"Today there is an opportunity… we must all seize this moment."
Referencing a new UN backed plan for the unification of Libya, the words of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September of 2017 had been filled with hope. But nine months on, optimism among Libya’s people is dwindling.
Six years after the fall of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya remains mired in conflict. Efforts by the UN, France, African Union and UAE have all failed to unify the country. Last year’s appointment of Ghassan Salamé as Special Representative to Libya and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) brought renewed hope for a resolution.
Salamé’s plan has hinged on bringing together Libya’s two main disparate governments to amend the 2015 Libyan Political Accord (LPA). In the west is the UN mandated Government of National Accord (GNA). The GNA enjoys control over the country’s finances and key institutions, but lacks the ability to project itself militarily, with only nominal ties to a conglomeration of regional militias. In the east, the freely elected House of Representatives (HoR) supports the Qaddafi era General, Khalifa Haftar. As head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Haftar exerts territorial control over roughly half the country.
Amendments have focused on two key sticking points: the relationship of the Presidential Council with government, and the separation of civil and military powers. Currently, a nine member Presidential Council controls the GNA. Critics have labelled this dysfunctional, and Haftar has called for a reduction to three — one delegate each from the LNA, GNA and HoR. While clearly tipping the balance of power squarely in favour of the eastern alliance, it also allows Haftar to have his finger in both political and military pies.
The question of Haftar’s role in a transitional government has plagued negotiations since 2015. The general has invested significant time and treasure to converting his military victories into political ones, sending his son to lobby the US congress and projecting himself as a vanguard against Islamic terrorism.
But while Haftar’s lobbying has got him a seat at the negotiating table, securing a role in the long-term future of Libya will require compromise. Despite his tough rhetoric and support from Egypt and the UAE, recent losses in the Sirte Oil Basin demonstrate the limits of Haftar’s military power, ruling out any ideas of liberating Tripoli from the GNA. Further pushing parties closer together is Libya’s deteriorating economic situation. With inflation running above 30%, and a lack of liquidity, financial institutions in the east have been forced to cooperate with their western equivalents.
At a meeting in Cairo last December, Haftar offered Salamé support for the peace plan, conditional on the removal of Article 8 — the subordination of the military to civil society. While the GNA has fiscal control, it lacks a peoples mandate and a monopoly on violence. This situation is exacerbated by the porousness of Libya’s southern border with Chad and Sudan. The impunity with which foreign-armed groups are able to operate in the region has led local officials to compare it to that of foreign occupation. It’s Salamé’s hope that a National conference held in June can bring together the myriad-armed parties and lay the foundation for a unified military capable of enforcing a monopoly on violence.
With little progress towards an amended LPA, recent comments have seen Salamé downplay its importance, instead shifting his focus to “the draft constitution, the elections, and the comprehensive national reconciliation”. With a deadline of September, no official date has yet been set for elections and concerns are mounting that a constitutional referendum could be avoided or delayed until after elections.
The fact that both sides are committed to September elections is not a guarantee of stable government. Salamé’s plan may represent the best option for both sides to escape the quagmire of conflict, but barring a significant shift in the balance of power, it remains unlikely that Haftar will cede control to a civil authority. With Egypt’s backing, Haftar’s victory at elections threatens to birth an authoritarian state, masked in thinly veiled democracy. UPDATE
Since the writing of this article, there have been rumours that Khalifa Haftar has been transported to a French hospital and is in an unknown condition. Haftar is the keystone that holds together the disparate military groups responsible for suppressing Islamist militants. If his health prevents him from leading, there is no clear line of succession.
As unstable as Libya is, without Haftar in command of the LNA the east will fall further into chaos as warloads and islamists jockey for power.
James Baylis is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.