Correcting Libya’s Imbalance

Libya still awaits agreement between its disparate factions and personalities on a fair electoral process, a constitutional document, and the necessary state institutions to bring it back from decades of authoritarian and militia rule. It is also still in need of a unified regional and international posture that can provide the support required for a peace deal that, so far, is subject to a skewed balance of power between the two rival governments of the country. To be sure, if Libya is to pull away from renewed authoritarian rule and avoid political and military chaos, interdependent local, regional, and international efforts must coalesce in an effective and meaningful fashion that preserves the spirit of the original revolt against Muammar Qadhafi’s rule.

What besets Libya today is a combination of convulsive domestic issues that feed on personal ambition, regional preferences, and narrow interests, external pressures, and machinations that do not serve long-term peace and stability in the country. Two governments vie for control: one in the east that relies on military force and outside support, and another in the west and the capital, Tripoli, that trusts in the efficacy of gradual institution building by the United Nations. With the balance of military power skewing developments in the direction of more violence and zero-sum endgames, interested international actors should assert their support for UN efforts so that Libya can build its political and security institutions and revive its economy.

Latest Developments

In his report to the UN Security Council on January 18, 2019, Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), painted a sobering picture of the political, social, security, and economic challenges facing the country. He also relayed news of certain positive developments on some fronts, including those related to the efficacy of cooperation between different factions and the efforts of the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA). Importantly, Salamé reported an agreement on the convening of a national conference that would look into an electoral process and a referendum on a draft constitutional document. He also affirmed the necessity for all Libyan parties to agree to accept and respect the results of presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections whenever they are held.

In his report to the UN Security Council on January 18, 2019, Ghassan Salamé, painted a sobering picture of the political, social, security, and economic challenges facing the country.

On February 27, the different factions of the Libyan dispute held the national conference in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and agreed on ending the transitional period and moving toward organizing the elections. Earlier in the month, the African Union had called for an international meeting to prepare for the elections. In addition, two international conferences were held in May and November 2018, in Paris, France and Palermo, Italy, respectively, that resulted in agreements that elections are the solution, although they appeared as mere occasions for airing differences and perspectives without arriving at ironclad accords. In other words, and with so much interest on the part of local and international actors, the stage seems to be set for a new period in Libyan politics more than eight years after the beginning of the country’s version of the Arab Spring.

And yet, there came news of impending doom about two weeks after the UAE conference when General Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army appeared to position itself to take over the city of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. This action prompted the GNA to mobilize whatever allied forces—usually militias—it controls and declare a state of emergency in the city. The general has practically taken over three quadrants of the country (save that to the northwest, where the GNA and its allies hold sway). His conquest of the south last January and February helped him secure control not only over that vast landscape but also over the area’s oil production, which is estimated at 430,000 barrels per day. In essence, Haftar could now control the purse strings of the country and choke off the GNA if he so wished.

Haftar’s conquest of the south last January and February helped him secure control not only over that vast landscape but also over the area’s oil production, which is estimated at 430,000 barrels per day.

The general had not previously minced any words regarding his plans for control. Last year, using the threat to civilians from unruly militias in Tripoli, he ordered his forces to prepare for a push on the city. The recent move on Sirte thus comes as a reminder to all that he is capable of reneging on any agreement he makes with the GNA if he gets a nod from interested outside actors––Egypt and the UAE in particular. This backing may still be farfetched, however, since many appear to be invested in Ghassan Salamé’s United Nations effort. It also may be true that Haftar knows that his threats are mere bombast and he cannot storm Tripoli, especially that European countries, the United States, and Russia do not support a military solution to the Libyan crisis.

Imbalance of Power

The status quo may point to different potential scenarios. As it is today, Haftar controls a sizeable army that has been on the march since 2014 and has accumulated an enviable arsenal. His recent conquest of southern areas was pivotal in his strategy both to bring territory under his authority and to send internal and external messages that he alone is to be reckoned with. Moreover, his takeover of the south put about half of the country’s oil production in his hands, and that is following his piecemeal seizure of the oil fields along the Mediterranean coast in the eastern part of the country. That he restored control of the revenue from the eastern fields to the GNA the summer of 2018 may not mean much since he maintains military sway over a large stretch of the Gulf of Sidra. In essence, it may be entirely up to him whether he chooses to reclaim the fields in the east and the south as his rightful war booty, the GNA’s and the United Nations’ opposition notwithstanding.

Opposite the marching general is a weak and dependent Government of National Accord headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and protected by the moral standing of the United Nations and a group of militias that may be interested only in what accrues to them from the security role they play.

Opposite the marching general is a weak and dependent Government of National Accord headed by Fayez al-Sarraj and protected by the moral standing of the United Nations and a group of militias that may be interested only in what accrues to them from the security role they play. Security in the capital depends on an array of such militias that, after clashing in September 2018, decided to coalesce under a unified command. This still did not prevent the Islamic State––which had been defeated in Sirte by GNA loyalists in 2016, when it fled to the desert––from launching an attack on the foreign ministry in the capital in December 2018. In the meantime, the Presidency Council that supposedly oversees the GNA is almost nonexistent, with its members pledging allegiance to separate power centers instead of ensuring the success of the Libyan Political Agreement that they helped negotiate in December of 2015.

Indeed, it is almost certain that what is holding Haftar back is his inability to ignore the United Nations and the wishes of a collection of actors with influence over Libyan affairs—specifically Egypt, the UAE, France, Italy, and Russia. Egypt and the UAE have assisted General Haftar when he took it upon himself to eradicate Libya of Islamist forces through his Operation Dignity. But Egypt today may not prefer a military solution against the GNA, especially since the United States opposes it. As for the UAE, it sponsored the latest conference that decided on new elections and a constitutional agenda, thus appearing to help the UN effort.

On the other hand, France and Italy could not be seen as wanting a military solution to the Libyan dilemma since more instability in the North African nation may result in more migrants at their shores. They still appear to be operating at cross purposes, with France showing its soft side to Haftar and Italy preferring to remain neutral and assist the UN’s efforts, all the while calling for lifting the arms embargo on Libya so that it can limit the exodus of refugees. Russia has long ago sided with Haftar but could be waiting to see how UNSMIL’s plan for elections and other arrangements will work out. At any rate, Russia has already secured an advantageous position in Libya where it deploys 300 soldiers at two naval bases on the Mediterranean.

Balancing the Scales

In this state of imbalance in military power and control and, potentially, economic fortunes of the current two centers of power, the onus is on the international community to help find the formula that would prevent one side’s total domination over the other. To be sure, regional and international reluctance to endorse what General Haftar would like to do––that is, launch a final assault on the areas still in the hands of the GNA––is a positive factor. After Libyans succeeded in ending 42 years of tyrannical rule, however clumsy local and international efforts were, it is unfathomable that the scourge of authoritarian rule would simply be allowed to be reestablished.

In this state of imbalance in military power and control and, potentially, economic fortunes of the current two centers of power, the onus is on the international community to help find the formula that would prevent one side’s total domination over the other.

Granted, the GNA faces difficult days ahead as it tries to administer a transitional process resulting from the UAE conference last month; indeed, augmenting Salamé’s team and efforts to hold elections and administer a referendum on a constitutional draft could go a long way in building needed institutions for the Libyan state. If Libyan politicians truly believe in the Abu Dhabi agreement, then there should be no more obstacles in implementing the UN’s declared process. Further, if they want Libya to enjoy a respite from fighting in preparation for elections later this year, those who have thrown their support behind General Haftar might do well to pull it away from him. The stability that General Haftar is promising to bring to the country when he decides to take over the capital would likely be achieved with more Libyan blood and treasure and at the expense of any political opening and democratic transition Libyans dreamed of in 2011.

The international community may also want to take note of the positive changes unfolding in Algeria and opening the door to a different political landscape in that country. There, protesters succeeded in forcing the ailing octogenarian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to withdraw his nomination for a fifth term and are now demanding a fundamental restructuring of the Algerian state to allow for political renewal. Tunisia also is slowly consolidating its new democratic orientation despite difficult economic times and planning to hold free elections for a new parliament and president in the fall. It thus behooves the international community, especially European countries, to assist in buttressing a democratic transformation in Libya by helping the UN and the GNA to structure a functioning state in Libya that can rebuild the country, start a new phase of national politics, and reform the economy.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here