Over political divide, Libyans negotiating army’s reunification

With security in Tripoli and southern Libya the focus of attention, military reunification is not a priority issue for either Sarraj or Haftar.
Sunday 28/10/2018
One army? Soldiers from the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar take part in a military parade in Benghazi, last May.(AFP)
One army? Soldiers from the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar take part in a military parade in Benghazi, last May.(AFP)

TUNIS - For more than a year, negotiators in Libya have participated in regular meetings in Cairo in an attempt to reunite Libya’s armed forces as a step to national political reunification.

Although the main push has come from the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, negotiators from both sides have come up with a long, complex formula by which the Libyan military would theoretically be under civilian government control — although not in reality.

The supreme commander would be the Libyan head of state but actual power would be in the hands of a separate commander-in-chief who would control the armed forces’ budget and its actions. The commander-in-chief would either be the minister of defence for the next five years or have the right to appoint someone to that position for that period.

The 4,000-word, 200-point proposal, which includes three separate councils to oversee the military, was to have been approved in late October at a special gathering in Cairo.

The aim was to have Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Tripoli-based and internationally recognised Presidency Council, give it their blessing. Neither attended the meetings. However, Haftar’s spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Mismari, said those who did turn up in Cairo agreed to set up the three councils.

Still, for the moment, the plan is dead in the water.

Sarraj, like almost everyone else, agrees that the Libyan military needs to be reunited but he disagrees strongly over the matter of the armed forces being effectively beyond civilian government oversight.

Another issue is that the agreement is contingent on the head of state being the supreme commander. However, there is no consensus on who is the legitimate head of state — Sarraj in Tripoli or President of the House of Representatives Ageela Saleh in Tobruk — or if there even is a head of state.

Sarraj and those around him also question whether it is possible to reach an agreement on reunification of any other Libyan national institutions without a comprehensive political solution.

There have been some, mainly in western Libya, who are unhappy that the process has been mentored by Egypt. There have been calls for the UN Support Mission in Libya to take over.

The real devil in the detail is about names, specifically who would be the commander-in-chief. As far as the LNA is concerned, there is only one possible candidate: Haftar.

However, it is not politically possible for Sarraj to agree. There remains a powerful lobby in western Libya, notably in Misrata, on which he, the Presidency Council and its Government of National Accord depend, for whom Haftar remains unacceptable.

Under the tougher direction of recently appointed Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, new security arrangements introduced by Sarraj appear to be having some success.

The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade agreed to hand over its headquarters at the eastern end of the city centre. Other moves include reactivation of the presidential guard, which, since its creation in May 2016, has failed to live up to expectations. Sarraj has appointed a new commander and the force is to take over security for several government buildings in November.

Also, the Interior Ministry is promising to act against vehicles with tinted windows or without registration plates, the type much favoured by militiamen and criminals.

There have been plenty of ineffective warnings in the past but this time the will and the ability to act appear to be there.

Haftar has turned his attention to southern sections of the country, which have seen increasing attacks, particularly kidnappings, by bands of mainly Chadian but also some Sudanese fighters in the region.

Haftar created the Murzuq Operations Room designed to root out the Chadians and others, although questions are being asked as to how effective it will be. If it succeeds, the field-marshal’s credibility and authority in the south will certainly rise.

Sarraj is promising to take “strict measures against mercenaries and gangs” and end the lawlessness in southern Libya. Unlike Haftar, Sarraj’s government has almost no military muscle to enforce its will in the region but it does have money. With that resource, cash-starved local municipalities can be drawn under government control.

Despite the presence of LNA-linked forces, there is a willingness among local authorities to work with the Presidency Council.

Sarraj also dispatched his chief of staff, Major-General Abdulrahman al-Tawil, to the important El Sharara oilfield in south-western Libya to negotiate with local activists who threatened to shut it down to protest the region’s dire security situation and the lack of central government resources.

Following the appointment of Bashagha and two other ministers in October, further cabinet changes by Sarraj are expected, including the replacement of the widely criticised Minister of Local Government Bidad Gansu.

With security in Tripoli and southern Libya the focus of attention, military reunification is not a priority issue for either Sarraj or Haftar.

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