Tripoli ceasefire offers UN opportunity to work for change in Libya

The hope is that the Tarhouna incursion will bring about change and the emergence of a government with real power to run the country.
Sunday 09/09/2018
A drop in the ocean. Members of the Military College of Engineering arrange unexploded munitions before their destruction in Tripoli. (AFP)
A drop in the ocean. Members of the Military College of Engineering arrange unexploded munitions before their destruction in Tripoli. (AFP)

Tripoli’s recent clashes were the worst since 2011. They left at least 60 people dead, hundreds wounded and thousands displaced from their homes in southern parts of the city.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) managed to get the various warring militias to agree a ceasefire on September 4. The agreement was holding and, three days later, Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport reopened.

It is feared, however, that the truce will not last unless UNSMIL, headed by UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame and the increasingly active US deputy envoy Stephanie Williams, can achieve fundamental political and military change throughout Libya.

The clashes created a political watershed. Most Libyans knew that the internationally supported Presidency Council led by Fayez al-Sarraj and his Government of National Accord (GNA) were completely dependent for their security and survival on various militias in the city.

When those militias came under attack on August 26 by forces from outside Tripoli, the powerlessness of the GNA was glaringly and humiliatingly exposed.

Sarraj set up a joint operations room to re-establish order and a crisis commission to address discontent that caused the 7th Battalion from Tarhouna, south-east of Tripoli, to attack. However, his moves were unable to achieve anything.

The Tripoli militias were exposed as far weaker than previously thought. The 7th Battalion, with many former regime soldiers in its ranks and supported by other experienced fighters, was shown to be the more capable and better organised force.

Sarraj’s problem is that, while most people in Tripoli had little empathy for the forces from Tarhouna, they largely agreed with the latter’s objectives. They also wanted to get rid of the Tripoli militias, which have established themselves as the masters of the capital and helped themselves to the oil-rich country’s income.

The hope is that the Tarhouna incursion will bring about change and the emergence of a government with real power to run the country. The need for such change was acknowledged by Salame in his briefing September 5 to the UN Security Council during which he admitted that the calm that had existed before August 26 had been a “facade.”

He said he hoped the truce could bring about the change Libyans want. He said people were “fed up with living on the poverty line whilst their national resources are looted by gunmen-turned-millionaires.”

“We must not return to the status quo ante,” he added.

Aware that the crisis has radically altered political and military facts on the ground in Tripoli, UNSMIL is trying to build a momentum for change. The objective is a security system based on uniting civil and military institutions. UNSMIL also wants to pursue economic reform, seen as a second pillar of stabilising and rebuilding Libya.

Time is not on UNSMIL’s side. If there are no visible changes on the political and security front soon, it is likely the clashes in Tripoli will restart. The situation there is complicated by the presence on the city’s airport road of quasi-Islamist forces headed by Misratan commander Salah Badi.

Badi four years ago destroyed Tripoli International Airport, then held by Zintani forces, and, in the process, helped create the Libya Dawn pro-Islamist regime that held Tripoli, dividing the country in two, until the arrival of the Presidency Council in 2016.

Libya Dawn forces, including those under Badi, were not ejected from Tripoli until May 2017, an achievement of the Tripoli militias that are now themselves on the defensive.

Back in Tripoli, Badi has been trying to take advantage of the clashes to restore the Libya Dawn but he is opposed by the Tripoli militias and the Tarhouna forces as well as those under the direct orders of the Presidency Council.

UNSMI and Salame still said elections, parliamentary as well as presidential, are the answer to the Libyan crisis even though there have been repeated warnings from Libyan political figures, activists, foreign diplomats and seasoned observers that a new House of Representatives (HoR) risks being just as incompetent and self-serving as the present one, that the result will be more chaos.

In his clearest condemnation to date of the present HoR, Salame made clear in his Security Council briefing that elections have been consistently blocked by HoR members.

“They seek to subvert the political process to their own ends, behind the guise of procedure,” he said.

Salame finished his briefing with an intriguing warning: “If legislation [for elections] is not produced soon, we will close the chapter on this approach. There are other ways to achieve peaceful political change, and we will embrace them with no hesitation, indeed with enthusiasm.”

Salame did not spell out what his Plan B is but there is talk of a national conference on Libya’s future. That, however, has been happening with meetings across Libya organised at local level by the United Nations and a report is to be published within a few weeks.

Until the Tripoli clashes, UNSMIL was increasingly seen as fundamentally unable to solve the crisis and viewed with disdain by most Libyans. The crisis placed it back at the centre of political action.

How long that lasts will depend on Salame’s next steps and whether Libya’s key players are willing to go with him.