Libya: War, peace or in between

Libya: War, peace or in between

By Mehmet Kıvanç

Libya currently is facing three options: to continue being a war zone, to achieve a peace, or to become a gray area between war and peace. The presidential and parliamentary elections of December 24 constitute a crossroads for the country’s future. The geography, strong local political figures, foreign fighters, the presence of ISIS and Al Qaeda and foreign sponsors of a proxy war are the most important obstacles to establish central authority and state legitimacy.

Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded ahead of the so-called Arab Spring. In the aftermath, proxy wars have erupted in Syria and Libya. Currently, all these four countries, which have turned into a war zone during the climax of the unipolar world, are closing a chapter. Although all four countries own very different dynamics and circumstances, the presence of ISIS and Al Qaeda in these countries and the inability to eliminate foreign sponsored proxy elements constitute a common feature of them, resulting in fundamental instability.

Libya has entered the vicious circle of civil war twice after 2011. Now, presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled under UN observation for December 24. The UN Security Council discussed the election preparations on September 10. In the meeting, Mr. Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya stated the country “is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible”.

In addition, Kubiš warned, “aborting the drive for elections will be for many be a signal that violence is the only path to power in the country.”

The embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States in Libya called all Libyan actors to insist on holding the elections on 24 December. The embassies’ joint statement declared that “All actors should recognize that now is the time to engage and finalize the electoral framework, taking into account all legitimate concerns of the Libyan people.”

The biggest conflict results still from the lack of consensus, on which constitutional base the elections will be held. The dispute even bears the possibility of postponing the elections. During her visit to Algeria on August 31, Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush made a statement, hinting to this possibility:

“I cannot answer whether the elections will be postponed or not, but we are trying to ensure they will be held on the scheduled date,” told Mangoush and added: “We are still waiting to see if parliament will approve the electoral law. This could block or postpone the election.”

Another hotly discusses issue ahead of the elections is the presence of foreign military forces in Libya. Egypt, which has a 1000-km-border with Libya, is especially sensitive in the issue.

Abdel Fattah al Sisi, hosted the Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aqila Saleh, and Khalifa Haftar in Cairo on Tuesday, where the Egyptian President stressed “the need to end foreign intervention and the presence of foreign forces and mercenaries in Libya.” Al Sisi also stated that Egypt would continue to coordinate with all Libyan parties to make sure that elections were held on December 24.

Attempts to create conditions necessary for the election

Mohammad Younes Menfi, head of Libya’s Presidential Council, has officially announced the launch of the comprehensive national reconciliation project on September 6. 

In this context Saadi Gadhafi, the third son of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, was released from prison September 5.  

This move can be interpreted as an attempt to gain support of those sections in the Libyan society, which think that things were better under Gaddafi rule. This may constitute an element in the ongoing negotiations within the electoral process. But as the Gaddafi family does not control any armed force within the country, they are not capable to rule Libya on their own.

Also Ismail Abuzreiba al-Zway, a photographer arrested in eastern Libya in 2018, has been set free within an amnesty from forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar, official sources said on September 12.

Although the UN and international actors welcome these steps, more is needed in order to be able to held the elections on December 24.

Fragmented state structure

In accordance with the Skhirat Agreement signed on December 17, 2015, the Libyan state was divided between the High Council of State, which has an advisory role, the Government of National Accord (GNA), located in the capital city Tripoli, and the House of Representatives in Tobruk. The state was thus erected on a three-pillar-body.

The country’s armed forces meanwhile gathered around two different political centers: The Libyan Armed Forces tied to the GNA in Tripoli, and the Haftar-commanded Libyan National Army tied to the House of Representatives in Tobruk. Both, the forces in Tripoli and those in Tobruk contained several tribal leaders and pragmatic and fragile alliances of local leaders.

In April 2019, Haftar started an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli. His attack and siege on the city was broken by the GNA, supported by Turkey, and the situation quickly changed in favor of those forces that controlled Tripoli.

Both sides signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva under UN auspices on October 23, 2020. The sides convened in Tunisia between November 9 and 13, and they agreed to hold general elections on December 24, 2021.

On March 2021, a new step was taken to united the political centers located in Tripoli and Tobruk: The Government of National Unity was established.

In the Berlin Conference, a compromise was achieved to establish the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) with 75 members. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was agreed upon as Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Unity.

Mohamed al-Menfi was selected as Chairman of the Presidential Council, alongside with Musa al-Koni and Abdallah al-Lafi as Presidential Council members.

This structure was established on the path, which was opened by the UN-led ceasefire agreement and the Berlin Conference. The structure rests mainly on the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, the Government of National Unity, the Presidential Council and the Libyan House of Representatives.

In addition, the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which consists of 5 senior military officers chosen by the GNA  (Government of National Accord) and 5 senior military officers chosen by LNA (Libyan National Army) has been established.

Every state layer has its own voice

Although it is intended to unite the different state organs summarized above under one umbrella, in the practical progress of policy and diplomacy, different voices of state are heard.

When Prime Minister Dbeibah visited Turkey back in April, accompanied by 14 ministers of hşs government, he confirmed Libya’s fidelity to the maritime boundary demarcation agreement signed with Ankara.

But although Dbeibah appears to be close to Ankara’s position, his Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush calls attention with her distant positioning towards Turkey.

During Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Libya in May, al-Mangoush stated “We call on Turkey to cooperate with us to put an end to the presence of all foreign forces and mercenaries, in order to preserve the sovereignty”. 

The remarks were seen as a rebuke to Turkey according to Associated Press.

Yet, the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission has asked the Presidential Council and Government of National Unity to freeze all military agreements with all countries on August 14.

The Libyan Chief of General Staff, Mohammed Al-Haddad considered this statement as an intervention to political landscape.

Prime Minister Dbeibah also objected to this positioning of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission, which had been established in the UN-led ceasefire and the Berlin Conference, the same process that had elevated Dbeibah to become Prime Minister.

Besides, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum is still unable to agree on the constitutional basis of the scheduled elections.

It becomes obvious that the LPDF, the Joint Military Commission and similar institutions were established within the UN and Berlin process without solving the contradictions that have led to the conflict at first hand. Therefore, earlier disagreements and conflicts continue within the newly established institutions.

Tim Eaton, a senior researcher at Chatham House explains this situation saying that “There is no actor or group that can clearly dominate the Libyan political scene,” referring to the fragmentation in the country.

Regional views on Libya

Moscow does not to consider Libya as a playground of radical terror groups like as ISIS and Al Qaeda, which could pose security threat for Russia. Secondly, the presence of its military power in Africa constitutes also a long-term investment for Moscow, in accordance with China. Although Russia does not accept its military engagement in Libya formally, Russian influence in Northern Africa reaches well beyond the Libya conflict.

The situation in Libya is very essential for France, which is seeing south of Libya Sahel region as its back yard. “A flow of weapons across the region amid chaos in Libya contributed to growing ferment. In northern Mali, Tuareg rebels entered an alliance with Islamists before the latter outflanked the separatist rebels, took over most of northern Mali and launched an advance south to the capital Bamako. The former colonial power France intervened and quickly ousted the militants from towns, observes the Crisis Group report.

Turkey on the other side seeks to maintain economic investments inherited from the Gaddafi-Era and considers the maritime border demarcation agreement as a gain the Eastern Mediterranean, which Ankara will not give up.

Egypt considers that it’s its right to take all necessary precautions against a possible terrorist threat resulting from instability in Libya. 

European countries are concerned about a possible, uncontrolled refugee wave, and Germany’s desire to take leadership in the political process should also be noted. France distinguishes itself from its European allies, trying to avoid the emergence of any situation in Libya that might endanger its hegemony in the former colonies. These local, national and international actors on various levels have until now been only able to agree on the ceasefire from October 2020 and the following dialogue process. The elections of December 24 will be the most important test for this consensus. While the West is stunned in Afghanistan, Libya continues to be a field where regional actors will take a greater initiative.

United World International

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December 2021