building housing the prime minister’s office).
For months, few Serraj-appointed ministers (including those who started to meet with foreigners in May) controlled their budgets. Though the council appears to be in charge of approving payments through the Central Bank, it is unclear whether any minister will have long-term access to state funds without HoR endorsement, as under the accord parliament must approve the budget. But at least through July, when the bank gave it 1.5 billion dinars ($1 billion) for emergency spending in the absence of a legal budget, the council appeared able to tap into former cycles’ unused funds.
Finances aside, since arriving in Tripoli the council has appeared incapable of strategising and, most importantly, to lack means to implement most of its decisions. Individuals close to it express complaints ranging from failure to liaise with the ministers-designate to monopolisation of decisions and refusal to delegate. Even some international backers are frustrated: “We had very low expectations to start with, but we see that the council is not undertaking even minimal actions”. With precarious financial arrangements, electricity shortages and a plummeting economy (banks have limited cash withdrawals and frozen foreign currency transfers, while the black-market dinar is less than a third of its official U.S. dollar value), public support has dwindled. All this has created rifts, even within the council’s original powerbase of politicians and businessmen in western Libya. Several early supporters fear the current arrangement may collapse.
More generally, the council, particularly without the support of military factions in the east and other armed groups from the west, especially the Zintanis, is overly reliant on a few militias and personalities, some of which may be obstacles to national reconciliation. The appointment in April of Swehli, a former pro-GNC hardliner despised by many HoR constituencies, especially in the east, to head the High State Council is such a case. So is the role of Islamist figures like Khaled Sherif, an ex-member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group who was deputy defence minister in several post-Qadhafi governments. Some army officers working for the council in Tripoli and instrumental in shaping security arrangements there said they felt “the Misratans are calling the shots”. That perception and the fact that their armed groups control Tripoli and its surroundings have fuelled anti-Misrata resentment. Clashes between local residents and members of a Misratan brigade left more than 40 dead in a town on Tripoli’s outskirts in June.
The precedent of weak governments in 2013-2014 that were hostage to militia demands, comes to mind. Not addressing Tripoli’s security landscape before relocating there was risky; over time it may become clear that long-term detriments offset the short-term benefits of a foothold in the capital. The presence there of armed groups operating without formal government oversight fuels the impression, particularly in the east where support of the accord was always minimal, that the Presidency Council and unity government are again hostages.
The accord has less traction in the east than west at the grassroots and among the political elite. Eastern tribes, some members of western ones who fled Tripoli in mid-2014 and most army officers who operated under HoR authority saw the UN and the talks’ Western backers as biased toward the GNC and consider them responsible for the post-2011 chaos and rise of radical Islamist groups. Eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), was ripe for this narrative because monarchists, federalists, secessionists, local businesspeople and elements of certain tribes advocated greater economic decentralisation. They feared the accord would produce another Tripoli-based government dominated by western militias and personalities. The Serraj team’s reliance on local militias in Tripoli added to the fears. Some eastern HoR members who demanded revisions to the accord warned that implementing it and recognising the government without an HoR vote would keep the HoR-appointed government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni in place. Most easterners consider that government legitimate, even if it is not operational.
Haftar initially paid lip-service to the accord, meeting Kobler the day before its signing and proposing a close associate, Ali Qatrani, for the Presidency Council. By January 2016, however, he turned against it, as he realised that literal implementation of its security arrangements (Article 8) would sideline him. He began to lead eastern opposition, which has enhanced his local appeal. A Haftar supporter called the accord “a plot by Islamists and their fans in the West to get rid of the one person who is really fighting the terrorists”.
The accusation was not altogether unfounded: Skhirat focused on getting around the “Haftar problem”. Several leading participants saw him as a chief obstacle. The main security sector provision, that the Presidency Council would become supreme armed forces commander, was requested by the general’s foes, who accused him of an indiscriminate war against Islamists of all stripes, not just jihadists, and of plotting a coup to bring back the former regime.
Western powers gave Haftar an ultimatum: get on board or be marginalised. Several EU governments and individuals close to the Presidency Council have made overtures, hinting that if he recognised council authority, all, including Article 8, could be discussed. However, many in his camp seem to believe the council’s dependence on Tripoli militias and repeated violations of agreed procedures (mainly for HoR endorsement of the accord) render it untrustworthy.
The perception that western militias and politicians who previously backed the GNC were the main “winners”, combined with Haftar-led opposition to the accord, pushed opinion in the east and some influential fence-sitters there to rally behind the general. A late backer said, “support for Haftar is mostly a matter of ego, the pride of people in the east, their way of being heard and seen”. Hope that eastern opponents might eventually come around depends not only on Haftar making concessions or being sidelined, but also on someone emerging to replace him. Most current accord backers in the east oppose Haftar, driven in part by fear of his violent tactics and calls for military rule. Some are army officers who blame him for unleashing endless war in Benghazi and believe an internationally-recognised government would curtail his authority and that of his HoR allies.
Prominent Haftar opponents in the east who support Serraj include al-Mahdi al-Barghathi and Faraj Baraasi, army commanders once aligned with him, and Jadran, the former Petroleum Facilities Guards commander. These men, who have official (contested in Jadran’s case) security sector positions, previously backed the HoR and enjoy support from their influential eastern tribes (Awaghir, Baraasa and Magharaba). When in May 2016 the Presidency Council appointed Barghathi the new government’s defence minister and confirmed Jadran in his Guards post, it and its international backers hoped to fragment Haftar’s eastern support and ensure immediate resumption of vital oil exports. A diplomat said, “Barghathi will be Serraj’s bridge to the east [and] Jadran his purse-holder”.
It has not worked out: Haftar’s forces continue to dominate, and, despite hefty council payments to Jadran to reopen the oil terminals, exports did not resume. Haftar’s capture of the main Gulf of Sirte facilities in September 2016, forcing Jadran and his allies to retreat, opened the possibility of a drawn-out battle for control of resources and further consolidated anti-accord forces’ leverage.
Some supporters of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, an anti-Haftar coalition of ex-revolutionary fighters, political Islamists and jihadists, favour the accord, as bringing to power an amenable government backed by some of their western allies. Likewise, fighters driven from Benghazi formed a new anti-Haftar militia, the Benghazi Defence Brigade, in 2016. Some of its members received covert Presidency Council backing without pledging it allegiance.
Alignments are not clear-cut. Rivalries between tribes, business lobbies and military commanders have also influenced attitudes toward the accord. For example, some eastern tribal leaders (especially in Jalo, Awjela and Marada) support Haftar and oppose the accord because they want to sideline Jadran, their main local rival. Shared resentment against Misrata’s rise as the dominant military power in the west has led some eastern supporters of the 2011 uprising to reconcile with high-ranking ex-regime officials, some of whom began to return from exile in 2016 with the consent of eastern tribes and authorities.
The accord left key security questions unaddressed. That track never took off: militia representatives on both sides stalled; UNSMIL had insufficient resources; access to militia leaders who rarely left their territory was limited; and politics became increasingly fragmented. By the time it was signed, the accord was predicated on the logic that the parties should accept its framework first and work out details only as they began implementing it. Yet, major disagreements remained. What role for militias that sprang up in 2011 and were not officially army? What future for Haftar and other controversial commanders? Was it okay to reach out to the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council and other groups in which mainstream ex-rebels had forged alliances of convenience with more radical groups, such as Ansar Sharia or even IS followers? What about the Derna Revolutionaries Shura Council, which, unlike its Benghazi counterpart, had some success fighting IS but allegedly included several dozen al-Qaeda supporters?
The accord sought to sidestep all these. It empowered the TSC to take charge of security arrangements and its Article 8 short-circuited the question of who would head the armed forces by giving that power to the council and granting its president and deputies a veto over senior military and security appointments. Supporters of the dialogue process considered this formula, agreed after heated, lengthy debate and one of the accord’s cornerstones, as sufficient guarantee to Libya’s multiple political and military factions that no controversial personality would be put in charge of the security apparatus. It also had the advantage of allowing the council and its international backers to keep the door open for all armed groups.
Rather than taking a comprehensive approach to security sector fractures, the council and international backers prioritised Tripoli security. This transformed the TSC from a nationwide body for security arrangements, as the accord envisioned, to one mainly tasked with preparing the council’s arrival in the capital. Reflecting this, council members selected the TSC’s eighteen members on the basis of their personal ties to them, as well as their leverage with armed groups in the capital. The idea was that, once firmly established, the council would set up a new committee for nationwide arrangements.
The council has largely focused on establishing a Presidential Guard. When originally conceived, just after signing of the accord, that was intended primarily as a Tripoli-based force under council authority into which local militias could integrate. The plan has expanded and, according to council members and some internationals, it is now seen as in charge of securing strategic sites, borders and government institutions nationwide. Supporters view it as a key step to an army; foes, even among council friends, argue that the broad remit risks further institutional chaos. More importantly, council detractors see it as proof of lack of seriousness about a unified army and desire only to give legal cover to militias. This idea only gained more traction after mid-October, when some Presidential Guard units turned against the council and backed return of the GNC-aligned government.
The “Tripoli first” approach and plan to create such a Presidential Guard rested on three assumptions that did not hold: first, that by creating facts on the ground and allowing it to operate in Tripoli the council could control key institutions, thus address immediate financial needs and so achieve greater citizen buy-in; secondly, that opponents would join the bandwagon, because self-interested military factions would not want to be deprived of the cash that only recognition of the unity government would give them access to; and thirdly, that after coming to Tripoli, the council would resolve its legitimacy problem and overcome HoR refusal to endorse the accord, council and proposed government. But it took five months for 101 HoR members to convene, and when they voted on 22 August, 60 passed a no-confidence motion (whether legally is still debated).
For these calculations to play out constructively, ground events would have had to build self-sustaining momentum; armed groups opposed to (or ambivalent about) the Serraj government would have had to have no financial or ideological incentives to continue undermining its authority; and external actors would have needed to stay united behind accord implementation. This was not the case.
C. International Contradictions
The accord received strong backing from the P3+5 (the UN Security Council’s three permanent members most active on Libya – the U.S., UK and France – plus Germany, Italy, Spain, the EU and UN) and, at least officially, Libya’s neighbours. Resolution 2259, soon after the signing, and subsequent Security Council presidency statements welcomed the accord. By January 2016, most members recognised the Presidency Council as Libya’s executive, treated Serraj as de facto head of government and stopped engaging with Thinni. Western states in particular called Serraj interchangeably head of council and government, though legally there was no unity government. Others, like Russia and Egypt, while officially supportive, stopped short of granting Serraj the diplomatic privileges normally awarded a prime minister.
Ambiguities have continued since the May Libya ministerial in Vienna, when over twenty states, including Russia, Egypt and China, backed Serraj, though not all formally recognised his government. Those such as Algeria, the U.S. and UK have come to consider HoR endorsement irrelevant, though they pay lip-service to the requirement. These and other, mostly EU, countries have actively encouraged the council to roll out a government and move on with an implementation whose terms they do not want to change. Russia, Egypt and the UAE, with stricter legal views that an HoR vote is needed, are open to amendments.
Disagreement over the need for a HoR vote conceals divergent policy objectives. The first group of countries, which have shaped the international narrative on Libya and supported the UN-led process, wants to move forward with creating the architecture envisaged by the accord, consolidate security and state institutions in Tripoli and deal with accord opponents later, when they hope to have greater leverage. The latter group would like the political process to accommodate concerns of HoR members and eastern constituencies that remain disaffected with the process and to guarantee the influence of their Libyan clients (HoR President Saleh and General Haftar in particular).
In addition to supporting Libyan factions they are closest to, there is also an ideological dimension: Egypt and some other Arab states see, like many eastern Libyans, the Presidency Council as dependent on Islamist armed groups and politicians, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan branch. Egyptian officials view their country as having a natural role in eastern Libya due to contiguity, historical links, the many Egyptian migrant workers and the security threat posed by radical groups there. But their chief concern now appears to be Serraj’s reliance on people they consider too close to Islamists. “A Libya where security decisions are taken by somebody close to the Brotherhood is anathema to Sisi”, said a Libyan activist close to Egyptian intelligence. Egyptians are perplexed by the council’s Misrata-dominated turn since its arrival in Tripoli. Ex-Qadhafi officials in Cairo and Abu Dhabi with close ties to their host governments appear to play a key role in channelling support to Haftar and depicting the Serraj-led council as controlled by Islamists.
The international divisions have resulted in divergences over using sanctions against spoilers. The EU and U.S. imposed travel and financial sanctions on HoR President Saleh and GNC officials, accusing them of creating obstacles to the political agreement. Russian and Egyptian diplomats criticise this as unhelpful. Moscow is also invested in the Haftar-commanded army. Like Egypt and the UAE, it has repeatedly called over the past two years for an easing of the arms embargo to allow Haftar to receive weapons and has given pro-HoR factions political support. Unlike the UAE and Egypt, however, Russia has apparently refrained thus far from giving Haftar military aid and has kept ties with politicians in Tripoli.
Some Western states have also urged a softer line on Haftar, ostensibly for counter-terrorism. In the first half of 2016, France gave his forces intelligence support in Benghazi, helping them regain near-complete control over the city. Covert and unacknowledged until late July 2016, when anti-Haftar forces downed an army helicopter carrying three French officers, France’s support for the general significantly weakened his Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council foes, thereby both strengthening his army’s claim in the east and his leadership credentials, even as he sought to undermine the Presidency Council. Other Western countries have also dispatched intelligence officers to eastern Libya, but they appear to have been less involved in ground operations.
France aside, most Western states firmly supported the council and argued it should receive military aid. Offers of assistance have come from the U.S., where Secretary of State John Kerry said he would support and consider any requests from Serraj for an arms embargo exemption. Throughout 2016, the U.S. has deployed special forces, mainly for intelligence gathering, and offered to train and equip Libyan forces. Since early August, at the council’s request, it has also supported the anti-IS offensive in Sirte with airstrikes. UK special forces based in Misrata have stepped up their presence and started to assist local armed groups involved in fighting IS in Sirte. In June, the EU extended the mandate of Operation Sophia and added two tasks: “training of the Libyan coastguards and navy; and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya”. In August, it also extended the mandate of its Integrated Border Management Assistance Mission to Libya (EUBAM Libya), a civilian mission mandated to plan for a possible future EU mission providing advice and capacity building in the area of criminal justice, migration, border security and counter-terrorism.
Italy took the lead in establishing the Libya International Assistance Mission (LIAM) in early 2016. Intended as a coordinating body for all international efforts to train Libyan forces, it has remained largely defunct given the council’s inability to control the military. Rome reduced earlier offers to train council-allied forces, when parliament agreed in September only to send 300 military (in rotation) to guard an Italian military field hospital in Misrata. At UK and U.S. instigation, NATO has offered to be more involved, but no concrete plans have materialised.
In short, far from showing unity on the way forward, international actors pursue diverging objectives, including by giving or pledging military support to various forces only superficially tied to any national army or political oversight. The risk increases of a growing divide over military support, with most Western countries backing the council and forces loyal to it, and Russia, Egypt and the UAE continuing to assist what they consider to be the legitimate army under Haftar.
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.