Libyans hoping for an end to the conflict that has ripped their country into two warring halves can take some hope from the preliminary framework agreement signed at the U.N.-led talks in the Moroccan coastal resort town of Skhirat on July 11.
Everybody knows how hard it will be to bring this agreement to life, notably because one side refuses to accept it without amendments. Libya remains chaotic and fragmented since July 2014, with two rival sets of parliaments, governments and military coalitions. Islamic State and other extremists are expanding to fill the security void.
But before dismissing Libya’s chances of exiting its current mess, it is worth considering the hopeful signs the accord represents for Libyans wishing to end their year-old war. As International Crisis Group’s 16 July assessment of the talks put it, “the incomplete consensus secured in Skhirat is an achievement, although a very limited one”.
Firstly, under the leadership of U.N. Special Representative Bernardino León, 18 out of the 22 participants of the U.N.-facilitated Libyan Political Dialogue signed the preliminary framework agreement. The Political Dialogue includes four representatives from each parliament – the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk elected in June 2014 and its predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli – as well as members who are boycotting these two sides and a number of independents, mainly former bureaucrats.
The Skhirat agreement also has a goal that is broadly understood and supported in Libya: the creation of a consensus-based national unity government (“Government of National Accord”) that would have wide powers to govern from its seat in Tripoli, including foreign and security policy and oversight of state finances and institutions.
Thirdly, the signing ceremony included six mayors, including from the country’s three main cities (Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata), and representatives of two main political parties, the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance (Tahaluf al-Quwwat al-Wataniya) and the Muslim Brotherhood-led Justice & Construction Party (Adala wa Binaa).
Other negotiating tracks, representing municipal councils, political parties and women, also signalled their backing, as did Libya’s neighbours and those regional and international actors that support the dialogue and peace process.
Avenues of compromise are still open, and it’s not surprising that the Tripoli-based GNC didn’t sign the accord, even though some may have been frustrated by the hard-line stances of their president, Nuri Abu Sahmein. The GNC are a significant constituency, and the new State Council offered to their members was endowed little clear power. Meanwhile their HoR rivals in Tobruk got sole legislative authority and a one-year extension in office.
There are opposing views about whether the text can still be amended before it is considered final, but clearly everything should be done to get both the Tobruk HoR and the Tripoli GNC on the same page. The fact that no actual text was attached to the two pages of signatures collected in Skhirat is testament to a level of ambiguity on the part of the U.N. and some delegates as to what will be the final version.
Fair composition of and clear responsibilities for a new State Council could, for instance, be set out in an annex to the framework agreement. These could perhaps include the right for consultative State Council oversight of House of Representatives’ legislation, and a provision that any vote of confidence or no confidence for the future cabinet be made by consensus between the two bodies.
What is unrealistic for the two main parties is to hope that without the other one on board there can be any national unity government. Indeed, lack of agreement will only raise risks of further military escalation in the capital, since security forces from the Tripoli faction control access to all government and state institutions there, including the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation.
Good reasons to hurry
Going forward, the U.N.-led process would benefit from modification. It needs to shift the parties to face-to-face talks, since the previous format in which the parties negotiated individually with the U.N. team threw up too many surprises. Each side would need to empower its delegation to negotiate rather than serve as a mere conduit for proposals requiring approval at every stage.
There are good reasons to hurry. ISIS and other jihadist groups have spread their presence in Libya dramatically since 2014, taking control of several towns in the Gulf of Sirte and attacking targets in areas controlled by both of the two main camps. Prolonged strife will only worsen the migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. The mandate of Bernardino León – the architect of the talks - is currently scheduled to expire in September, and the HoR’s term of office ends in October 2015.
Even as negotiators sharpen their pencils to tackle these and other difficult issues – for instance, ensuring that the negotiations have a proper security track, that regional powers are fully involved, and that they agree on how to select a consensus Prime Minister - armed groups back home are oiling their weapons. It is critical for all involved in the process to remember and build on the Skhirat’s achievements, which may be limited but remain the best bet to prevent Libya’s further collapse.
Claudia Gazzini is Crisis Group's senior analyst for Libya.