Is the sky falling on Libya?

The ink is barely dry on a new joint statement on Libya. But already the roadmap is under threat from developments on the ground. 

In a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Thursday, 22 countries and 4 organisations (including the EU) signed a joint statement on Libya in support of de-escalation and of the UN-backed Presidential Council sitting in Tripoli. The statement charts a roadmap to implement the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in December 2015 in Morocco.  But reality may head in a different direction, one in which the sky falls on existing plans. The EU and its member states would do well to consider alternative scenarios in order to be able to adapt their policies.

The joint statement restates support for the Presidential Council as the sole authority on military affairs and on the management of oil revenues. It encourages the parliament in Tobruk to give a free and fair vote on the Government of National Accord (GNA) and amend the Constitutional Declaration to include the provisions of the LPA. Finally, it encourages Libya to approve a constitution and move towards elections to end the transitional phase. This looks like a sensible road map. Yet, actual policy should take into account the increasing fragility of current arrangements.

Events in Libya in the last month have already changed some fundamental premises on which Western policy had been based. First, the House of Representatives (HoR, the internationally recognised parliament based in Tobruk) has rejected the list of ministers for the GNA. The EU and some member states had been engaging with the ministers designated as if they were already in charge. It is hard to predict whether a new list will be submitted soon, how different it will be from the current one and whether it will stand any chances of being approved by the parliament. At the moment, the implementation of the LPA is blocked while the government in Tripoli seems to be suffering from lack of domestic political support and an inability to deal with the many economic challenges it faces.

These moves have significantly increased Heftar’s popularity, and for the first time since he started his Operation Dignity two years ago he actually stands some chance of winning the war.

The second development is that the main force which remained outside of the LPA – namely general Khalifa Heftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and his political supporters in the HoR – have made significant progress both politically and on the ground. On 11 September, the LNA seized the main oil terminals in the so-called Oil Crescent from the Petroleum Facilities Guards of Ibrahim Jadhran, a backer of the government in Tripoli who had demanded payment in exchange for unblocking exports. Heftar then handed over the terminals to the National Oil Company (NOC) based in Tripoli, the only institution authorised under UN resolutions to sell Libyan oil. The NOC nominally responds to the government in Tripoli and the oil revenues flow into the Central Bank in the capital which uses them to pay salaries to all civil servants (including many armed groups and the LNA).

These moves have significantly increased Heftar’s popularity, and for the first time since he started his Operation Dignity two years ago he actually stands some chance of winning the war. His forces have kept moving westward and they are now 50 km away from Sirte, where the pro-Presidential Council militias from the city of Misrata are fighting Isis. To move further West towards the Capital he could replicate the strategy he adopted in the Oil Crescent: quietly build alliances with tribes and armed groups and then move militarily only when it’s clear that his forces will not face major resistance. His road westwards could count on a number of assets: for different reasons, forces in Bani Walid, Tarhouna and some cities east, south and west of Tripoli could side with him. Within the Capital, the strategy could be to strike a tacit non-aggression deal with armed groups that represent neighbourhoods, rather than the Islamist ideology that Heftar loathes. Some of the groups falling into the first category are a key component of the security arrangements that allow Prime Minister Faiez Serraj to operate from Tripoli. To this end, Heftar has already made a distinction between the two categories of militias in an important interview to the Egyptian daily Al Ahram.

And even if he doesn’t enter Tripoli, Heftar can capitalise on his military momentum to strike a political deal. The contours have already been discussed both among Libyan leaders and in meetings between the US, the UK, France, Italy, the UAE and Egypt. Ultimately, to acquiesce in a political deal, Heftar would need to have guarantees over his role as head of Libya’s military and about the independence of the military command from civilian institutions. This deal would probably involve the marginalisation of those Islamist and anti-Heftar forces that currently support the Presidential Council. Yet it is unlikely that any major group will accept marginalisation without a fight. This is why, while taking into account Heftar’s new clout, one should not have complete faith in his strategy.

Europeans and Libyans should consider whether having avoided a new Raqqa on the Mediterranean, they are ready to have another Cairo.

Ultimately the combination of these developments means that, even though official statements cannot yet acknowledge it, the sky has fallen on the LPA: there will likely be a renegotiation of its terms, formal or informal, and there might be fighting. The policy of external actors, Europe included, should be to play a role to allow the former to happen without the latter.

Renegotiations cannot just reflect Heftar’s goals. He hasn’t clarified how different his model would be from Sisi’s Egypt in which the armed forces are unaccountable and therefore above civilian authorities. It is fair to wonder whether the implementation, even with some adaptation, of this model would stabilise Libya given that it hasn’t stabilised Egypt. Europeans and Libyans should consider whether having avoided a new Raqqa on the Mediterranean, they are ready to have another Cairo. 

To this end, three parallel tracks should be pursued by the EU and the member states that are more interested in Libya, starting with the UK, France and Italy. First, exploit the opportunity presented by the handover of the oil terminals and the resumption of oil exports to build a shared Libyan economic governance, help factions to agree on a budget (Libya hasn’t had one for two years) and guarantee transparency on how oil revenues are spent. This would build the sense among Libyans that, for all their divisions, the only way to address their economic and humanitarian problems is by sharing the money. Fighting has often revolved around oil installations: the more they are a shared asset, the less interest from different groups in destroying them. The EU has the expertise to do this but the ownership of the process should be Libyan.

The amendment would need high consensus to pass and this should push all parties to come together.

Second, promote a consensual rewriting of the ground rules for the interim period. The Joint Statement pushes for quick approval of the new constitution. The existing draft has its limits and it’s unclear how in the current environment Libyans could approve a definitive constitution. The Joint Statement calls also for the HoR to amend the existing constitutional rules according to the LPA. This should be the way forward to approve new shared interim ground rules while a new constitution is drafted. The amendment would need high consensus to pass and this should push all parties to come together. While this is done, the Presidential Council should continue to be the interim authority.

Finally, the EU and its member states should provide all possible logistical and technical support for attempts at national reconciliation in order to create a dialogue on issues that could fuel further escalation. These include the fate of prisoners, the conditions of detention centres, the monitoring of ceasefires, and the integration of minorities and, where agreed, members of the former regime.

Ultimately, even though the sky is falling on existing policies about Libya, Europeans can do a lot to avoid it falling on Libya itself.

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


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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