Following the recent August ceasefire and for the first time since the conflict began, the military dynamics in Libya appears to be balanced. Previously, warlord and ex-general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) had always been able to overwhelm the divided forces of the West. This enabled Haftar to assert a status quo that eventually led the international community to consider allowing a military solution in light of the persistent failures of various political initiatives.
In other words, Haftar’s might in the face of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord’s (GNA) military impotency was enough for international powers to implicitly allow a year-long Tripoli offense in a gamble that Haftar’s victory would bring an end to the civil strife, even if not under the best of circumstances.
However, with Turkey’s sudden and rapid intervention, the GNA is no longer an impotent force and has succeeded not only in repelling Haftar’s offensive but seizing the two key bases that allowed it in the first place: Al-Watiya and Tarhouna. Haftar’s setback has been so spectacular that the speaker of the Parliament in Tobruk, Aguila Saleh, has found the political space to maneuver to displace Haftar as the public diplomatic face of the East backed by both Cairo and Moscow, and reluctantly by Abu Dhabi. It was Aguila Saleh who announced the ceasefire. Cairo, Moscow, and Abu Dhabi all welcomed the announcement. Haftar was silent.
For Turkey, Libya is part of a wider geopolitical struggle for access to resources in the Mediterranean.
There is little doubt that Turkey wanted to push into Sirte and towards the oil crescent in a bid to propel the GNA to a superior position over the LNA, rather than settle for the current equilibrium. For Turkey, Libya is part of a wider geopolitical struggle for access to resources in the Mediterranean and therefore the more coastline under the control of an ally, the better equipped Ankara is to resist the antagonism of regional rivals such as Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt.
However, Russia and Egypt complicated Turkish attempts at an offensive. The former installed land mines across the area, while the latter threatened a full-on intervention with enough gusto that no one could be certain whether President al-Sisi was bluffing or not.
Moreover, divisions within the GNA became more pronounced as the various factions, buoyed by their success, returned to jostling with one another. Some began to accuse Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of monopolizing power. Others accused Deputy Chairman Ahmed Maiteeq of failing in his duties. Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha was criticized for state contracts signed with foreign powers including the purchase of police vehicles.
Turkey also grew impatient with al-Serraj prolonging talks over the establishment of the Misrata base and sent high-level delegations that included the likes of Turkish spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and President Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat al-Bayrak to accelerate the process of cementing Turkey’s presence on the political and economic scene.
Even as Ankara might have hoped to secure Washington’s backing due to the increased Russian presence in Libya, statements and actions from the State Department and AFRICOM remained vague. Where the US expressed support for Turkish intervention, it refused to condemn the role of the UAE. Where it expressed support for the GNA, US delegations would meet with Haftar.
The same applied to Europe. Where Ankara hoped they could ally with Europe in defense of the GNA, the Turkish administration was met with deep suspicion from Germany, and open antagonism from Paris.
Faced with a high stakes battle that, if lost, would utterly destroy the gains of the past six months, Turkey launched overtures to Egypt while Moscow sought to provide a gesture of goodwill to Turkish President Erdogan by actively empowering Aguila Saleh at Haftar’s expense.
There has been a gradual alignment of interests between Turkey, Russia, and Egypt that has paved the way for a ceasefire.
Over the past month, there has been a gradual alignment of interests between Turkey, Russia, and Egypt that has paved the way for a ceasefire. Turkey has secured its base on the Mediterranean while Haftar is increasingly being side-lined by his own allies. Russia has cemented its control on oil facilities and established and maintained a working relationship and communication channel with Turkey on Libya.
Egypt has seen Turkey’s advance grind to a halt on the outskirts of Sirte and begun forming its own bloc in Eastern Libya to leverage against the GNA, while the proposed Cairo initiative is back on the table. Indeed, Cairo is keen to wrap up the Libya conflict and direct its efforts towards the East Mediterranean crisis, growing antagonism with Khartoum, and a diplomatic crisis with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam.
In other words, this ceasefire was brought about by a desire among the international powerbrokers for a prolonged period of peace, rather than a result of a concerted effort by the Libyans themselves.
This has become increasingly evident in the protests that have immediately followed the ceasefire declaration in Tripoli, Sirte, Sebha, and Barqa, that have demonstrated the wide disconnect between the political elites at war with one another, and the people who irrespective of whether they are in the East or the West, share the same grievances towards the entire political spectrum.
Tripoli protestors not only denounced Haftar and Aguila Saleh, but also al-Serraj and Bashagha, accusing the government of corruption and failing to provide basic amenities. In effect, the protests demonstrate that the established political actors in the East and West are only as powerful as their international benefactors and lack the popular legitimacy that might enable them to draw moral authority in their pursuit of uniting Libya.
The protests are reminiscent of 2014, when in the midst of the deteriorating political situation between Haftar and the Islamist-dominated General Nation Congress (GNC), the people took to the streets to protest against the continued presence of the militias on all sides. That is to say, instead of participating in the polarized political wrestling, people from East to West denounced the system as a whole and sought to eliminate militias that enabled the political parties to assert themselves against the popular will.
There is a growing sense that the current political elite have always lacked the popular legitimacy to rule.
The situation is very similar today. There is a growing sense that the current political elite have always lacked the popular legitimacy to rule, and that al-Serraj rules only because of the internationally-brokered Skhirat agreement, and Aguila Saleh and Haftar rule only because of the massive external support from Abu Dhabi. Neither party rules by popular mandate.
The problem for al-Serraj is that these protests could not have come at a worse time. Just when he has finally secured a ceasefire, he now faces the most significant internal challenge to his authority. Despite addressing the people, protestors continued to take to the streets. Al-Serraj’s discomfort at the escalating situation was made clear when he announced an emergency curfew for four days on grounds of preventing the spread of coronavirus, with immediate effect.
The longer the protests continue, the more emboldened his rivals, the more pronounced the divisions within the GNA, and the weaker his subsequent leverage in any future negotiations in the anticipated political process.
The problem for Haftar is that as the ceasefire endures, the more irrelevant he appears as his rival Aguila Saleh – who he sought to side-line only a few months ago – grows more and more visible in negotiations and diplomatic consultations. Moreover, with Russia and Egypt eager to broker a lasting deal, Haftar is also finding himself increasingly isolated.
As for the international players, there is quiet optimism over the ceasefire and a desire on all sides to see it last. Turkey wishes to use the opportunity to rapidly entrench its naval base in Misrata and accelerate its economic offensive. Russia seeks to embed itself in Al-Jufra and further south. Egypt looks to improve its ties with Libya’s tribes to improve its leverage against a Turkish influenced West. Germany hopes to rally Europe into a unified stance. And France plans to heal ties with the GNA and attempt to displace Turkey politically rather than militarily after its failed adventures with Haftar.
This clear expression of popular discontent has the potential to pave the way for prospective elections at local and regional levels.
For the Libyan people, the ceasefire has come at an ideal time. There is now a chance to present a unified front from East to West, denouncing the current political actors and making it clear to the international community that these politicians are not their representatives. This clear expression of popular discontent has the potential to pave the way for prospective elections at local and regional levels that might bring new faces to the fore, independent of the polarizing East-West divide that Haftar and al-Serraj have come to define.
However, before such a process can materialize, the protestors must overcome the increasingly desperate efforts of both the GNA and LNA to contain them as al-Serraj imposes emergency rule and Haftar cuts off communications in Sirte to prevent the spread of information.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen to what extent Cairo and Moscow can assert themselves on an increasingly isolated Haftar who fears what peace might mean for his future.
Lastly, there is widespread apprehension that both the GNA and LNA will seek to rescue their raison d’etre by returning to the only status quo that guarantees their enduring role in Libya’s story: war.