Action points for Europe after the Libya deal

How the EU can move on from a deal to support a peaceful post-revolution politics in Libya

This week, Libyan politicians are meeting in Geneva under UN auspices to finalise a peace deal. On 11 July, while Europeans were focusing on the Greek crisis and the Iran deal, a range of Libyan factions signed a national unity deal brokered by UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon. This came after nine months of negotiations and five different drafts. The latest version of the agreement establishes a government of national accord in which a restricted “presidency council” controls sensible areas of policy, most notably the fractured security sector. The House of Representatives (HoR), the internationally-recognized parliament sitting in Tobruk and elected on 25 June 2014, would remain the main legislative body while the rump General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli would be partially absorbed into the State Council, a mostly consultative body.

Of the major Libyan factions, the only one that did not sign was the GNC in Tripoli, unhappy with both the new institutional design and the articles on security. Leon stated that the door remains open for them if they want to join. This opportunity will come with the next step of the agreement’s implementation, the discussion over the five annexes. These annexes touch upon relevant issues including the names of the Prime Minister, his deputies and ministers; the new government’s action plan; the mechanism for choosing the members of the State Council; amendments to the Constitutional Declaration and finally the management of Libya’s finances and assets. It is not far-fetched to expect the discussion over the annexes to go on for some time, creating an opportunity for the GNC to change its mind or be left out of such important decisions.  

Heftar and the Tripoli problem

Moreover, the big decision will be about the future of controversial general Khalifa Heftar, whose forces have self-branded as the Libyan National Army, nominally under the control of the anti-Islamist HoR in Tobruk. His ousting is the most important condition posed in a letter to Leon by the moderates within coalition “Libya Dawn” who have signed the agreement.

Although questions over Heftar’s conduct and competence since the launch of the anti-terror and anti-Islamist ‘Operation Dignity’ on May 16th 2014 have been raised by all sides, the main point of contention appears to be his political ambition. There are two possible solutions to this problem, none of which is either easy or completely effective.

Provisions within the agreement subjecting the security sector to state oversight and accountability as well as a clear separation between the military and the civilian institutions it is subordinate to provide a foundation for a solution to this issue.  Heftar has often issued statements, designed to assuage the fears of those who find him politically intimidating. Negotiations in the security track of the UN-dialogue are a good forum for forcing him to honour his word by relegating him to a restricted military role. By allowing Heftar to retain his rank, though not necessarily his HoR appointed role of Army Chief of Staff; his opponents would be free from any political threat, his supporters assured that he is not unfairly victimised, and the people guaranteed civilian oversight of his actions. 

The alternative option on Heftar is to work with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to find him a different position to “commander in chief”, something which half of Libya would never accept as part of a peace deal. Simultaneously, Heftar’s new role should not sound offensive to those who have supported him.

Although both options provide good opportunities for re-directing Heftar’s belligerence more productively either one would have to be broached with sensitivity. If perceived as an affront, attempts to bring him into a national military system may simply reinforce his siege mentality and the zero-sum mind-set of his supporters; driving him, and his militias, further away from political institutions and the international community and closer towards his regional supporters. Such a shift retains the potential to morph any security settlement, and by extension the agreement itself, into a divisive rather than unifying tool. With all these caveats, it is worth trying to address the issue of his political power if the new agreement is to have solid foundations.

Indeed, addressing the issue of Heftar’s political role would help convincing some supporters of the GNC to sign up to the agreement, making the deal’s implementation smoother. In fact, the rump parliament in Tripoli represents, and is heavily pressured by, the militias currently controlling the capital. It would be quite difficult for a government of national accord to rule from Tripoli without at least the tacit consent of the armed groups now controlling the city. On the contrary, a government not ruling from Tripoli would not control any vital national installation of the government: agencies, ministries, the Central Bank or the National Oil Corporation. If the GNC does not get on board, there is increasing rumour that those who signed the agreement (with significant help from pro-dialogue armed groups within Tripoli) would aim at conquering the capital militarily in order to install the new government. If this were the outcome, the agreement signed in Skhirat on 11 July would become the harbinger of more violence rather than a peace deal.

A two-track strategy to support UN efforts

To avoid this, Europe could pursue a two-pronged strategy. First, show that the door remains open to the GNC by openly inviting it to take part in the discussion about the annexes. To this end, the meetings held by Leon in Algiers with a delegation of the GNC are a positive sign, but he will need some weeks to work on the GNC without too much pressure from Europeans. Second, simultaneously show that the negotiations will move on because Libya needs a government and those who have signed the agreement cannot be held hostage to one faction dragging its feet. This is true particularly for Libya Dawn factions that signed the agreement: Misrata, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and several municipal councils. Ultimately, the changes that the GNC wants to make to the general agreement can be implemented through the annexes.

In recent weeks, ministers of EU member states’ along with High Representative Federica Mogherini have spoken about issuing EU-only individual sanctions against “spoilers” of the negotiations. To stand on a solid legal ground, they should be targeted not against “spoilers” (a fragile concept which could be easily challenged in court) but rather against violators of international law, first of all against those who have attacked civilian airports – coincidentally, the hardliners in both camps.

However, if the agreement is to truly lead to peace and progress, political work must be done on the ground to realign the current factions. Firstly, Leon should use these follow-up discussions to differentiate between those who would sign up were it not for genuine unaddressed grievances from spoilers harbouring unreasonable demands and dictatorial designs. Then bespoke approaches may be designed for relegating, co-opting, or punishing those in the latter group. Different actors are capable of spoiling the process in various ways. For example, whilst sanctions may work in weakening and warding off those, like Abdul Rahman Swehli, whose power stems from their business and amassed capital, they would be relatively useless against military or ideological actors. Cases such as Salah Baadi of the ‘steadfastness front’ currently entrenched in Tripoli would simply trumpet such chastisement as a badge of honour. It would be more effective to work instead on weakening his power base by co-opting militias allied to him before allowing the future government to deal with him domestically.    

Supporting local ceasefires

Europe’s “day after” the Libyan deal should not be confined to isolating spoilers and showing declaratory support to Leon. Along with concrete support for the national, UN-sponsored political dialogue, Europe must pursue both a local and a regional strategy.

There are an increasing number of local ceasefires in the past two months now covering most of Western Libya. These truces are based on war-weariness among the population but need support because they will be the only realistic providers of security whilst a truly neutral army and police are formed – a process which may take up to ten years.

To support local ceasefires, the EU can do several things. First, deploy its planning and mediation units to support local security arrangements. While a deployment in Libya now would be highly unsafe, a unit in Tunis would be accessible to most Libyan factions. Second, the EU has been managing, for some time, the “municipal track” of the UN dialogue. This should be convened regularly to support the political process and discuss concrete humanitarian measures. Third, the EU and its member states should start working immediately with local councils (without waiting for the completion of the discussion of the annexes of the UN agreement) in order to support public services and local security, two elements most commonly used by IS to establish its presence.

Further to this it would behove the EU and its member states to work with the HoR and government of national accord to help manage and ensure the progression of the agreement’s confidence building measures and the annexes’ government action plan. As a consequence of the failure of a top-down and highly intrusive approach in Iraq, in 2011 the US and Europe decided to focus on “local ownership” of the transition in Libya. But this has failed, too. All should be wary about this agreement’s potential to simply recreate the environment of 2012 where the GNC was elected to much fanfare before being overwhelmed by the weight of issues before them, internal divisions and lack of experience. As such, targeted assistance in key areas and help at guiding the post-agreement political track should be considered a crucial component to the agreement’s execution.

It is important that the P3+5 meetings (including US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the EU and the UN) are held regularly to examine progress on the action plan, coordinate policies, and provide, where needed, political pressure at the highest level. This element was completely missing from the post-Gaddhafi transition, leaving the management of Western policy on Libya to diplomats who, though often very good, have a different clout than a Foreign Minister.

Deadlines for targets from finalising the annexes and appointing bodies to goals for the government action plan should be well thought out and not overly ambitious, a potential pitfall already made by the few dated deadlines within the agreement for the formation of various bodies. A dangerous culture of ignoring deadlines and excusing failures to provide progress arose during Libya’s post-revolutionary politics, most notably with the Constitutional Declaration’s transitional goals. The GNC’s failure to achieve targets punctually during its official mandate, was a key factor in the population’s growing cynicism with politics and its eventual rejection of the body’s legitimacy with violent protests and a popular movement that were part of the events directly leading to the current split and civil war.

Working with Saudi Arabia?

The Skhirat agreement is also the result of either cooperation or non-hostility from regional powers who have been very involved in the fighting in Libya: Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE. This cooperation should be encouraged in place of the destructive interference that has thus far helped to propagate conflict. In this sense, it is not a mystery that this cooperation stems also from the US-GCC meeting held in Camp David in May where Libya was on the agenda.

Saudi Arabia could play an important role in the coming weeks by working together with the US and Europe both to find a solution to the Heftar problem and to support local ceasefires. An increased Saudi role had been discussed two months ago in Saudi-backed Al Arabiya. Whether Saudi Arabia wants to earn this credit with the West in the wake of the Iran deal is not known, but should at least be tested. Saudi’s keenness to maintain its leadership position in the Arab world, accentuated by the recent Iran deal, as well as the influence they hold over Egypt and their role in balancing Qatar and the UAE provides a good opportunity for their productive involvement. If done in tandem with Turkey, who are reaching out for allies in their recently launched battle with ISIS, the regional intervention Libya’s been subjected to thus far can be reworked into providing crucial partners to the success of the agreement.

Tarek Megerisi is a freelance researcher and analyst of Middle Eastern politics who has worked extensively on Libya's transition with a range of Libyan and international organisations. Mattia Toaldo is a Policy Fellow at ECFR. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.