Don’t hold your breath for peace in Libya
Libya’s “parliament” (whose legitimacy is questionable) has endorsed the new transitional executive authority appointed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), a UN-chosen body that will itself be accused of corruption in a UN report to be released in the next few weeks.
This new government is intended to place Libya on a path to unifying its warring factions, restoring its institutions and ushering the country toward a stable future. The international community has reacted positively, stressing that this new Government of National Unity (GNU) must both cooperate with all stakeholders to address the needs of Libyans and accelerate plans to hold national elections at the end of the year. The US, European countries and neighboring Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia welcomed the results of the parliamentary vote, and the EU went further, threatening sanctions in response to any interference with the GNU’s mandate.
The formation of the GNU itself bears a striking resemblance to the formation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2016, which eventually failed to resolve institutional divisions that only prolonged a chaotic transitional period. Atop the pile of concerns is the formula for the selection of the prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, and head of the presidential council, Mohamed Menfi, which was geared toward power sharing rather than fair assessments based on policy or political reconciliation.
But it is not all bad news. The appointment of the GNU and the vote of confidence in the ministers named to Dbeibah's temporary Cabinet are a step in the right direction, hopefully laying the foundations of Libya’s recovery, restoration of its institutional capacities, unifying the two governments and capping off a tumultuous transitional period with national elections slated for December.
Fayez Al-Sarraj, head of the outgoing GNA in Tripoli, has pledged to hand over power to the GNU, since pro-Sarraj militias are mostly in favor of Dbeibah and refusing to cede power would have meant losing their protection. Tobruk’s House of Representatives is also expected to accept the GNU’s mandate, given positive statements from Speaker Aguila Saleh and discussions on an oil revenue sharing mechanism.
The biggest hurdle for the GNU will be dismantling militias and achieving the seemingly impossible goal of having an estimated 20,000 foreign mercenaries withdraw. This is further complicated by the GNU’s nine-month term, which is too short to account for meddling foreign countries and mount an effective response.
Oil revenues will be crucial if Dbeibah is to deliver on his pledges to restore public utilities and spark off a reconstruction boom to reinvigorate an economy in dire straits, further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Politically stability will be a boon for Libya’s oil and gas sector, in serious need of investment, repairs and expansion to meet planned production targets of 1.45 million barrels by year end to over 2 million within four years. Aside from oil revenues, the ability of Libya’s National Oil Company to continue working despite political divisions, sporadic fighting and, at one point, attempts by Daesh and other armed groups to overrun oil facilities, will be key to reconciliation. Its nearly seven years of transparent, apolitical and technocratic maneuvering could prove useful in restoring Libya’s crippled state institutions and helping them navigate factionalism and political divisions in order to work for all Libyans, as Dbeibah has urged.
The biggest hurdle for the GNU will be dismantling militias and achieving the seemingly impossible goal of having an estimated 20,000 foreign mercenaries withdraw. This is further complicated by the GNU’s nine-month term, which is too short to account for meddling foreign countries and mount an effective response. It is highly unlikely Turkey and Russia will simply pack up and head home given the extensive investments made in carving spheres of influence, expanding areas of control, entrenching their interests and even cultivating strong ties to Libyan non-state armed actors.
Russian mercenaries, for instance, have also dug tunnels in the front-line Sirte-Jufra region, fortifying their positions and signaling an intent to stay in Libya for as long as possible. Neither Moscow nor Ankara will vacate Libyan territory without reaping benefits in the form of reconstruction and energy contracts, and arms sales. Additionally, given the antipathy between Turkey and the UAE, it is also highly unlikely Abu Dhabi will cease supporting Khalifa Haftar or any other influential figures he is aligned with in the east — a move matched by Egypt, wary of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining a foothold and legitimacy next door.
Thus, even if Libyans are weary after a decade see-sawing between chaos and inklings of hope in the form of UN-mediated peace processes, it is unlikely external actors will simply retreat. Libya must find a way to traverse these murky waters lest this renewed optimism ends up dashed by renewed fighting, spurred by external actors, in pursuit of meager mercenary goals or grander regional ambitions. If the GNU is to succeed, it may need to part with grand ambitions in favor of attaining smaller, feasible objectives to enhance its legitimacy and generate sufficient support for extending its mandate should the planned December elections fail to materialize.
The next 90 days will make or break the Dbeibah government, but the history of Libya in the past 10 years does not support a great deal of hope.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell