Resumption of the Negotiating Track in Libya: Catalysts and Challenges

Bilal Abdullah | 14 Sep 2020

Following the ceasefire agreement reached between Fayez al-Sarraj, Chair of the Presidential Council, and Aguila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives, the conflict in Libya has come one step closer to a peaceful settlement in which politics, rather than military action, is once again seen as the solution. This comes after a meeting in Bouznika, Morocco, at which the two sides announced that they had come to an agreement on the criteria required for holding a leadership position in Libya, and that these positions would be distributed among Libya’s three historical regions.

Some important, albeit limited, progress has been made following the resumption of negotiations in Bouznika, Montreux and Cairo, which demonstrates a restored degree of confidence between the various Libyan stakeholders. Despite this, there are real obstacles to reaching an agreement which can actually be adhered to and which would lead to a final settlement of the conflict.

Catalysts of the current agreement

The agreement reached in Bouznika does not stray far from the possibilities discussed during the previous rounds of negotiations between the various Libyan stakeholders that have taken place over the past several years. Previous negotiations between the House of Representatives and the High Council of State resulted in an agreement in principle to reorganize the Presidential Council and separate its presidency from that of a future unified government. Previous rounds also saw almost unanimous agreement on a proposal to distribute key positions between the country’s three historical regions: Cyrenaica, Tripolatania, and Fezzan.

Furthermore, the participation of Gaddafi regime supporters in the Montreux consultations and the subsequent appointment of Muhammad Umr Ba’ayu as President of the Libyan Media Association – created by al-Sarraj – reflects the universal approach which has prevailed ever since former UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, was appointed three years ago. One of the most prominent features of the UN approach is to achieve the integration of supporters of the former regime as a key component of any final settlement.

Apart from these broad commonalities between what has been achieved in current and previous negotiation rounds, the current negotiations seem more likely to lead to consensus beyond the minimum level thus far achieved. There are a number of factors which, when combined, have created an environment more conducive to agreement among the various Libyan parties; however, this does not necessarily mean that current negotiations will lead to a stable settlement. These factors are as follows:

1. The USA has actively sponsored the current negotiations in order to achieve several of its own objectives, the most notable being to curb Russia’s growing influence in Libya. Other objectives include containing the unrest provoked by Turkey’s intervention in the conflict and mitigating the consequences for relations between countries of the eastern Mediterranean, as well as solving the oil problem, considered by the USA to be at the core of the conflict. Finally, with US presidential elections approaching, a breakthrough on the settlement would benefit President Trump: the conflict in Libya was one of the topics used as propaganda in the 2012 and 2016 elections, on the back of the 2012 killing of the US Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.

2. The current US approach aligns with several of Cairo's objectives in this conflict. The first is the desire to ensure the unity of Libyan territory, so that the return to a three-region system does not lead to support for partition. Using the three-region system, Sirte has therefore been designated the seat of legislative and executive power for the remainder of the transition period, as discussed during the current round of negotiations. Second is the desire to protect Egyptian interests in Libya and prevent Egypt’s self-declared “red line” from being conceded without the need for direct military intervention. The US intervention is helping to achieve this, with its guarantee to curb the Turkish push in Libya. Egypt’s third objective is to prevent the further militarization of the conflict, thereby allowing it to work with Russia to jointly invest in supporters of the former regime and integrate them into the political process, as an alternative to continuing their hidden rivalry for military control in the east of the country if the armed aspect of the conflict persists.

3. At the local level, the cost of a military solution can be cited as one of the main drivers of the flexibility shown by Libyan stakeholders. Being particularly sensitive to human losses, tribes in the east of the country are unwilling to see armed confrontations move into their territory.

The protests that have recently spread to cities in the east of the country are also a factor. Set against a backdrop of deteriorating living conditions, these demonstrations may yet be used to exert pressure on the parties controlling the east with a view to softening their stances on controversial issues. There are also signs that steps are being taken to respond to US demands to reopen oil facilities.

Moreover, by agreeing to draft a new formula for consensus, ruling parties in the east and west of the country have gained a renewed legitimacy, despite rising popular tensions and the increasing severity of criticisms and accusations by security officials. As evidence of this new legitimacy, in the second week of September the European Union removed Chancellor Aguila Saleh from the sanctions list, as well as former General National Congress President Nuri Abusahmain and Khalifa al-Ghweil, President of the former National Salvation Government.

Obstacles to a successful settlement

Although numerous factors have come together to create an environment more conducive to reaching a settlement than in previous years, many major challenges remain. It is difficult to envisage all of these challenges being overcome either in the current negotiating round or, more importantly, during the implementation of commitments in the 18 months prior to the agreed presidential and parliamentary elections. Below is a list of the most pertinent challenges:

1. The plurality of actors in the Libyan conflict – which US Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker described this month as the conflict’s biggest challenge – is likely to cause more difficulties. Schenker stressed that the goal of the US during current negotiations is to “make small gains on the ground.”

In this context, it is remarkable that in statements made by both Stephanie Williams, the UN mission’s Acting Special Representative, and the US Embassy in Tripoli, the apparent emphasis is on the importance of preventing foreign interference and the fact that current negotiations aim to return the Libyan issue to Libyan hands entirely. This may explain the silent anticipation displayed by most external parties concerning the ongoing negotiations and their minimal public engagement with all developments to date.

However, neither this response by external parties nor the apparent desire of the USA to prevent foreign interference in the negotiation process reflects the nature of the conflict or the true relative power of the various external actors, especially since the current US sponsorship of the negotiations simultaneously reduces both Russian and Turkish influence.

Countries in the region are also competing for regional influence; Algeria, in particular, is traditionally very sensitive to the roles played by both Egypt and Morocco in the region. It is clear that ever since the twofold call for a ceasefire from al-Sarraj and Saleh on August 20, developments in the current negotiations have been the product of joint coordination between Cairo and Washington. Similarly, the fact that Morocco was the country to host the first rounds of dialogue has led to the media dubbing the new potential agreement “Skhirat 2.” In this context, in the second week of September Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum announced that his country, in coordination with Tunisia, would host a dialogue between the Libyan stakeholders. This could create conflict between international parties sponsoring the negotiations.

2. The second challenge is the existence of several protracted issues which are proving difficult to reach agreement on. In the past, official actors have had difficulties in reaching a preliminary agreement on these issues, the most important of which concern security, the military, and the future of the armed militias. Agreement is yet to be reached as to whether the armed militias should be dismantled or should have their members re-integrated into the country’s military and police institutions, which becomes more pertinent in light of the fact that some militias are infiltrating civil institutions, particularly economic and financial institutions, by recruiting loyalists from within the governing bodies of these institutions and connecting themselves to a wide network of profiteers.

Protracted disputes also persist over the limits on the permissible role of Islamists and the accepted presence of weapons in the hands of extremist groups. Some militia leaders are on UN and US terrorist lists, yet hold official military ranks with the Government of National Accord and have close political alliances within their cities and tribes. Many potential aggrieved parties are armed and linked to large internal and external support networks. As such, it is easy to imagine that any agreed obligations may be disrupted.

Furthermore, militia leaders in western Libya have repeatedly called for demonstrations in front of the Presidential Council. There have also been repeated calls to oppose the appointment of a figure from the Gaddafi regime as head of the Libyan Media Association. Additionally, the leader of the Sumud Brigade, Salah Badi, who is on the UN Security Council sanctions list, has called for demonstrations against the appointment of militia leader Emad al-Trabulsi as Deputy Head of Intelligence. In addition to repeated objections from members of the High Council of State, objections from other actors are expected to arise once the appointment of individuals to positions within the unified government begins. The potential intensification of these objections will likely affect the possibility of achieving substantial progress towards a stable settlement.

Conclusion

  • The current round of negotiations to achieve a settlement on the Libyan conflict seems likely to see greater progress compared to previous rounds. This is mainly due to active US involvement in sponsoring the negotiations, with the rest of the international actors stepping aside. In addition, considering the increased possibility of new confrontations between regional parties from both camps, a military stalemate has formed between the two sides of the conflict, since dire consequences are expected in the event that new armed confrontations break out.
  • External actors are not expected to continue to refrain from interfering heavily in the negotiation process. Their current silence may last at most until the end of the US presidential elections, by which point the direction of the new US administration will become apparent. Moreover, the conflicting interests and calculations of the external actors, even within the same camp, will provide ample room for maneuver for the Libyan parties.
  • Disruption is likely to come mainly from local actors, particularly informal militias and tribal forces. However, the effectiveness of these efforts will depend on the presence of undeclared support from external actors.

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