Libya is divided into three general sections. Tripolitania, the seat of the Government of National Accord (GNA) – recognized by the international community and headed by Fayez al-Sarraj; Cyrenaica, dominated by ex-General Khalifa Haftar and his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA); and Fezzan, a huge stretch of the Sahara Desert, isolated and linked to the disruptions in the Sahel region, armed gangs, and human traffickers.
Libya is a sovereign state on paper. In practice, it is a political vacuum filled and characterized by a strategic geographic position and mineral resources attracting the attention of local power groups and various foreign actors – including the European Union (EU), Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, and Russia.
The miscalculated destruction of Muʿammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya government in October 2011 has de-facto transformed Libya into a land of contention.
The miscalculated destruction of Muʿammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya government in October 2011 has de-facto transformed Libya into a land of contention between regional and global powers. Nevertheless, after six years of war, the two competing Libyan capitals are signaling that a peace process can begin—granted, such a process enjoys the backing of the United States, the EU, and the UN. Although the various international players involved in the fighting, including Moscow and Ankara, appear to be the most active promoters of the “peace” agreement.
Turkey and Russia, which have respectively backed the western and eastern governments, share wider diplomatic goals that have encouraged the achievement of a truce in Libya. Even Egypt, whose president, al-Sisi, had threatened to intervene militarily to support Haftar’s forces (should the western military have attacked them in Sirte), has no doubt welcomed the resumption of concrete dialogue, given the difficulty al-Sisi would have had in engaging in as thorny a conflict as the Libyan one.
Meanwhile, the UAE, beaming from its US-backed diplomatic breakthrough with Israel, wants to establish itself as a credible diplomatic broker in Washington’s eyes. Thus, despite its concerns about the Tripoli government, it has not objected to the Libyan peace effort.
The Peace Process
On August 21, the Tripoli-based GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, and the LNA-backed House of Representatives (HoR), chaired by Aguila Saleh in Tobruk (unlike the GNA, the Tobruk government is not recognized internationally), announced a ceasefire. The ceasefire suggests Libya’s nation-building prospects are improving.
Indeed, the latest military threat to Libyan unity began when LNA commander Khalifa Haftar – who backs the Tobruk parliament – attacked western Libya in an effort to seize Tripoli with the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. With Turkish military support, the GNA forces were able to stave off Haftar’s forces, pushing the military struggle westwards. The latest skirmishes have occurred near Sirte, close to Libya’s oil export terminals and routes to the oilfields.
Apart from the cessation of military hostilities and the demilitarization of the key oil producing regions of Sirte and Jufra, the ceasefire talks also included plans for oil production and political consultations. Oil remains the economic fulcrum around which any nation-building effort must proceed in Libya.
Oil remains the economic fulcrum around which any nation-building effort must proceed in Libya.
The ceasefire agreement sets out a plan to resume production and exports. And the resumption of production is a fundamental step. Most of the oil and gas export wells and terminals remain closed such that Libya has lost billions of dollars. The average Libyan has felt the repercussions with higher prices for fuel and unreliable electricity generation (most power is oil generated) in both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
To achieve a lasting political solution, it is essential that the two sides agree on ways to resume oil production. The redistribution of oil revenues, as Gaddafi had implemented, is the foundation of Libya’s stabilization. As a rentier state, Libyan politics are quite literally fueled by oil. Until the oil wells start pumping and the oil tankers start loading, the ceasefire still rests on weak foundations.
Another Spring? Peace as a Marketing Strategy
General Haftar has mocked the agreement, describing it as a marketing proposal for the public relations benefit of Fayez al-Sarraj and his Turkish allies, presumably to buy time and prepare an offensive to take Benghazi. Ordinary Libyans in both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica have not reacted favorably. Or, rather, they have expressed in clear terms their dissatisfaction with the respective governments. Reflecting the “mood,” and perhaps as a way to hasten negotiations and reach a solution, while consolidating his mandate, on September 18 al-Sarraj announced his resignation, effective next October.
Prime Minister Abdullah Althani of the Tobruk government (linked to the HoR) resigned September 13, 2019 in response to the protests over deteriorating living, humanitarian, and health conditions, now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city with some 650,000 residents and Haftar’s base, has witnessed some of the most intense protests over blackouts – due to a shortage of fuel in oil rich Libya – and price inflation for basic food and other necessities.
Days after delegates from rival Libyan governments met in Bouznika, Morocco to discuss a recently announced ceasefire, elections, and reunification, there were massive protests in Tripoli as well as other western Libyan towns, and Benghazi in the east. Despite the geographic and political divisions, many ordinary Libyans have accused their respective governments – the GNA in the west and the House of Representatives in Tobruk (backed by the LNA) – of tolerating widespread corruption amid deteriorating living conditions. The respective armed forces have been deployed, and soldiers are said to have used fire against crowds burning tires in Benghazi.
In Tripoli, crowds have protested, complaining about Prime Minister al-Sarraj’s recent decisions.
In Tripoli, meanwhile, crowds have protested, complaining about Prime Minister al-Sarraj’s recent decisions, and the appointment of Mohammad Baiyou in a government reshuffle to the leadership of the Libyan Media Foundation’s regulatory body. Baiyou previously served as a leader of Gaddafi’s revolutionary guards.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely aligned to the GNA, and the local Justice and Construction Party rejected the latter’s appointment, describing him as a supporter of Haftar. It should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood in Misrata considers the media to be an essential aspect of government. The people are fed up with cosmetic leadership changes and have demanded effective measures to stop power outages and scarce cash supplies at banks. In fact, Libyans have suffered almost ten years of chaos since the NATO-supported uprising that overthrew the Jamahiriya, Mu’ammar al- Gaddafi’s idiosyncratic government in 2011.
Still, at the political level – notwithstanding the exacerbation of the popular demonstrations into another “Arab Spring” – Haftar’s skepticism about the ceasefire has some validity. A lasting political agreement that leads to a formal reunification and dismantling of the various militias – let alone a resolution of rival ambitions of regional supremacy – can only occur if the two sides can first resolve a few radical disagreements.
Apart from those, which leave room for debate such as the date of the election and even the establishment of a new presidential council in Sirte, the delicate matter of the buffer zone between the two front lines must first be resolved. Tripoli wants the zone to be entirely demilitarized. Haftar and Aguila Saleh of the HoR want such a buffer to be entrusted to a Libyan security force, presumably joint. But it seems inevitable that such a force would likely be international and deployed through the United Nations.
Still, as thorny as demilitarization remains, amid continuing arms smuggling, any political solution along the lines set out with the ceasefire relies on the political survival of the GNA and HoR. Given the popular uprisings in both regions without any solution on the horizon, there are few assurances that complications will not arise in the next few months.
The Original Sin
The conditions for peace exist, if only because both the GNA and the LNA are having to confront precarious social situations, and because the various international players that have been using Libya as a proxy battlefield to pursue their own strategic goals have decided that they’ve had enough. As noted, oil remains the key to both unity and easing social unrest.
During the Ottoman Empire, the territory now known as Libya was divided into two different and separately administered provinces, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
It’s rarely discussed that Libya is the ancient Roman name, which Italian geographer Federico Minutilli revived in 1903 and which the Italian government adopted in its colonial Annexation Decree of November 5, 1911 after defeating the Ottomans. During the Ottoman Empire, the territory now known as Libya was divided into two different and separately administered provinces, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Libya, as a nation, is therefore an invention of colonial Italy.
Tripolitanians and Cyrenaicans differed even in the way they responded to Italian colonization – the first generally welcomed it, the latter provided the bulk of the opposition to it. The populations of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania have remained autonomous, and even during the Qadhafi years, it was only the distribution of oil revenues and political repression that kept Libya united. About 50 percent of the oil fields are in Cyrenaica, but the coastal terminals for export are located in Tripolitania and in the Sirte region, where most of the pipelines have their terminus.
Accordingly, the Cyrenaicans accuse the Tripolitanians of depriving them of their wealth – given that the oil terminals are sources of employment and prosperity. For this reason, control of Sirte is essential, and it is imperative that such control be shared between the GNA and LNA/HoR. It’s no surprise that the main obstacle to peace now remains the achievement of a ceasefire in this crucial area.