On 2 May 2017, the head of Libya’s internationally recognised government, Faiez al-Serraj, and his major military opponent, General Khalifa Haftar, met for the first time in over a year. Crisis Group’s Libya Senior Analyst Claudia Gazzini says talk of a deal is premature.
What do you think of the reported UAE-brokered deal between Serraj and Haftar? Some describe it as a major breakthrough. Do you agree?
The fact that Serraj and Haftar met is undoubtedly a positive development and could signal the opening of new channels of communication. It has been more than a year since their last meeting in Libya. Since then relations between them have been tense, some would even say frozen. The meeting was significant because currently they represent two key actors: respectively, the head of the internationally recognised government and the commander of a military coalition that considers itself the national army (but is not recognised as such by the Serraj government). There can be little hope for a meaningful dialogue over Libya’s future without them.
But that doesn’t mean that we now have a deal. Some Libyan social media outlets suggested that in the course of the Abu Dhabi meeting Serraj and Haftar had reached an understanding. Some Libyan commentators even hailed the supposed terms of what they referred to as an agreement. This is an excessively hopeful depiction of what happened. As far as I understand, one side (Haftar and/or the hosts in the United Arab Emirates) put the outline of a deal on the table, and there is no agreement yet on moving forward on those terms.
Why was there no agreement?
At first sight, the proposed agreement that circulated on social media would seem acceptable as a broad framework. It talks about the unity of the army, fighting terrorism and government restructuring, and proposes holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018. But the devil is in the details. Upon closer analysis, it is a lopsided agreement that does not take into consideration the position and sensitivities of the political and military factions that oppose Haftar. Nor can it win the backing of those who, while recognising Serraj, do not necessarily feel represented by him. This is probably why Serraj did not sign on. It would be better understood as an opening bid in a negotiation.
The main point of contention is the proposed re-composition of the Presidency Council (PC), the UN-backed rump executive headed by Serraj that took office in Tripoli in March 2016. According to the proposed deal, PC membership would be reduced from nine (as configured in the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, although three members have already left) to three. The downsizing in itself is not a problem, since most Libyan stakeholders agree that the PC in its current form is dysfunctional and too large. But under the proposed agreement the new PC’s three members would be Serraj, the head of the House of Representatives (HoR), and the armed forces commander. The latter two are Aghela Saleh and Khalifa Haftar, respectively. Because these two are allied, this setup would give the constituencies they represent (and who have refused to recognise the PC’s authority and legitimacy) the upper hand. I doubt that current PC members would voluntarily give up their positions to this triumvirate.
The other issue of contention is how the proposal deals with the army. For many Libyans it is essential that the future army be placed under civilian oversight. The draft proposal says that the army will come under the PC’s authority but, as mentioned above, in its new line-up the PC would include the armed forces commander, so it would not be a truly civilian body. This is a very controversial point that will draw opposition from anti-Haftar activists and various armed factions. The very broad wording regarding “fighting terrorism” is similarly controversial, because anti-Haftar factions routinely accuse him and members of his Libyan National Army of labelling as terrorist anybody who opposes them.
Other provisions, such as the call for national reconciliation and exiles’ right to return, are less controversial and could find broad support. But unfortunately, these are not the issues that will solve the political and institutional mess the country is in.
What about the proposed elections? Can there really be elections within a year?
In principle, if there were a broad political agreement between the various political factions and duelling state institutions, and a rapprochement among the militias, elections could take place next year. But we are not there yet. There is no political, institutional or military agreement in place, so practically, how could elections be staged? Who could pass an electoral law in the absence of a functioning parliament able to reach a quorum? Who will organise the ballot boxes? Who will provide security? Will people be able to campaign freely?
It is true that, these questions notwithstanding, many believe that the only way to end Libya’s divisions is through new elections. These are mainly people who support the House of Representatives-linked anti-Islamist factions and who believe that, if given a chance to vote, Libyans will show that the vast majority are against the UN-mediated power-sharing agreement and against Islamists. There is no doubt that Haftar and several other Qadhafi-era figures believe they stand a good chance of winning presidential elections if given a chance to run.
But there also are others who oppose early elections. They either claim that a new constitution should be drafted first or think that in the current institutional mayhem it is better to keep the Presidency Council (PC) as Libya’s internationally-recognised decision-making body.
So is this all just smoke and mirrors?
There have been some signals of possible openings for dialogue in recent weeks but nothing concrete has materialised. The main factions seem keen to hold on to whatever power they still retain rather than engaging in new negotiations. We are still far even from having a new framework agreement’s basic terms of reference. This means that the political crisis (with its violent spillovers) will most likely continue without a decisive settlement in 2017. Although various political actors contest the legitimacy of both the PC and the associated Government of National Accord, a lack of consensus among Libyans, neighbouring states and international stakeholders on what should replace it suggests these institutions will remain in place even as their effectiveness deteriorates and opponents consolidate their positions.
Ordinary Libyans seem to suffer more from the economic downturn than from militia fighting or lack of central government. Three years of low oil production have depleted foreign-currency reserves, pushed up prices for imports (most basic goods are imported) and caused liquidity shortages. In many ways people have grown accustomed to constant clashes among armed groups and to the existence of three parallel rival governments (aside from the Tripoli-based internationally recognised government of Serraj, there are two other rival governments respectively headed by Abdullah al-Thinni based in the East and by Khalifa Ghwell in Tripoli). They also no longer labour under the illusion that peace is around the corner (although most really hope it is). But what most people find very difficult to cope with is how much poorer they have become in relative terms due to rising prices and cash shortages.
What would be the risks for Serraj in going along with the proposed outline deal?
It is simply impossible for Serraj to accept this agreement as is. I think he has enough political acumen to understand this himself. The risk to him of accepting a deal like this is that he would not be able to return to Tripoli. Most military factions in the capital and in nearby Misrata, including those that nominally support the PC, oppose the terms of the deal as presented and would consider Serraj’s acceptance as nothing short of capitulation.
Is the proposed agreement supported by the international community?
The agreement as outlined appears to enjoy the support of the UAE, as they arranged and hosted the Haftar-Serraj meeting and have backed Haftar both politically and militarily for the past three years. It is no secret that they wish to see individuals tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents removed from power. On that basis, we can suppose that Egypt, too, is pleased with the proposal, but we have yet to see official comment from Cairo, which has agreed to host a follow-up meeting between the two men. Algeria, on the other hand, which took the lead on a competing initiative earlier this year is unlikely to support what it would consider a partisan deal. Likewise, I suppose that Turkey and Qatar, the traditional backers of political and military factions close to anti-Haftar circles in Tripoli and Misrata, would also not support this. Even some Western countries and the UN, which led the 2015-2016 political negotiations, might consider the proposed deal a non-starter for being one-sided and not deriving from serious negotiations, but none have issued official comments so far.
So what should happen to reach a workable deal?
What happened in Abu Dhabi assumes that any arrangement between Haftar and Serraj will in and of itself be enough to secure a deal. This is not the case. These two men do not represent Libya. There are numerous other groups with political, military and economic weight; any deal must take on board these constituencies as well. Some other things will also need to happen, most importantly greater international convergence on Libya’s future. The Libyan peace process has been adrift for months, partly because of the uncertainty that followed the November 2016 U.S. presidential elections: the Obama administration had been a champion of the UN-driven process, but its successor in Washington has yet to unveil its Libya policy. This has given an opportunity for regional actors to pursue their own initiatives, often acting at cross-purposes.
For any breakthrough to happen, regional and international actors should agree to at least a basic idea of what they would like to achieve and halt their military support for the various Libyan factions. There is also an urgent need to appoint a new UN special representative to replace the outgoing one, Martin Kobler, whose departure was initially announced in December 2016. This new UN special representative is needed to coordinate and converge the various initiatives now on the table, even while leaving it to Libyans to lead the process and its direction.
Claudia Gazzini, Senior Analyst, Libya.