By Virginie Collombier
After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, many different actors – political and military; Islamist and not; tribal, local, domestic, foreign and transnational – are competing with one another for power and hegemony in Libya. Are they ready for a New Compromise in Libya?
More than one year after the signing of the Libyan Political Accord (LPA) in Skhirat, implementation of the agreement is impeded by obstacles which now look insurmountable. Despite efforts by Western countries and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to empower the Presidential Council (PC) of the Government of National Accord (GNA), major constituencies have continued contesting its legitimacy and refusing its authority.
Acknowledging that the strategy that consisted in pushing ahead and forcing the signing of the LPA despite the refusal of major players had failed, UNSMIL and its international partners have attempted to bring opponents to the deal back to the talks. Their efforts over the past year have aimed at consolidating the LPA by widening the circle of its supporters, especially among Eastern constituencies. In particular, this meant reaching out to Khalifa Haftar and finding possible ways to reach compromise with the general and his allies.
This strategy has come up against serious difficulties. UNSMIL has suffered a serious loss of legitimacy in Eastern Libya over the past year. Its mediation efforts have long been perceived by Eastern constituencies as biased in favor of political and military forces led by Misrata and the Islamists in Western Libya. The attempt to force the implementation of the LPA, as well as initiatives such as the deal cut in July 2016 with Ibrahim Jadhran, the head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard in Libya’s Oil Crescent and a deeply contested figure in the East and across Libya, have further affected UNSMIL’s credibility as a mediator in the conflict. This was felt even among supporters of the LPA, as members of the Political Dialogue Committee have started meeting independently from UNSMIL, slightly shifting away from the UN’s overseeing.
The strategy of “faits accomplis” on the ground adopted by Haftar’s National Army and the Misratan forces officially placed under the PC/GNA political leadership, have deeply affected the balance of power between Libyan factions. The victory of the Al-bunyan al-marsus forces over the Islamic State in Sirte has significantly increased Misrata’s leverage within the PC/GNA. By taking control of most of the Oil Crescent and reopening the oil export facilities blockaded by Jadhran, Haftar’s forces have both expanded their territorial control further West and gained legitimacy among the Libyan population.
While Haftar’s increased authoritarian grip over Eastern Libya has raised concerns, his achievements in matters of security and the increase in oil exports and revenues that resulted from his intervention in the Gulf of Sirte have consolidated his position as a figure key to any political agreement. International developments, especially Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East and the new American administration’s focus on counter-terrorism, have increased his value as a military partner, and therefore as a possible political option.
Overall, the role of regional and international actors in the Libyan conflict has become difficult to ignore. Regional powers were not included in the UN-led political process, despite their sometimes direct involvement with actors on the ground, and despite the impact any political agreement would have on their own interests. While the Libyan conflict had much of a proxy-war, not much effort was made to reach a “proxy-peace”. The continuing political deadlock, combined with the perception of increased security threat and the risk of economic collapse have now pushed Libya’s neighbors (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia) to take matters into their own hands and attempt a reset of the mediation process along new lines.
This does not necessarily mean that the LPA is dead and that a new agreement has to be designed from scratch. Yet discussions between Libyan parties need to better take the new realities into account. Discussions between members of the Political Dialogue Committee on possible amendments to the LPA and the structure of the PC/GNA like the ones that took place in Hammamet mid-January have become largely irrelevant, as the composition and very nature of this consultative body does not fit the political context any longer.
The Egyptian-Algerian proposal to support talks between representatives the four main state institutions currently at the center of the crisis probably has more potential to secure advances towards a comprehensive political agreement. One year into the LPA, it has indeed become easier to identify key actors enjoying actual power, influence and connections to their respective constituencies. The talks would include the GNA’s Presidential Council led by Fayez al-Serraj; the House of Representatives (HOR), led by Ageela Saleh and supposed to remain the transitional legislative authority of the state under the LPA; the High State Council envisioned by the LPA to include former GNC members into the transitional institutional set-up, currently led by Abdalrahman al-Suweihli; and the leadership of the Libyan National Army commanded by Khalifa Haftar.
Libya’s neighbors’ capacity to craft a compromise remain deeply uncertain, given the high stakes at play and the depth of grievances accumulated over the past years. Yet some factors might help. Both the Misrata-GNA led and the Haftar-HOR camps have realized that that they need domestic legitimacy to achieve their aims: playing politics and diplomacy might now prove more rewarding than fighting. Libyan parties might also be pushed towards more pragmatism by the regional and international powers (especially Egypt and Russia) that have stepped in diplomatically and have an interest in becoming the brokers of a working political agreement. One major unknown here is whether the new US administration will push in the opposite direction, and convince the Libyan parties again that military victory is possible.
Virginie Collombier, Research Fellow and Coordinator, Middle East Directions Programme, European University Institute.