Libya: Is there Really an Alternative to Dialogue?

Libya continues to suffer the consequences from the ongoing political and armed struggle between various Libyan factions. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has further complicated matters—as has the reluctance of the international community to act assertively against other spoilers of the democratic process, contributing to Libya’s downward spiral into civil war and anarchy. The dialogue facilitated by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) remains the best hope for a political settlement in Libya. However, the dialogue faces huge challenges and was recently dealt a huge setback when the General National Congress in Tripoli and its backers outright rejected a final draft agreement presented by the head of UNSMIL Bernardino León.

Libya’s internationally recognized House of Representatives in Tobruk provisionally accepted the deal, expressing few but fundamental reservations and amendments to its content regarding the powers of the unity government and the security arrangements. The General National Congress (GNC) and the wider Misratan-Islamist Libya Dawn coalition, however, heavily criticized Leon’s final draft. Political figures such as Mohamed Sawan (Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party) and Abdelhakim Belhadj (ex-Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader and current Nation Party leader) accused Leon’s proposals of bias favoring the House of Representatives’ position. Some GNC members have even called to boycott the UNSMIL’s dialogue initiative until Leon is replaced.

Yet, members of the GNC or Libya Dawn are not alone in expressing opposition to the UNSMIL’s dialogue efforts. On the House of Representatives and Operation Dignity side, dialogue skeptics—including activists and hardline supporters of the army’s military operations against Islamists—organized demonstrations and claimed that the initiative aimed to give Islamist groups and their allies a greater role in Libya’s politics despite them having lost the elections. I attended one of these demonstrations in Tobruk where protesters accused the House of Representatives dialogue teams of acting as “sleeper cells” and “enablers” for Islamist groups.

A massive trust deficit mars the relationship between Libyan factions and their support bases. The dialogue for many has become a zero-sum game, where only one of diametrically opposed factions can prevail. As the dialogue fails to deliver for ordinary Libyans, many will start to believe in the military option presented by hardline supporters on both sides. UNSMIL and international actors must work on parallel tracks if they hope to circumvent the growing drumbeats of war. While supporting the dialogue, UN agencies must work urgently to alleviate the suffering of many Libyan families affected by the fighting. Libya’s health system suffers from a lack of supplies and personnel, leading to growing fears of a vaccination crisis throughout the country. Unless backers of the dialogue do more to argue their case by taking measures that would show a real commitment to addressing the needs of many internally and externally displaced Libyans, the military option argument will continue to garner support among Libyans.

Abubaker Buera, member of the House of Representatives’ dialogue team confirmed what was already obvious to some. He said during a TV interview with a local Libyan channel, “Those working against the dialogue are more than those working for it.” That is indeed the case, there are groups on all the different sides of the political spectrum in Libya who believe they can benefit from the dialogue’s failure or at least from stalling it for some months. Leaked documents from the GNC’s dialogue meetings and deliberations a couple of months ago showed that members had received instructions to stall the talks. The GNC hopes to delay a possible agreement until after October, when the mandate for the House of Representatives expires as per the constitutional declaration (the country’s political roadmap since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime). The GNC could then argue that both parliaments have no democratic mandate and would initiate a new political roadmap or agreement that would give them greater influence than any agreement resulting from the current dialogue.

Coincidentally, hardline supporters of Operation Dignity and the Libyan National Army’s leadership also have their eyes on the October deadline. The end of House of Representatives’ mandate would make a perfect argument for the army’s takeover to fill the political and constitutional vacuum that would result. Currently, the new General Commander of the armed forces, Khalifa Haftar is on a charm offensive, visiting in his official capacity key regional players and backers such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as he tries to position himself as the man who can steer Libya out of its current mess.

As Libya’s dialogue faces the threat of total collapse, two scenarios begin to emerge from the evolving crisis. First, the European Union could push forward with its plans to intervene militarily in Libya—although limiting its actions to targeting human traffickers as the migration crisis in Europe reaches its peak. The country’s rival governments have so far rejected the EU’s plans, complaining that it moved unilaterally without coordination with any of Libya’s competing factions. Regional and international actors—Russia and Egypt specifically—have expressed concern over Europe’s plans, arguing that military intervention against traffickers would not solve the migration crisis.

The second scenario involves attempts to create a joint Arab Military Force that would intervene to support Arab countries suffering from terrorism and political instability. Libya fits the bill. On May 18, the military chiefs of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Sudan and Libya met in Cairo to discuss the plans for the force and the possibility of supporting the Libyan National Army in its ongoing battle against armed Islamist groups. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has actively lobbied Arab and world leaders, arguing for the need to intervene in Libya. After failing to convince the UN Security Council, Sisi has worked to create conditions that would provide political cover for intervention in Libya under an Arab umbrella, granting legitimacy to military action that would support the Libyan National Army under the leadership of the Tobruk-aligned Khalifa Haftar.

Neither of these scenarios are mutually exclusive and it remains unclear how much different regional and international actors are willing to invest in containing Libya’s conflict. What has become clear, however, is that if the UNSMIL’s dialogue fails to reach a political settlement soon, these players would likely pursue their own plans to mitigate the fallout of the chaos and instability in Libya. This course could potentially exacerbate the already rapid fragmentation of Libya.

Mohamed Eljarh is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a regular contributor on Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog.

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Image: Demonstrators carry signs bearing messages against talks headed by U.N. Special Envoy Bernardino Leon during a demonstration in Benghazi, Libya April 24, 2015. (Reuters)