Ten years ago, the Gaddafi rule collapsed by direct US intervention, and since then Libya’s stability has disappeared and its territory and resources have repeatedly changed hands among various groups and two western and eastern governments. The country has degraded to a place for painful deadly rivalry among regional and trans-regional powers. Since last year, after Turkey’s vast military intervention in support of the Government of National Accord in western Libya and defeat of the Haftar forces, and the military approaches reaching a dead-end, and approach change of the internal, regional and trans-regional actors in balancing interests, the UN and its special envoy on the Libyan affairs have managed , with the initiative of Libya’s Comprehensive Talks for Peace, to reach a complex mechanism for stabilizing Libya, and eventually during the recent week invited the warring sides to Geneva to elect a presidential council for the transitional period. Recent talks have stepped up hopes for ending the Libyan crisis and it seems the Libyan landscape is undergoing profound developments. However, it is the future behavior of the internal and external actors that determines whether these developments will lead to return of peace and stability to Libya or vice versa cause emergence of new warlords and spread of the crisis in the country.
Since last year and after serious intervention by the Turkish axis and the consequent defeat of the Haftar forces which got the parties close to crossing each other’s’ redlines, leading to Egypt warning direct military intervention, the internal actors and powers involved in the crisis reached the conclusion that the crisis had no military solution, and as a result started putting balancing their interests on their agendas. The sides involved, exchanged messages and finally agreed to a ceasefire, paving the way for comprehensive talks under the UN. The talks began in the last October under the UN to attain a mechanism to establish peace and create relative stability for the transitional period, and reach sustainable peace in the end. Following this, the issue was examined at the UNSC session centered on the Libyan developments, on Sep.2, 2020. At the meeting, most countries influentially involved in fanning the flames of war contended that the crisis had no military solution and the arms embargo had to be abided by and the foreign forces and militias had to leave the country.
Following the session, eventually, Stephanie Williams, Acting Special Representative of the UN in Libyan Affairs, managed, by forming an 18-member advisory committee, to gain a preliminary agreement on a complex mechanism for electing the executive power. The executive power will undertake to hold general elections in Libya, due on December 25 of this year. After these successes, on Tuesday, February 2, Stephanie invited 75 Libyan members representing tribal and regional political factions and figures for electing three posts, president and two members of the presidential council and the prime minister, via consensus or introducing the regions and after tough and breath-taking negotiations she managed to elect Libya’s Interim Executive Council on Friday, February 5.
In the last stage of elections for Libya’s interim government in Geneva ,Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was chosen as prime minister, Mohammad Younes Menfi as head of the presidential council , and Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi were chosen as members of the transitional government. The government must be committed to preserving the ceasefire, expulsion of foreign mercenaries from the country, implementing the roadmap and holding elections on time determined and establishing social justice, and at the same time it must tackle the harsh economic conditions in the country and prepare the necessary tools for holding the government elections, due on December 24, 2021.
Along with the efforts made by Ms.Stephanie, the UN security council appointed Ján Kubiš , a veteran Slovakian diplomat, as UN general secretary’s Special Envoy on Libya on Jan.15 ( nearly one year after resignation of the former envoy), and in addition, under US pressure, another post, UN representative on Libya, was defined which is different from the general secretary’s Special Envoy in terms of job description and probably the new post has been provided for Stephanie Williams (former US charge de affair in Libya) , as UN Acting Special Representative for Libya, to bolster the US and UN role.
Although so far nearly all regional and trans-regional powers related to this crisis including Egypt, Turkey, US, Russia and European states like France and Italy, Libyan neighbors and the two main political wings of western and eastern Libya have more or less supported the UN and Stephanie’s initiative, and the whole range of measures have boosted the prospects for return of peace and stability to Libya after ten years of conflict, considering the pervious failed experiences in establishing peace in Libya, yet there is a worry that each of these internal and external actors may go back to their past political positions and the attained optimism may fade again.
For now, the concerning evidence can be seen in the internal western and eastern actors, where over the past 5 years, a network of politicians, merchants, and militia leaders have risen to power in this oil-rich country, each in turn having created a complicated labyrinth of power and influence and foreign powers’ support; and now worried about their future in the power equations for influencing the main elections they may not provide the necessary cooperation with the interim executive council or put it under their or their foreign backers’ pressure.
The first signs have emerged in western Libya in recent months by the prime minister, Siraj, ’s declaration of resignation from the Libyan National Accord Government. In early September of 2020, he canceled his trip to Europe and informed his hosts of his intention to step down, but fell short of deciding the fate of his cabinet members in this relation. The Libyan prime minister has committed to step down from power. The US, along with some other countries, asked Siraj to still carry on his job until the UN appoints an executive administrator, but his actions after resignation signal his willingness to play a major role in the new Libyan government and it seems between saying so-long and staying in power he has the latter in his head.
Siraj has time and again expressed his opposition to his replacement with Aguila Saleh, Speaker of Parliament, whom he describes as ambitious and a proxy of Haftar. Although these two leaders of the Libyan western and eastern governments, despite Egypt and the UAE’s continuous efforts, do not establish ties, beyond this ostensible excuse, the western and Libyan officials have said that they believe Siraj is more opposed to Fathi Bashagha, his own state minister, who seeks to replace him, and this issue is so important for him that has led to him postponing his resignation and gaining more motivation for continuing his presence on the Libyan political scene.
Siraj and his assistants who are intensely trying to consolidate their political foothold in the 2021 elections and have stepped up movements, looking for other picks than their state minister, Bashagha.
In Tripoli, the militia leaders have drawn lines in opposition to a candidate like Bashagha by supporting the current administration, and for example, by forming a counter-terrorism unit under the prime minister, have reduced the state minster’s power. But opposition to the coming administration headed by Bashagha is not limited to the armed groups, and most of Siraj’s advisors and political allies, plus a support network of public companies’ top administrators appointed by him over the past five years, see their interests tied to Siraj and oppose Bashagha. They are worried about a new administration that can threaten their access to the coming spoils.
Also in eastern Libya, Haftar, a stubborn renowned man from the military, is so infatuated about being declared by his main ally, speaker of parliament Aguila Saleh, as a political Major general that is reluctant to admit his recent gross defeats. Although his bid to simultaneously keep both political and military status has not been successful and he has lost part of his credit with his domestic ally, Aguila Saleh, and is not weighted by his foreign allies like Egypt and Russia as in the past. Recently there have been reports of some of the forces under him in the city of Cert fighting each other, but it should not be ignored that he is still in control of the army and the army listens to him, and he won’t easily let go of his status.
Although the UN considers the current initiatives as Libyan-Libyan, it should not be ignored that the main decision-makers in this relation are foreign powers, and currently more Tukey and Egypt, each trying to have a larger share in the coming executive power. Turkey wants to keep Libya as a wining card in the Mediterranean dossier, and at the same time, Egypt tries to have some sort of a presence parallel to that of Turkey to counter the Muslim Brotherhood influence; but the more important point is that the playing strength of each of the two countries directly depends on the way the new US administration interacts with each of them and the way the new America after Trump treats the Libyan issue.
Statements made by the new US administration’s officials show that Biden’s America, following its European partners, has set its eyes on creating relative stability in Libya focused on west’s interests, monitoring Russia’s movements and expelling the Wagner militias. In its last public statements, while backing the recent measures taken by the UN in Libya, the US has expressed its opposition to any plan for dividing and occupying Libya or imposing foreign-backed solutions for political settlement, as well, it opposed to foreign military intervention in Libya and voiced its support for ceasefire and talks under the UN, and expressly declared that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict and that all must abide by the Berlin agreement and end military operations and transport of foreign military equipment to Libya. The difference in the US approaches can bolster the UN efforts for mediating between the rival political and military factions of Libya and their international backers.
In this between, the most important news is appointment of McGeorge as the US Special Envoy for the Middle East and North Africa affairs. What makes the issue important and worrying for the Turks is the fact that McGeorge , as the US Representative for fighting the ISIS, had a close relationship with the Kurds and their military command and his resignation followed his objection to the US green light to Turkey for invading the Kurdish-controlled areas of Gari Sepi and Seri Kani. The appointment did not have in it a pleasing message for Turkey and can cause more friction between Washington and Ankara.
It seems among the regional powers; the Biden administration is going to effect the most changes in its relations with Egypt. Biden and his advisors have strongly slammed human rights violations in Egypt and are expected to take a tougher stance on Cairo.
Therefore, as is clear, the UN and its special envoy on Libya have tough talks ahead of them in the current year and the Libyan dossier is going to witness profound developments, and only time can say if these developments lead to return of peace and stability to Libya, wider regional cooperation and understanding or vice versa lead to wider spread of the crisis in this country.
Mohammad Nikkhah, Senior Expert on African Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)