Foreign cooperation vital to Libyan national reconciliation
A combination of military stalemate and nationwide outbursts of popular anger have compelled Libya’s feuding leaders and their foreign patrons to consider fresh initiatives to address the country’s political and economic malaise.
Following the June ending of the campaign to take Tripoli by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s forces, there has been a lull in the fighting in Libya, which has provided opportunities for dialogue between political rivals.
In early September, there were two conferences. The first was at Montreux, Switzerland. It was sponsored by the UN Support Mission in Libya and brought together leaders of all the prominent political groups in the country. They agreed to have a new presidential council, made up of a president and two deputy presidents, with a separate prime minister, and to hold elections in October next year.
The other conference was in Morocco, where five delegates each from the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HOR) agreed to unify national institutions by finalizing norms relating to the appointments of the heads of the central bank, the National Oil Corporation and the armed forces.
Hardly had the Morocco conference ended when hundreds of demonstrators went on the rampage in Benghazi. Angry with their living conditions — including shortages of water and electricity — and demanding political change, they set fire to the headquarters of the eastern government. There were further demonstrations at Al-Bayda and Al-Marj, a major base for Haftar.
Days later, the government in Tobruk, headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani, submitted its resignation to HOR Speaker Aguila Saleh.
In the west, there were popular protests against corruption and poor services in Tripoli, Misrata and Al-Zawiya last month. The demonstrators were attacked by pro-government militias, thus exposing fault lines within the government. GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj “suspended” his Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha on the grounds that he had been supportive of the protesters. The minister had condemned the “gang of thugs” who had attacked the demonstrators and vowed he would “protect unarmed civilians.” Bashagha, with a solid base in Misrata and backed by Turkey, was reinstated a week later.
Al-Sarraj last week announced that, by the end of October, he would hand over power to a new executive authority. He admitted that Libya was experiencing “severe polarization,” but noted that the initiatives to unify the country’s major institutions and prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections had brought the country to a “new preparatory phase.”
Reflecting this positive atmosphere of reconciliation, Haftar announced that his forces would lift the eight-month blockade of oil facilities in response to the “deterioration of living conditions.”
However, despite the apparent bonhomie, the next steps in the political reconciliation process will not be easy. The main foreign players — Turkey, Russia and the US — intend to re-examine their positions and alignments to safeguard their interests.
In Libya, Turkey’s military efforts are now blocked by the Egyptian commitment to enter the conflict if the GNA forces cross the Sirte-Jufra line. In the Mediterranean, Ankara is facing opposition from the coalition of Greece, Israel and Egypt. Now, with Al-Sarraj’s departure likely to come next month, it has to consider that the new government might be less enthusiastic about the controversial deal that set out Libya and Turkey’s exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean.
For Russia, the failure of Haftar’s forces to take Tripoli, despite being robustly backed by Russian military equipment and fighters from private military contractor the Wagner Group, has compelled it to review its commitment to the field marshal and support the reconciliation process to protect its economic and strategic interests.
Further, Russia faces a challenge from a new player in Libya — the US. The Americans had previously left the defense of Western interests in the region to their European partners. But Washington has become interested in Libya in response to Russia’s plan to set up bases on the Mediterranean coast, which it sees as threatening the security of its partners in Southern Europe.
Despite the apparent bonhomie, the next steps in the political reconciliation process will not be easy.
In the face of these uncongenial developments, Turkey and Russia may be expected to work more closely together, as they have done in Syria, despite their differences. This will require closer coordination between them in terms of the management of national reconciliation to ensure their proteges emerge at the helm.
This fresh thinking could even lead to a hitherto unthinkable option: Egyptian-Turkish engagement, culminating in diplomatic ties. With Russia working with them, the three partners would be more effective in managing Libyan politics, while safeguarding their interests in the country. Turkey could also envisage the possibility of pulling Egypt out of the Greece-Israel coalition in the Mediterranean.
But this could all be a mirage. The deep divide between Turkey and Egypt over political Islam has been amplified by region-wide concerns relating to Ankara’s efforts to realize a neo-Ottoman empire in the Middle East and the Mediterranean through active military interventions.
Political reconciliation and stability in Libya demand reduced ambitions and greater mutual accommodation on the part of the principal foreign players than has been apparent so far.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.