Talks in Cairo focus on Libyan military unity, differences persist

The issue of who should lead any unified force remains unresolved.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Posters by the Libyan Electoral Commission asking voters in Tripoli to register ahead of the 2018 election, on February 16. (AFP)
Hope springs eternal. Posters by the Libyan Electoral Commission asking voters in Tripoli to register ahead of the 2018 election, on February 16. (AFP)

CAIRO - Talks on unifying Libya’s fractured armed forces wrapped up in Cairo after representatives of various factions, including those in Benghazi and Tripoli, discussed implementing agreements reached during previous meetings.

The latest round of negotiations focused on a unified Libyan military being supervised by civilian authorities. The talks also covered measures to suspend provocations and prevent clashes between fighters in Benghazi and Tripoli.

The issue of who should lead any unified force remains unresolved. Analysts said another challenge of unifying the Libyan military establishment includes considering that many factions receive backing from international powers with opposing interests.

The Libyan National Army, which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and controls much of eastern Libya, accuses Turkey and Qatar of supplying terrorist groups in Libya, for instance.

“These will continue to be sticky issues in the talks and can torpedo all the understandings reached,” said Libyan journalist Aliya al-Abidi.

The Libyan Political Agreement signed in 2015 states that the head of Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), which controls most of western Libya, is responsible for appointing Libya’s military commander.

Haftar, who is backed by Egypt and some Arab Gulf countries, in addition to France and Russia, is jockeying to secure a position in Libya’s future. He is a strong rival to GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Unifying Libya’s armed forces hinges on the two sides’ relationship.

A third faction, the so-called rescue government of the General National Congress (GNC), also controls some military units.

A new round of talks is expected in March in Cairo, amid growing calls for generals to take the negotiations seriously.

“A political settlement cannot actually be made in Libya before there is an end of animosities between the armed factions in both eastern and western Libya,” said Libyan political analyst Abdel Baset bin Hamel. “A unified military will also be capable of fighting terrorist groups now controlling parts of Libya.”

Islamist militias, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, control parts of eastern Libya, including in the port city of Derna. Islamist militias, some affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, control western areas of the country.

Libyan officials said they hope to have presidential and parliamentary elections before the end of the year. Preparations for the votes are under way but it is unclear whether free and fair elections can take place in a country where guns never fall silent.

A unified military, bin Hamel said, would be more capable of bringing security to the streets and fighting terrorist groups that include a large number of foreign fighters.

“This would also convince the international community to lift an arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011,” he added.

The embargo has prevented Haftar’s Libyan National Army from receiving essential supplies.

Egypt, which is facing increased security issues because of the conflict in Libya, has hosted the Libyan talks over the past year. Most of the arms and explosives obtained by militants fighting the Egyptian Army in Sinai, Cairo said, come from Libya.

“This is why Egypt is pushing and will continue to push for stronger unity among the Libyans,” said Saad al-Zunt, head of Egypt’s Political and Strategic Studies Centre, a Cairo think-tank. “The Libyans do not need to waste more time before they team up against the security threats facing their country.”