Libya’s last chance ahead of partition
The inter-Libyan dialogue has been going on, at various levels, for years. It has resulted in a number of understandings and agreements, the most prominent of which was the Skhirat agreement of December 2015, which established a Presidency Council and an interim government, thus ending the duplication of legislatures that had derailed a political settlement between various political and militant players in the east, west and south.
However, even that major breakthrough had its detractors; chief among them was the head of the Libyan National Army, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who in 2020 declared the agreement “a thing of the past.” That was after he had failed to take over Tripoli by force. And for years a number of UN special envoys had tried to close the gap between the east and the west in a bid to pave the way to hold presidential and legislative elections and unite the war-torn country once and for all.
The main issue in post-Qaddafi Libya is about who will rule the vast, oil-rich, sparsely populated North African country? The 79-year-old, dual national, Haftar believes he should be the next leader. After all, he controls Benghazi, much of the south and his troops can overrun the oil crescent at a moment’s notice.
Haftar has relied on the support of the Tobruk-based parliament speaker, Aguila Saleh. The latter lobbied to fire the Dbeibeh government and named former Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha as the new premier earlier this year.
Foreign interlocutors will never agree on what is best for the Libyan people and their future. That has to be decided by Libyans alone.
Having failed to form a government, Bashagha then tried to take over Tripoli by force, only to fail. A stalemate then prevailed.
Saleh also introduced a bill to set up a Constitutional Court in Benghazi while demoting one with similar powers in Tripoli. That straw broke all lines of communications between the two sides.
The proposed Constitutional Court is believed to be intended to pave the way for Haftar to put his election papers for president in order; mainly to abolish a previously agreed statute that bars the candidacy of those with a military background and/or dual nationality from running.
Meanwhile, a year has passed since the postponement of the general elections on Dec. 24, 2021. With no new date in sight, Haftar issued an ultimatum last week, “a final opportunity,” to draw up a road map for new elections. There were speculations that he was close to declaring areas under his control in the east and south, including Benghazi, as autonomous or self-governed, which is almost what the case is today.
However, international pressure from the US, Italy, Germany and the UK put the brakes on Haftar’s threat. All four countries issued statements vowing to resort to “alternative mechanisms” unless the Presidential Council and parliament agreed to a constitutional framework to hold the delayed elections.
Under such pressure Saleh declared that he was not going ahead with passing the Constitutional Court bill while he and the head of the Presidential Council agreed to resume dialogue. Dbeibeh, for his part, said that he was ready to oversee the much-awaited elections provided that the next government would not be a transitional one.
This is not the first time that opponents have agreed to talk and implement what was embraced in the past. But the reality is that there are too many players, both domestic and foreign, who are preventing a final deal. For one, there is no central government and national armed force controlling all of Libya. Tribal allegiances dictate how armed militias behave and where their loyalties lie in the end. Political rivalries between the east and west prevent an accord on who should rule Libya.
Libya has also become hostage to geopolitical power struggles, with regional powers such as Turkiye, Egypt and some Gulf countries putting pressure on various parties. In the bigger picture, the US, Russia and Italy, in addition to others, also have interests in how the country will eventually be run and where its politics will lean.
A sad reality as well is that the big powers are too busy elsewhere to worry about an immediate resolution to the decade-old Libyan crisis. It is up to the Libyan people and their representatives to save their own country from foreign intervention and what seems to be a plausible scenario — partition. Judging from the track record of the various players in the past few years, discord rather than unity is what is to be expected.
Foreign interlocutors will never agree on what is best for the Libyan people and their future. That has to be decided by Libyans alone, away from external pressure. Failing to do so, the likely thing to happen is that Libya will revert to pre-state conditions paving the way for partition along tribal lines.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.