Divided Libya: Who Can Speak for Peace?

Libya’s rival factions held a summit in Paris on March 29, 2018, in an effort to end the seven years of instability and strife that have followed former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow in 2011. The summit brought together leaders from a divided Libya. The country, with two parliaments and three governments, is seeking a way out of the deadlock and lawlessness that have characterized the nation since the 2011 uprising.

Divided Libya: Who Can Speak for Peace

Libya’s rival factions held a summit in Paris on March 29, 2018, in an effort to end the seven years of instability and strife that have followed former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s overthrow in 2011. The summit brought together leaders from a divided Libya. The country, with two parliaments and three governments, is seeking a way out of the deadlock and lawlessness that have characterized the nation since the 2011 uprising.

Representatives of four principal governing groups attended: Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Libyan National Army (LNA) strongman Khalifa Haftar, Speaker of the Tobruk Parliament (HoR) Aguila Saleh Issa, and Head of the High Council of State Khalid al-Mishri.

While Prime Minister Faye al-Sarraj and General Khalifa Haftar orally agreed to a French-backed plan to hold elections later this year, no binding agreement was signed. If all goes according to the informal plan, electoral laws will be enacted by September 16 and parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on December 10 of this year.

Although representatives from 20 countries and the United Nations attended the summit, several key players were conspicuously absent. In particular, the heavy-hitting armed militias that control much of western Libya boycotted the event, claiming that the summit did not represent their interests.

After Gadhafi’s 2011 overthrow, Libya splintered into rival political and armed groups. Even today, it remains deeply divided between eastern and western factions. The United Nations backs the Tripoli-based prime minister, Al-Sarraj, who serves as the head of the GNA. In the east, the LNA, led by Gen. Haftar, controls a huge swath of the country, along with Tobruk HoR, which is claims to be the east’s official representative.

Although French President Emmanuel Macron deemed the summit a “historic” event, not everyone is so convinced. Critics argue that due to the sheer number of talks and summits focusing on the Libya issue, popular support will not be able to coalesce around any of them. This is the opinion of the UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, who went on record to deliver his verdict that “too many cooks spoil the stew.”

Libya gained its independence from Italy in 1951. Established as a monarchy under King Idris I, it saw its fortunes soar in the decade following independence – significant oil reserves were discovered in 1959. What was once among the world’s poorest nations quickly became an oil-producing giant and wealth began flowing into the country. However, King Idris I provoked deep resentment among his subjects by siphoning much of Libya’s newfound wealth into his own coffers.

These resentments came to a head in 1969 when Moammar Gadhafi led a military coup that successfully overthrew the king. Under Gadhafi’s regime, the country simultaneously became very rich and increasingly repressed. Gadhafi withstood a coup attempt in 1975 and a 1986 American airstrike intended to kill him. Eventually, the 2011 Libyan Civil War swept him from power and left him dead.

The Civil War began in the heady days of the Arab Spring. A full-scale revolt broke out in Libya in mid-February of 2011. Shortly thereafter, an Interim Transitional National Council was announced as an alternative government. One month later, the U.N. Security Council established a no-fly zone and green-lighted the use of “all means necessary” to protect civilians within Libya. By August, rebel fighters had entered Tripoli, and by October they had captured and killed Gadhafi.

No single party or group managed to seize power and exert control over Libya following the fall of Gadhafi. Libya’s first post-war parliamentary elections were held in July of 2012, leading to a formal transfer of power from the UN Security Council to the elected members of the Libyan General National Congress (GNC), which was subsequently tasked with creating an interim government and drafting a new constitution.

The interim government, however, struggled to establish itself, and a string of prime ministers was elected, ousted, and replaced. Abdullah al-Thani occupied the position in June 2014 when elections were held for a new Council of Deputies, which was intended to take over for the GNC. To the surprise and consternation of GNC’s Islamist leaders, secular and liberal candidates performed exceedingly well in the elections. As a result, the Islamist bloc refused to recognize the newly constituted Council of Deputies, preferring to declare a continued mandate for the GNC. After some of their supporters took up arms and occupied Tripoli, the newly elected Council of Deputies fled to Tobruk, a port city some 1,000 kilometers east of Tripoli, to set up a rival parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR).

The power vacuum created by these competing parliaments has left plenty of space for tribal militias and jihadist groups to carve out territories of their own. According to some estimates, as many as 1,700 armed groups emerged during the early days of the uprising — many of which have now established deeply entrenched footholds in the country. Given that only four major players were in attendance at the Paris summit, it will likely go down as a mere footnote in history, despite Macron’s self-congratulatory posturing.