Libyan dialogue risks deadlock
Tunis - It has been a year since UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon began his efforts to mediate a peace deal in Libya. On September 29, 2014, he and members of the Libyan House of Representatives met on the border with Algeria and Tunisia and called for a ceasefire throughout the country. Dialogue, they declared, was the only way forward. It was a “great day for Libya”, Leon said.
Since then, there have been meetings of what became the Libya dialogue — in Geneva, Skhirat in Morocco, Brussels, Algiers, Cairo, Berlin, Istanbul and Tunis — with Leon ever optimistic that a deal was in sight. Delegates recently travelled to New York for a supposedly final meeting at the United Nations to approve a draft peace agreement setting up a government of national unity, a ceasefire and the removal of militias from the capital Tripoli.
But also in New York, the president of Libya’s internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR), Ageela Salah Gwaider, told the UN General Assembly that the negotiations could drag on beyond October 20th, the deadline set by Leon for everything to be agreed and implemented.
There have been numerous deadlines from Leon for the peace deal, none of which have been met. The October 20th date is important because under the 2011 Constitutional Declaration, which serves as Libya’s constitution, it is the last day of the HoR’s mandate.
The HoR has the power to amend the Constitutional Declaration and dialogue negotiations have proposed precisely that so it can continue in office for up to two more years while the Constitutional Drafting Assembly in Beida comes up with a permanent state charter.
Ageela Salah was told by UN officials, from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on down, and other international political leaders that the October 20th deadline had to be kept. They are said to have included US President Barack Obama, who told the General Assembly that more should have been done by the West to help Libya after the revolution.
But Ageela Salah’s warning about the date is real enough. There is bitter opposition in Tripoli to any deal, especially among militia leaders, the real masters of the city. They have strong support within the rival administration in Tripoli, the General National Congress (GNC). A workshop on the dialogue, organised by the GNC, again showed the extent of that opposition.
Although the GNC negotiators had headed to New York with the body’s blessing, many members declared that there could be no agreement that did not recognise the November 2014 Supreme Court ruling, which, in their view, abolished the HoR and handed power back to the GNC. It is reported that the majority of those regularly attending GNC sessions are opposed to the dialogue. They also insisted that Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan armed forces, had to go as part of any deal.
Haftar is among those opposed to the deal in the east of the country. He wants a military council headed by him to run the country. He has his supporters in the HoR who are talking about amending the Constitutional Declaration and creating such a council for the post-October 20th period.
That appears unlikely at present, however, for various reasons. The HoR was furious when Leon agreed to amend the dialogue agreement in line with GNC demands, calling back its delegates to Tobruk and effectively suspending its involvement in the talks. However, on September 28th, in what is being seen as a positive move, it agreed to rejoin the process.
Moreover, although Haftar has his supporters in the Tobruk parliament, many are aware that he is unacceptable to many key Libyan players, not just in the west of the country but in the small regular armed forces.
His successes in Benghazi, too, appear questionable. In the 16 months since he launched Operation Dignity to retake it from Ansar al-Sharia and its allies, fighting has devastated areas of the city. But Ansar al-Sharia still has not been dislodged from Leithi, Sabri, Hawari and Gwarsha districts and promises of Benghazi’s liberation have turned out to be as repetitive but as elusive as those from Leon about the dialogue’s completion. Nor has Haftar managed to achieve anything in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). It was the pro-al-Qaeda mujahideen in Derna that threw ISIS out of the town, not the Libyan army.
On the other hand, even his detractors in the east say that to get rid of him at this point to help the dialogue process and satisfy those in Tripoli opposed to him would be disastrous.
They claim that the fight against Ansar al-Sharia and ISIS in Benghazi would collapse overnight and that the Islamists would then take it over.
The idea that the October 20th deadline could pass without the dialogue reaching a conclusion fills UN officials and foreign governments that have been pushing for a deal with dread. Privately, Western diplomats accredited to Libya fear momentum is being lost. If the deadline passes, they say negotiations could drag on interminably while whatever changes the HoR makes to the Constitutional Declaration are likely to lead to international deadlock. Some countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, might recognise them but others, notably in the West, may not. Meanwhile, the only group likely to gain would be ISIS.