Libya: permanent limbo or refreshed hope?

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.

However, a referendum on the constitution is what some spoilers prefer. A referendum would push back elections at least six months during which the status quo—militias, smugglers, and even politicians—can benefit from the impunity of today’s Libya. United Nations (UN) Special Envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, had a vision of an all-encompassing, reconciliatory National Conference that has lost its momentum as Libyan actors grow apathetic. Instead of a large gathering of vetted actors, the Conference transformed into a one-man show: Salamé travels from city to city acting as the sole moderator and mediator. Like his predecessors, Salamé entered the position with high ambition and grand plans. Alas, the political and security status of Libya gives the impression that the hope of stabilization of the political transition is bereft; the hope to create a unitary government in Libya, much reduced.

This de facto perception of failure of the UN-led mediation leaves few alternatives for Libya. Going straight to elections without a constitution may be better than no action at all. Yet the security situation makes any system of fair voting precarious. Other suggestions to reduce the difficulties of holding free and fair elections have been proposed by various actors. A suggested work-around to the security issue is staggered voting: a carrot approach to incentivize municipalities individually to improve security enough to hold voting and hence receive benefits of voting. A high level of participation is required to produce sound results using this strategy. Given the many divisions in Libya, garnering such participation is unlikely. Although they warrant some merit, these alternatives and others are not completely satisfactory for a real solution to take hold in Libya.

Therefore, in this delicate era, the surprise victory of Khalid al Mishri as the new head of the High State Council (HSC) —instead of the expected re-election of his predecessor, Abdulrahman Swehli—may be a positive development. Mishri represents the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), which is the political expression of the Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood.

As the largest Islamist party, the JCP has been a supporter of the UN’s efforts in Libya to see a peaceful unitary solution to the divisive crisis created by the launching of General Khalifa Haftar’s Karama Operation in 2014 against all the Islamists in Benghazi and by the reaction of the Islamist forces in Tripoli. In July 2017, when French President Emmanuel Macron brokered a ceasefire agreement between GNA-head Fayez al-Sarraj and General Haftar in Paris, the JCP rejected the outcome because it was not done under the auspices of the UN. The party’s criticism was also drawn from the view that a single foreign actor’s meddling in Libya’s affairs will inherently hurt the political transition process. JCP’s Chairman Mohamed Sawan supports the LPA as the only option for Libya. Sawan stands by the UN-brokered agreement to the point of criticizing individuals his party is close to for coming out against it. The JCP’s emphasis on the Libyan identity of the political transition and wholehearted commitment to the LPA will garner support for Mishri. The Chairman of the JCP party has also publicly declared its general support for the political process of elections, which will keep Western powers interested.

A tricky relationship will be between Mishri and top Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in the east, Khalifa Haftar. On many occasions, Haftar has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and has refused to negotiate with it in the past. The fact that a strong component of Haftar’s LNA is formed by Salafists who are notoriously hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and to other forms of political Islam compounds Haftar’s animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, however, Haftar may need to cooperate with the new HSC head, Khalid al Mirshri, in order to keep his options in Tripolitania, a former province of Libya, open for the time being. Additionally, it is possible that Haftar’s tense rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood is compounded to appease his main backer: Egypt.

Haftar’s statements about the Muslim Brotherhood have often matched those of the current Egyptian regime. In the past, Haftar’s approach appeared nothing short of full cooperation with Egypt when he vowed to turn in members of the Brotherhood to Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was a high-ranking general and led the military in ousting then-president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Party in 2013. Later the same year, Egypt declared the group a terrorist organization. Even though there is no planned negotiation between Haftar and the HSC, in the event the two are forced to the table, there is the added difficulty of Egypt’s strong influence over Haftar. The Sisi government will not accept a closer relationship between Haftar and the Muslim Brotherhood, but Egypt has domestic problems of its own, and its patience and likely engagement in Libya is fading. Therefore, the possibility of an agreement between Haftar and Sarraj fostered by the new president of the HSC might in the end be seen as a positive outcome by Cairo.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood has committed to a change of tone in regard to General Haftar’s position. Chairman of the JCP, Mohamed Sawan, publicly stated that members of Haftar’s LNA, killed while fighting terrorists, are to be considered martyrs. Although the rhetoric is clearly political in its timing, the effort to commence a less hostile tone is an improvement to the status quo in Libya. Haftar has also indicated in the past his willingness to work with moderate members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The switch up of HSC leadership could draw out certain House of Representatives (HoR) members from their inflexible approach; however, it will not solve the gridlock. The HoR were the first to withdraw from the political negotiations in October over amending the LPA. Therefore, Libya would benefit from a similar shuffle of HoR leaders to individuals more open to change and progress, rather than the narrow focus on righting old wrongs.

Any alarm around the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension in Libya is likely overstated. No one actor, not even the official government, has much control in the country. There is still the possibility that Mishri’s election to the head of the HSC could serve as yet another fissure in Libya’s already kaleidoscopic politics. Political negotiations are about the individual as much as the group. Relying too heavily on one individual as a silver bullet is as defective as missing an opportunity to use news ideas, new dialogue, and new actors to fix Libya.

Karim Mezran is a senior resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @mezrank.

Erin Neale is a research assistant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter @erinaneale.

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Image: Photo: A woman gestures as she holds a sign that reads, "the hypocrisy government has no place in Benghazi" during a rally in support of Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Benghazi, Libya, November 3, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori