Doubts swirl over twin package of security, economic reforms in Tripoli

The new security proposals were not detailed when they were announced, although both sides are said to have agreed to them.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Ghassan Salame, UN special envoy for Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), attends a news conference in Tripoli, on September 12.  (AFP)
Catch-22. Ghassan Salame, UN special envoy for Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), attends a news conference in Tripoli, on September 12. (AFP)

TUNIS - In efforts to build on the ceasefire that followed bitter clashes in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, the internationally recognised Presidency Council and its Government of National Accord, with the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), have come up with a twin package of security arrangements and economic reforms.

These, they hope, will build on the ceasefire agreed to on September 4 and that was still holding ten days later and create a stable and secure Tripoli.

The clashes were between local militias providing security for the Presidency Council (PC) and a better armed and organised force from Tarhouna, south-east of Tripoli, which accused the militias of siphoning off much of the country’s oil income. Ostensibly claiming loyalty to the PC, the battalion said Tripoli had to be cleansed.

The new security proposals were not detailed when they were announced, although both sides are said to have agreed to them. It is not known whether the Tarhouna battalion would withdraw or if rival militias would give up their positions, as was envisaged in the 2015 Skhirat agreement that established the PC.

All that has been said is that a committee to oversee compliance with the ceasefire has been established and that it would mediate in any future disputes.

The economic package consists of a levy on foreign currency purchases, yet to be decided but effective as of September 12, plus a reduction in fuel subsidies — the amount also still to be decided — and several minor changes, such as pursuing customs duties on a number of imports.

The aim of the currency exchange levy is to crack down on the black market, where some foreign currencies trade at far higher rate than the official rate and to raise cash for the government to pay off debt and fund public services, such as health and education.

There is a great deal of scepticism among Libyans over whether this will work and whether the ceasefire will hold.

“This is not a real settlement,” a leading Libyan businessman said. “The fighting will restart and it is going to be messy.”

The ceasefire had already been under major pressure. Tripoli’s only functioning civil airport, Mitiga, remains closed following an attack September 11 that was a clear breach of the truce.

A day earlier, the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli was attacked, resulting in the death of two NOC employees and 25 injuries. Three attackers killed in the incident were supposedly members of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility, meaning the attack would not constitute a ceasefire breach. However, many Libyans are unconvinced of the official narrative.

Many in Tripoli suspect the attack could have been organised by one of the parties to the clashes, with the intended message being that security is urgently needed. Locals say the attackers’ presumed path to the corporation’s marketing department suggest they were aiming to seize sales documents.

UN Special Envoy and UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame indicated there would be a new twin security and economic package for the country in a September 5 briefing to the UN Security Council. The previous security setup, he said, had “empowered groups that acted in a predatory manner against residents of the capital, against the state and against sovereign institutions.” Also, economic reform was needed to address issues at the core of Libya’s crisis that were eroding “the daily lives of citizens across the country,” he said.

On September 9, at a second meeting with those who had agreed to the initial ceasefire, Salame reportedly said the cause of the clashes was economic. The currency exchange rate had to be adjusted and stabilised and the massive spending on subsidies substantially reduced.

Many Libyan voices have said that, without economic reform, there is no chance of political stability. They point out that there has been no economic reform since the 2011 revolution, that the Qaddafi regime’s centralised, socialised system remains in place and that, unless there is meaningful reform and liberalisation enabling job-creation, young men will stay with their militias as their sole way to earn money. Until a few months ago, those voices were largely ignored.

The recently announced economic reforms had been discussed by the PC and Central Bank of Libya Governor Saddek Elkaber at the Libya Economic Dialogue meeting in June. They were formally agreed to a few days later but it has taken a crisis to have them rolled out.

There are already doubts over whether the reforms will go far enough to resolve the economic issues underpinning the crisis. They are largely about ending the disparity between the official and black market exchange rates, creating an effective devaluation of the dinar and finding more money for government spending. There is nothing on economic liberalisation policies that could lead to job creation.

In addition, while the September 12 announcement indicated the Central Bank of Libya would make foreign currency readily available, it strangely said the currency exchange allowance would be increased by $500 per family member.

If foreign currency is readily available, there is no need for a currency allowance but if it is not readily available, individuals and businesses will continue to turn to the black market.

Scepticism about the announced security arrangements was fuelled by Salame’s own comments. Addressing the attack on Mitiga airport at a news conference in Tripoli on September 12, Salame said that he knew who was responsible for the attack and that if they again broke the ceasefire agreement, he would publicly name them. He was quoted on September 9 as saying that, if there were another breach, those responsible would be named and subject to sanctions.