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Libyan Crisis: Is There Any Hope for a Political Settlement?

In the aftermath of Colonel Gadaffi’s regime and personal demise in 2011, Libya has slipped back into Civil War as the country’s hoped for transition from dictatorship to democracy has stalled, and the country has fragmented.

Today, Libya is facing political, economic and social turmoil with the two rival governments of the Toburk Government in the East and the New General Congress in Tripoli fighting for power and resources, each backed by several militias.

Since the Fall of Gaddafi, Libya has become a power vacuum- Photo Credit via The Daily Telegraph

As a result of these tensions between Nationalists, Islamists and militias, ISIL has been able to establish a presence; migrants have crossed the Mediterranean and died in the process; criminal gangs have flourished, and the economy is in meltdown. As the conflict unfolds, so does the true complexity of the situation as the major political challenges move into yet sharper focus.  Time is running out, and the need for a peace agreement is pressing, but do the politicians and the powerful militias have an appetite for peace or for the continued turmoil of an extended civil war?

How did Libya Descend into Chaos?

In the Post-Gaddafi era, Libya has failed to cement a strong and stable Government despite the 2012 elections which partially achieved a peaceful transition of power to a democratically elected government. However, the ever-increasing power of militia groups and the government’s failure to control and disarm revolutionary brigades, has meant that the elected Libyan authorities never achieved full control over the country.

In early 2014, protests began in response to the then elected General National Congress (Libya’s legislative authority) refusal to disband despite the expiration of its electoral mandate. As a result, in May 2014 General Haftar, who later became the military leader of Operation Dignity, tried to dissolve the General National Congress (GNC) by force through conducting military operations in Benghazi.  The GNC responded by calling national elections in June 2014.

In the resulting election for the Council of Deputies Islamic representation suffered a landslide defeat, however the 18% (630,000) turnout, down from 60% in 2012, provided the Islamic movement with a rationale for rejecting the outcome.  In the uncertainty prevailing at the time, the self-proclaimed new GNC used militia groups such as Misratan and Berber to take control of Tripoli by force, obliging the internationally recognised Council of Deputies to retreat to Toburk in the East. At one point the Council had to meet on a car ferry, such was the confusion caused by the crisis.

From then on, Libya has had two separate administrations vying for power – a clear indication of a divided and troubled nation.

The Role of the UN Peace Negotiations

The United Nations (UN), in the aftermath of the original 2011 civil war, launched a support mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which was political in nature, seeking to help the National Transition Council rebuild state institutions and the rule of law, control unsecured arms and support Libya’s transition to democracy. With Libya’s path to democracy collapsing and a new civil war breaking out, UNSMIL has led a political dialogue to find a solution to the crisis.

The UN envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, has been successful in initiating talks between the two rival governments and some of the militia groups to try to reach a political settlement, but both Governments have rejected various UN proposals for reconciliation and unification.

In January 2015 there were promising signs with a partial ceasefire agreed after UN-sponsored talks. In May, after months of talks Leon issued a promising statement that 80% of UN proposals had been agreed and that a Unity Government could be established in weeks.

The UN’s proposal to date, announced in June, was to bring the two rival governments together to form a one-year National Unity Government where a Council of Ministers would be headed by a Prime Minister, which would reinstall the Toburk parliament in Tripoli, in conjunction with a Libyan Dawn-Affiliate consultative body. This represents an attempt to bring the factions together, control the Militia groups and establish a new constitution.

Other measures such as the UN Arms Embargo have remained in place since the 2011 Civil War despite actors in Libya and Egypt urging an end to the embargo so the Libyan Army could use heavy weaponry and increase its strength in the east.

Where does the Toburk Government stand?

The Toburk Government, also known as the Council of Deputies or House of Representatives, is the internationally recognized government of Libya. It is supported by a military alliance known as Dignity, led by General Hafter, a former servant and a later opponent of Gaddafi. The Council has received strong support from Egypt and the UAE through airstrikes and the confidence of the US.

However, international support is only a part of the story. Domestically, the Libyan Supreme Court based in Tripoli declared last November that the 2014 election result was unconstitutional and that the House of Representative should be dissolved. This ruling was decisively rejected by the Toburk Government who continue to make a stand with superior military assets such as air power and artillery at its disposal. Dignity forces are currently fighting to take full control of Benghazi and other eastern cities to establish a stronghold in the East. General Hafter has called those who serve with Libyan Dawn ‘extremists and terrorists’, making it clear that Dignity is out to eliminate political Islam wherever it is found.

When it comes to the prospects of a negotiated settlement, the Council rejected the UN’s June proposals on a potential power-sharing agreement between the two rival governments. The UN proposal of a one-year government would have created a 120 member state council, including 90 members from the General National Congress.

The Council of Deputies spokesman stated categorically that they would not accept any deal that compelled it to share power with the second legislative body. The Council continues to oppose sharing or increasing the power of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the Dawn Coalition. However there is the potential for compromise with the Toburk Government signing peace agreements with some local factions to live, work and govern together.

Where does the New General National Congress stand?

The rival government is the New General National Congress (GNC), led by Nouri Abushamain as its President. The Muslim Brotherhood, who is supported by its own militia alliance known as Libya Dawn, masterminds the GNC and The Dawn coalition took over Tripoli and its international airport in August. Allegedly the GNC is supported through cash and weapons by states such as Turkey, Qatar and Sudan. The GNC claims that Dignity’s Army Chief Hafter is a Gaddafi Loyalist, and they have issued a warrant for his arrest.

In April 2015, the GNC, along with the Council, rejected the UN’s earlier draft proposals which called for a two-year transitional period to respect the results of a parliamentary election, the expansion of the mandate of the Council and the creation of a new Libyan army and police force. Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood described the proposal as ‘shocking and disappointing’ as the proposal did not mention the GNC and stated that the Council was the only legislative authority in the country. However encouraging signs have recently emerged as it has been reported that the GNC support the UN’s latest June 2015 proposal for a one-year unity Government that the GNC believe is necessary to combat terrorism and illegal immigration and ensure stability.

ISIL Affiliates Step In and Establish Safe Havens

ISIL has seized the opportunities presented by Libya’s Civil War to establish a footprint in Libya, overrunning the city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown, while also capturing many neighborhoods within the cities of Derna and Benghazi. These cities are strategically significant as it is widely believed that ISIL is using its strongholds to smuggle fighters across the Mediterranean to expand and execute terror operations in Europe and Africa, causing major international concern. In February ISIL beheaded 20 Egyptian Christians, and Egypt responded with airstrikes on ISIL positions.

It is estimated the ISIL has around 3,000 fighters at their disposal in Libya. In addition, they have gained the support of the Ansia-Al Sharia Islamist terror group who are fighting against the Dignity coalition. It is this group who is accused of conducting the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi back in 2012, resulting in the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Despite the divisions between the rival governments, it is increasingly clear that ISIL and its affiliates represent the greatest impediment to peace, security and democracy in Libya.

Future Prospects – Hope is not a strategy!

Libya faces two options: a peace settlement requiring compromises and the political will from both sides to break the political and military deadlock, or full-scale civil war for the foreseeable future.

The devastation from civil war is already clear. According to a report from the UN Secretary General, since the conflict began the number of people displaced is estimated at around 400,000, and over 3,000 Libyans have died. This could be just the start of the humanitarian cost the country could face if it continues on its path towards becoming a failed state.

The UN can only go so far in bringing the two Libyan governments together. Support and pressure from major international partners such as the US, UK and France, and in particular other countries in the region, to secure a diplomatic solution is essential. Their influence and powers of persuasion is required to bring the two sides together and reunite the nation. This could put the country back on the road to democracy and help a new government combat the greatest threat to Libya’s stability and prosperity, ISIL.

Author Biography

Christopher Bowerin is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and Business Management at Oxford Brookes University. Christopher has a strong interest in European and American politics, Middle Eastern Affairs, international conflicts and post-war reconstruction.

Twitter: @KBowerin

*Cover image ‘Libya crisis 2012‘ by European Commission DG ECHO


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