Transitions in Focus: Libya

Debate over Libya currently focuses on whether elections should be held in advance of a political agreement or to move forward in the absence of one. This debate is irrelevant. There are no governments or political leaders in Libya with the authority to conclude a political agreement that militias will recognize, nor are those same militias going to respect the results of an election in 2018 any more than they did in 2012 or 2014. Militias are the only groups with any authority in the country, and any solution will have to be negotiated with them. Militias’ main concern is money; therefore, any solution to their fighting over resources—primarily oil revenue and criminal rackets—must be primarily economic.
Whereas the ambitions of competing warlords fan the flames of conflict and consume the country’s oil resources, envoys from the UN and West to Libya continue to congratulate themselves for having said much but done little. In the balance hangs not only the success of those diplomats’ missions, but also the very future of Libya as a functioning state.
In the wake of Libya’s 2011 revolution, militias built a powerful role for themselves by filling the security vacuum left by the overthrow of strongman Muammar Qaddhafi. Armed groups emerged in all corners of Libya, but the complexity and prevalence is especially noticed in and around the capital, Tripoli.
The idea of holding presidential and legislative elections in Libya by the end of 2018 continues to gain traction, since it was first proposed in late October 2017. A tentative agreement to hold elections on December 10 was reached at a conference held on May 29 in Paris, attended by the main Libyan political figures: the Presidency Council’s Chairman Fayez al Sarraj, the Speaker of the House of Representatives Aghila Saleh, the President of the High State Council Khaled al Mishri, and the Commander of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar. The international community was also present with delegations from most European and regional stakeholders.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton infuriated North Korea by suggesting that Libya’s experience with denuclearization could serve as a model for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. The comment sparked swift condemnation from North Korean officials.

That Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who in 2003 made the deal to give up his weapons of mass destruction capabilities, was toppled in an uprising eight years later and killed by his captors is an important fact that has weighed on the minds of the North Koreans as they consider the fate of their own nuclear weapons program.

In light of this concern, Bolton’s comment has thrown into doubt the prospects of a much-anticipated summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald J. Trump in Singapore on June 12.
In the ongoing effort by international and domestic actors to solve the political deadlock in Libya, the spotlight is on UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame. Since the second anniversary of the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat in December 2015, Salame’s well-thought and defined Action Plan for Libya has morphed into a confused and mainly reactive approach. When discussing his plan with media, Salame oscillates between three different priorities: securing a deal between Libya’s two rival governments to modify the LPA; holding a National Conference as early as June; holding legislative and presidential elections by the end of the year.
Libya was thrown into further flux this past week amid reports of the death of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. His exact condition remains unclear; Haftar was reportedly hospitalized in Jordan after suffering a stroke before falling into a coma after his transfer to a hospital in France. Other sources reported that eastern strongman passed away while in Paris. Reports of his death, while unconfirmed, will significantly impact the calculus of Libya’s major players, both domestically and regionally. Haftar’s death could serve as an opportunity to revive political dialogue, but it could also trigger an escalated conflict between Libya’s competing factions that would further fragment the country.  
Reports that Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar is in a coma will deepen the chaos in a country that has been in flux for the past seven years. Haftar is a military strongman whose forces have fought Islamist militias, but has himself proven to be an obstacle in efforts to unite Libya.

Media organizations reported that Haftar had slipped into a coma after suffering a stroke. He was flown to Paris earlier in April after falling ill in Jordan.

If Haftar is incapacitated, or dead as some unconfirmed reports suggest, it could create a vacuum which would be hard to fill, said Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“There are no figures of Haftar’s stature who can control special forces, tribal groups, and Salafists all at once,” Mezran said.
The situation in North Africa is developing in unexpected directions. Challenged by the Libyan crisis and the consequent threats that derive from its instability—continuing violence, expanding terrorism, and flourishing organized crime—it could be reasonably expected that a more assertive cooperation would incur among the North African countries. However, this is hardly the case: Tunisia is embroiled in a difficult economic and political moment with strikes and protests in many parts of the country, and Algeria and Morocco are facing their own developing crisis while Libya is slowly collapsing into a state of semi-anarchy.
The situation in Libya seems irrevocably stalled. The internationally recognized government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and the Abdullah al Thinni government in al Beida—supported by the legitimately elected parliament of 2014, now residing in Tobruk—are as distant as ever. The Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) is only as good as the effort invested in it. Last fall, gridlock between the groups prematurely cut off political negotiations to amend the LPA and hence any chance of a political deal between the two rival factions. Talks of holding national elections are in the abstract. Without a constitution, elections could not dampen the power grabbing mentality on the ground in Libya.