How new street protests can help diplomacy in Libya succeed

Rival camps in Libya will likely sabotage political processes that could undermine them. The international community can head this off by harnessing protesters’ justified anger. 


Only in Libya could the heads of the two rival political camps announce a ceasefire and the start of a new political process – and it still not be the biggest news of the week. For no sooner had the imminent threat of renewed warfare receded and another peace process shakily emerged, than the Libyan people came out onto the streets. The protesters condemned the country’s elite en masse and demanded a government that could successfully govern this tired, broken, and looted state.

It may be disheartening for the American, German, and United Nations diplomats, who laboured hard in difficult circumstances to secure this new peace, to see this popular tidal wave seemingly wash away hard-fought gains. But it is actually a blessing in disguise.

The new ceasefire has removed the sense of impending conflict and could open up space for a revived political process. The political leaders of east and west Libya have effectively signed up to a UN plan for a demilitarised zone (DMZ) around the contested city of Sirte. They made this clear in coordinated announcements on 21 August this year that echoed the UN plan’s main points. Their pledges include expelling mercenaries, setting up a joint policing mechanism, and, of course, demilitarising the area in question. Perhaps more important was the fact that key third states active in Libya appear to be buying into the process. Turkey sends arms, and directly operates in support of, forces aligned to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA); it has indicated its support for the process in principle. So too has Egypt, which had recently threatened to invade Libya if the GNA launched a military campaign to take Sirte. Getting two of the largest external influencers on Libya on board is a genuine success.

If the international community can keep them both there then this can help prevent spoilers dragging Libya back to a state of war. Foremost among those will be General Haftar, the weakened head of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces based in the country’s east; he has been relegated from the darling of the previous political process to the problem-child of this one. He knows that any trend towards peace and political progress is also a trend towards his retirement. He will therefore do all he can to provoke a new war.

Politicians east and west claim to be rivals but privately conspire to remain in their incredibly lucrative positions 

Another key external player, the United Arab Emirates, is likely to support Haftar in his endeavours to undermine the new process. The UAE’s primary interest in Libya is to see Turkey pushed out of the country, whereas this entente will do nothing to prevent Turkey’s continuing commercial, political, and military entrenchment in western Libya. Direct pressure on Haftar and the Emirates to not spoil proceedings will be crucial, and this should include threats of sanctions against Haftar’s economic activities. Key to this will be the ability to exploit an upcoming tranche of European Union sanctions and to publicise evidence of Emirati arms embargo violations collected by the EU’s Operation IRINI. This will allow European diplomats to more credibly posture to the UAE that Europe will take punitive action if it continues to spoil European diplomacy.

The two political camps’ statements also contained expected differences, notably on the next political steps and how to solve the question of the oil embargo, arguably Libya’s most pressing problem right now. The embargo enforced by Haftar since mid-January (as a means to gain leverage before the Berlin Conference) has left Libya without revenue and crippled its power grid – problems worsened by the now escalating covid-19 crisis. But these differences should by now be considered de rigueur for Libya’s processes; they are the opening beats of a well traversed and choreographed dance between politicians who publicly claim to be rivals but privately conspire to remain in their incredibly lucrative positions of power.

The energy of the current popular protests thus gives the UN the opportunity to try to neutralise the disruptive and stalling potential of these actors. It should work to go over their heads and directly engage social and political leaders from key parts of the country, including from usually excluded groups such as tribes or communities that supported the former regime. The UN already has access to these networks from its earlier efforts to host a national conference, and by organising a smaller convening of this kind the UN could activate the more moderate centre of Libya. Its aim should be to outline the next political steps, in particular how to transition from the current institutions towards a new, smaller, unity government and to establish what mandate it should have. Engaging such groups will ensure the protests do not drift, constructively channel the street’s grievances, and mean that the UN does not have to rely on Libya’s politicians to devise and agree upon the political transition plan.

Although the oil embargo was enacted by Haftar for narrow personal political advancement, he leveraged a very real grievance to justify it: the lack of benefit local communities see from oil sales. As such, even after the tremendous strain caused by the embargo, meaningful local pressure on Haftar to remove the embargo will not materialise unless these constituencies perceive it to be blocking the activation of a deal that would give them increased benefits. The UN could help bring about such a scenario by proposing a guaranteed proportion of oil revenues to go to Libya’s oil, water, and power infrastructures. Such a move would allow eastern Libyan politicians to save face, showcase a win for their constituencies, and help generate popular local pressure to lift the embargo. Alongside this, the diplomatic pressure on both Haftar and the UAE, which is blamed for foiling the last attempt to lift the embargo, to not spoil the overall process should extend to a demand for its lifting.

Securing buy-in for the DMZ plan from political, military, and foreign stakeholders is a significant diplomatic accomplishment. The emergence of the new protest movement represents, not an obstacle to this plan, but a real opportunity to drive it forward. Gone is the apparent popular apathy in Libya that long let political elites off the hook on the question of progress. The informal US, German, and UN coalition that orchestrated the ceasefire possesses geopolitical gravity, expertise, and resources. Drawing on the power of the street, it can press its way towards a more permanent cessation of hostilities, political unification, and a lifting of the oil embargo.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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