By Mustafa Fetouri
The recent meeting between Gen. Khalifa Hifter and Fayez al-Sarraj in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates marked the first face-to-face encounter ever between the two Libyan rivals.
Libya has been without a central government since the bloody civil war that saw Gadhafi toppled and killed in 2011 at the hands of rebel forces, which then mushroomed into hundreds of militias’ dominating the country and preventing any government from adequately functioning ever since.
While it’s unclear how much impact the May 2 meeting will eventually have, the fact that it took place at all is in itself a milestone in the Libyan crisis.
Until then, neither man had officially recognized the other’s legitimacy and had failed to directly communicate. However, the question remains: How much can each side deliver to bring back peace and security and ease the burden on Libyan citizens, whose lives have been a continuous struggle?
In what seems to reflect the gap between the two sides, no official joint statement was issued after the Abu Dhabi meeting, though sources close to both sides talked about the positive atmosphere that prevailed. Also, after returning to Tripoli, Sarraj issued a statement May 3 in which he mentioned that he agreed with Hifter about calling for a new political dialogue, new elections, reuniting government institutions and reorganizing the military under civilian oversight.
Hifter is worried about his future should he recognize Sarraj’s government, which was set up in December 2015 through a United Nations-brokered political agreement.
Neither Hifter nor Sarraj can deliver any tangible results unless backed by allies on both sides of the political divide. The Tobruk-based parliament backing Hifter has yet to agree to more dialogue in which the strongman can play a deciding role. In the meantime, Hifter and military forces loyal to him have scored well in their operations against Islamists in eastern Libya, particularly in Benghazi, making him a make-or-break player without whom no settlement will work.
At the same time, Sarraj is not a free man to decide what he thinks is best. He is heading the fractured Presidency Council in Tripoli, whose nine members hardly agree on anything. This explains why the statement about the meeting was issued in Sarraj’s name, not by the council’s collective leadership — as is usually the case. So far, none of the other members has commented on the outcome of the meeting, which means it is a controversial issue.
On the other hand, Hifter has more room to maneuver and even impose some conditions on any political settlement should he wish to. This strength is backed by the military force that has helped liberate most of Benghazi so far and helped oil production resume in the oil crescent in the center of the country. Hifter’s forces managed to take over major ports, such as Ras Lanuf east of Sirte, before handing them over to the National Oil Corporation to resume its work of exporting the crude.
Meanwhile, the Presidency Council’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli is weak and has no effective military force truly loyal to it. Indeed, there are different militias, including the powerful Misrata groups, that claim loyalty to the Presidency Council. Under this banner, they liberated Sirte from the Islamic State earlier this year, but the claim of loyalty is bogus, intended to gain some legitimacy and avoid being at odds with the GNA, which is backed by the UN and major world powers.
The meeting between the two men created a sense of optimism among Libyan citizens, however deceptive that might be, since hard-liner militias — particularly with Islamist ideology — in western Libya are not happy with any kind of rapprochement that might threaten their turfs.
Sadiq al-Ghariani, a self-styled mufti in Tripoli, quickly condemned the meeting in Abu Dhabi, calling Hifter a murderer while depicting Sarraj’s government as illegitimate and imposed by the UN without any due political process. Ghariani is considered the de facto Islamist leader in western Libya and enjoys certain power among Islamists.
If anything good came of the meeting, it is that it created positive momentum that should be built on to move forward with amending the Libyan Political Agreement and to offer Hifter some assurances that he will not be left out.
One encouraging sign to further the dialogue is coming from Washington: Al-Monitor reported that both Hifter and Sarraj could soon visit to consult the new US administration.
To Libyan citizens, the meeting was a source of cautious optimism. A Tripoli taxi driver, Salah, told Al-Monitor, “We can say the meeting is a positive step after we see something tangible that might help ease our daily burdens.”
Hassan, a shopkeeper, was less optimistic when he told Al-Monitor, “Politicians are corrupt and keep misleading us by creating false hopes, while in reality, they do not care.”
Ignoring Hifter has proved to be a mistake. His opponents in the Presidency Council and in western Libya suspect he harbors aspirations to take over the country in a military coup once he reaches the capital. He undoubtedly has intentions, just like every other politician in chaotic Libya. But without him, it is hard to see how to move forward. Nevertheless, in turbulent, messy Libya, deeds are what matter the most — not intentions.
Mustafa Fetouri is an independent Libyan academic and an award-winning journalist.