It has been almost three months since UN Special Representative for Libya Ghassan Salamé launched his ambitious 12-month action plan for Libya. Salamé's programme seeks to amend the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) that spawned the Government of National Accord, pass a constitution and hold presidential and parliamentary elections.
That timeline always looked ambitious. Salamé has had some notable successes, re-establishing the UN’s lead in negotiations and resuscitating a dormant political process. But now he faces the challenge of convincing Libyan powerbrokers to focus their efforts on succeeding in elections rather than fighting a drawn out battle over amendments to the LPA.
Amending the Libyan Political Agreement
Amending the LPA opens up some thorny issues, particularly regarding oversight of the military – a critical concern for General Khalifa Hafter and his supporters – as well as the balance of power between the eastern-based House of Representatives (the parliament elected in 2014) and the High State Council (the consultative body created by the LPA).
Much of the content of draft proposal leaked last month was expected, particularly the reduction of the Presidency Council – the executive body of the Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, which would be retained for the interim government – from nine to three members. But, as always, the question is who will fill those seats.
Here, Salamé has suggested the use of ‘lists’ of three candidates as the mechanism to fill the positions. The lists must consist of candidates representing the east, west and south of the country respectively. Two committees, one comprising 10 members of the House of Representatives and the other comprising 10 members of the High State Council, would vote on the lists. And, crucially, only a list with joint sponsorship of the two committees can be selected.
Beyond the interim
Last month, the House of Representatives voted – albeit with a low turnout – to endorse the LPA amendments, a significant victory for the UN plan. Few votes on such issues have been convened in the House of Representatives, which has long been reduced to a rump. Its speaker, Ageela Saleh, has sought to prevent the passage of bills that may reduce his political leverage.
Yet many in the High State Council feel the reason that the vote was passed was because Salamé’s amendments afford the House of Representatives primacy. The Council’s leader, Abdulrahman Swehli – who had been touting an alternative transition plan of his own – criticized the proposals. But the High State Council more broadly appears divided on the issue and is yet to pass a vote on the amendments. Mobilizing support within the Council is now a priority for Salamé.
In seeking to push the process along, Salamé and his team are trying to convince potential spoilers that focusing on the details of the interim process instead of looking ahead to the post-elections landscape is a mistake. Salamé argues that the amendments to the LPA aren’t ‘fundamental’ and that the real prize is what comes after the transition. Yet, Libyan powerbrokers are likely to have calculated that the interim arrangements will have a good chance of enduring, and that concessions made now will disadvantage them further down the line.
This is significant. The Libyan lawyer Azza Maghur notes that the interim period will only progress into something more permanent if the House of Representatives and High State Council are able to settle their differences over the draft laws on elections and a referendum on the constitution. If amendments to the LPA cannot be agreed upon, then the prospect of consensus on these elements is remote.
Everyone wants elections – that they can control
With negotiations apparently stalling, the launch of voter registration for future elections in Libya on 6 December sparked speculation that the sequencing of Salamé’s plan may be about to change, with elections moving up the slate. Salamé has denied this. Speaking in Rome, he laid out four sets of conditions that must be fulfilled before elections could be held: technical issues such as voter registration; legislative issues surrounding an election law; security guarantees; and political acceptance of the results in advance of the poll.
While voter registration is set to begin, the other elements realistically require the formation of an interim government and are some distance away from being in place ahead of the UN’s target of summer 2018. And, despite the support that Prime Minister Serraj, General Hafter, High State Council leader Swehli and House of Representatives speaker Saleh have all given to elections at various points, their commitment to the poll is likely to be centred on their ability to control the outcome. Acceptance of the election result in advance will be difficult to come by and even harder to enforce.
Salamé has said that Libya currently has a window of opportunity to make progress while there is a lesser degree of international interference in its affairs. The question is now whether a breakthrough over amendments to the LPA and an interim government can be made before his momentum is lost. Failure will mean locking Libyans in to an extended cycle of transition, an outcome that Salamé has been keen to avoid.
Tim Eaton, Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.