On August 21, 2020, the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli issued separate statements announcing a ceasefire across Libya and called for comprehensive national reconciliation and preparations for presidential and parliamentary elections at the beginning of March 2021. This development has sparked widespread controversy, some seeing it as a paradigm shift that could lead to a comprehensive political settlement, far from the combative approach followed by both parties, while others consider it a tactical move in anticipation of new, more intense rounds of conflict.

Content and conditions of the ceasefire

The two parties to the Libyan conflict have agreed to a ceasefire, the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries, without identifying them, and the resumption of oil production and exportation. The oil revenues are to be frozen in an offshore account of the Central Bank of Libya, guaranteed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, until inclusive political arrangements have been made. Both parties agreed that the outcomes of the Berlin Conference should form the basis of these arrangements, although legal counsellor Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the House of Representatives, was alone in calling for the inclusion of the Cairo Declaration outcomes.

Nevertheless, differences of opinion remain. The GNA has tied the implementation of the ceasefire to Sirte and Jufra disarming, the police forces of both sides agreeing on their internal security arrangements, and the National Oil Corporation being granted the exclusive remit to produce and export oil and secure Libya’s oilfields and oil terminals.

Meanwhile, Saleh has emphasized that the provisional seat of a new interim government must be Sirte, which must be secured by an official police force from all regions, with a view to unifying State institutions as a basic consensual stage of the peacebuilding process, and that military arrangements must be completed in accordance with the UN‑supervised negotiations of the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission.

Drivers of the acceptance of the ceasefire

A combination of factors led the parties to accept the truce. The most important are perhaps the following:

  1. Egypt–Turkey confrontation in Libya: There are growing fears of a direct military confrontation in Libya between Egypt and Turkey, threatening stability in the Middle East and the African Sahel. This is especially so after the Egyptian President designated the Sirte–Jufra front a “red line” that Turkey‑backed GNA forces may not cross, and threatened to conduct a military intervention in the event of any transgression. These concerns have increased with the opening of the Jarjob military base west of the Egyptian city of Marsa Matruh in June 2020, the Egyptian parliament’s approval of army deployment abroad, and a strike against the GNA’s Al‑Watiya base, which destroyed an air defense system and Turkish radars. In addition, the House of Representatives and tribes in eastern Libya have authorized Egypt’s military intervention, and both Egypt and Turkey are performing military exercises in preparation for a possible conflict.
  2. Mounting US and European pressure for a ceasefire: The USA and the European Union are pushing for a truce in order to curb the role of Russia, which has started threatening Western interests, and to maintain NATO’s cohesion following France’s disagreement with Italy and Turkey over Libya and the dispute between Italy and Greece over the leadership of Operation IRINI, launched by the EU in May 2020 to monitor weapon supplies to Libya.
  3. The deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Libya: Worsening conditions have triggered successive public protests, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Popular pressure for the resumption of oil production and exportation, which prompted the ceasefire, is also rising.

External support for the ceasefire

The ceasefire has received widespread international and regional support, including from the concerned international organizations (the UN, the EU, the Arab League, the African Union, and the Gulf Cooperation Council), and has also been welcomed by all the international and regional powers, including Libya’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar. The suspension of the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) Operation Flood of Dignity, led by General Khalifa Haftar, and the GNA’s Operation Peace Storm is deemed a positive step towards achieving a political settlement and restoring stability.

Supporters hope for a speedy conclusion to the negotiations between the LNA and the GNA under the Joint Military Commission in order to reach an official, lasting, and comprehensive agreement on ceasefire arrangements and the lifting of the blockade on oil production and exportation, under the supervision of the UN Support Mission in Libya.

Ceasefire implementation: Possible scenarios

The possible outcomes of the implementation of the ceasefire fluctuate between success and failure, with grounds for each.

Scenario 1: The ceasefire succeeds

The holding of the ceasefire and the advancement of the peaceful settlement process depend on three factors:

  1. Broad international and regional support: All concerned parties are willing to participate in implementing the Libyan ceasefire and to advance efforts toward a settlement. The USA and the EU alter their stances on General Haftar and accept his involvement in any proposed settlement.
  2. The balance of power between the two parties to the conflict: The inability of either side to achieve a decisive military victory against its opponent perpetuates the conflict, which is draining for both parties. This may lead them both to accept conflict management through negotiation.
  3. Commitment to the ceasefire: The leaders of the warring factions, including the commander of the GNA Sirte and Jufra operations room, frequently declare their commitment to the truce.

Scenario 2: The ceasefire deteriorates and fighting resumes

The ceasefire declaration may be an interim tactic to impose a temporary truce or buy time in order to strengthen alliances, amass weapons, and resume fighting. This scenario depends on five factors:

  1. Breakdown of political dialogue: The House of Representatives fails to recognize the GNA, and there is an absence of direct dialogue between Libya’s political parties and mutual distrust.
  2. The GNA’s monopoly on oil: The GNA’s exclusive control over oil production and exportation and the securing of oil facilities would preclude parliament (the only politically elected body) from participating in decision-making and from controlling the oil sector, which raises concerns about the use of oil revenues to amass weapons for the GNA.
  3. Disagreement over State governance during the pre-election period: Saleh envisages the formation of a Sirte-based transitional government to prevent political division between the east and the west of the country. However, Fayez al-Sarraj, President of the GNA, rejects this and clings to power until it is time to hand over to the elected government. The GNA would therefore manage the transitional phase, in particular drafting the constitution and holding elections.
  4. Sirte and Jufra disarmament: The GNA’s vision of disarmament in Sirte and Jufra is in keeping with the proposal to remove the LNA from its strongholds. This may pave the way for the division of the country into two regions, the proposal preferred by the US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland.
  5. Division and infighting within the GNA: This has been apparent in the removal of several of ministers. In addition, the interior minister Fathi Bashagha, a native of the city of Misrata, has threatened to use force against Al-Sarraj’s Tripoli militias and mercenaries after they used excessive violence against civilian demonstrators who were protesting against deteriorating living conditions and rampant political corruption.

The second scenario seems the most likely in light of the following considerations:

  1. Growing popular movements: The youth movement Himmat Shabab Libya is calling for the overthrow of the GNA in Tripoli.
  2. Complexity of State-building: There are complications linked to the mechanism for drafting the constitution, and disagreement about the identity and form of the State and the power‑sharing system.
  3. Separation from armed militias and mercenaries: Disengaging from armed militias and mercenaries will present challenges, as Turkey has brought more than 17,000 mercenaries to Libya, including 3,000 Islamic State fighters.
  4. Disarmament: There are more than 23 million weapons in the country, most of them light weapons that can be easily stored and concealed, which makes disarmament extremely difficult.
  5. Beneficiaries of the continuation of the conflict: War profiteers and warlords, including arms traders and people traffickers, see the resolution of the conflict as a threat to their interests.
  6. Negative interventions by external parties: LNA spokesperson Major General Ahmed al-Mismari has announced that militias are continuing to mobilize in Tripoli, that a Turkish military base has been established in Misrata, and that Turkish warships are moving toward Sirte to take up offensive positions.
  7. Failure to decide on a political project: The parties may not be able to reach an agreement on a political project that complements the resolution of the Libyan conflict. In light of increasing tribalism and regionalism, the negotiations – if they happen – are expected to be characterized by intransigence, reinforcing the violation of the ceasefire and stalling the peaceful settlement process, which will be difficult to achieve by March 2021.

* Director of the Institute for African Research and Studies, Faculty of Graduate African Studies, Cairo University.

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