Libya’s Geneva Talks and the Search for Peace

In Libya, basic services face the prospect of complete collapse as the country’s financial situation spirals out of control. The minister health of the internationally recognized government in the eastern city of al-Beida has warned of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, worse than that witnessed during the war against the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Armed factions that fought alongside each other to topple the Qaddafi regime fight each other in a never-ending struggle over power and resources, creating the perfect environment for terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to flourish and threaten the entire region. Despite these thoroughly destabilizing factors, it is not all bad. The Geneva peace talks led by UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon have gained traction and stand as Libya’s best chance to repair its social and political fragmentation.

The UN-brokered dialogue to reach a peaceful settlement between Libya’s main political and armed players offers a glimpse of hope for the formation of a unity government—one that could pull Libya back from the brink. The second round of dialogue that started on January 26 resulted in an initial agreement between all parties to hold the next round of dialogue inside Libya instead of Geneva so that the boycotting Islamist factions in Tripoli can join the dialogue. The ISIS attack on Tripoli may have served as an incentive for all parties in Geneva to ensure that the dialogue continues, eliciting the compromises offered by the different participating parties. Nonetheless, the talks face serious challenges, requiring a delicate and nuanced approach if they are to succeed.

Internal and External Obstacles Facing the Libyan Dialogue

Any dialogue and potential political agreement in Libya must confront divisive but powerful figures such as General Khalifa Haftar and leaders of the former Libyan Islamic Group such as Abdulhakim Belhadj and Abdulwahab al-Gayed. In addition, some elements within the Muslim Brotherhood (despite the Justice and Construction party welcoming the dialogue in Geneva), the Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gheriani, and Misrata leaders Salah Badi and Abdulrahman al-Sewhli pose a real dilemma for the participants of the Geneva dialogue. Misratan leaders have repeatedly called for the prosecution of General Haftar for his attacks against their forces and demanded his removal from the political process. It would seem that for any agreement with Misrata would hinge on the House of the Representatives in Tobruk to drop Haftar—a difficult prospect given his popularity and control over military assets, especially in eastern Libya where the House is currently based. On the other hand, Misratan leaders who took part in the dialogue are in no place to offer a compromise in the name of the controversial figures and movements in their own camp. Indeed, the Mufti has warned against the Geneva talks and extremist elements within the Libya Dawn coalition have accused those participating in the dialogue of treason. These complexities with both of the competing camps threaten to render the Geneva talks and any potential agreement obsolete.

Another obstacle facing the Geneva dialogue is the uncertainty surrounding the ability of the parties invited to the negotiations table to influence the dynamic on the ground. In order to stop the fighting and enable a prospective unity government to access buildings and facilities in Tripoli necessary for its functionality, both the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) and Tobruk-based House must exercise sufficient control over potential spoilers. Most of the government buildings in Tripoli fall under the control of armed and political factions in Tripoli that have so far refused to recognize the dialogue. This leaves a crucial question unanswered: what mechanism or approach will deal with disruptive forces that have the power to hold any upcoming unity government to ransom?

Further complicating matters, strong forces on both sides of the ongoing conflict in Libya have an interest in the dialogue’s demise. These include elements on the Libya Dawn side (including the thirty or so GNC “martyrs bloc” members and the Hassi government). So far, they have refused to take part in the Geneva dialogue and actively aimed to disrupt the dialogue, demanding that the dialogue be held in Libya instead of Geneva. In the next few days, as the UNSMIL plans to hold the next round of dialogue somewhere in Libya, this arrangement should leave them with no excuse not to take part in the dialogue. On the Operation Dignity and Tobruk side, the hardline supporters of the military campaign against Islamists call for the establishment of a higher council for armed forces and consider any political settlement resulting from the dialogue a threat to their plans for military rule in Libya. The international community must hold both groups accountable for any attempts to sabotage the dialogue. Mediators cannot reach a successful agreement unless both extremes of the political spectrum in Libya are marginalized and their support base weakened through the empowerment of the moderate elements within their camps that have constructively engaged with the dialogue process.

Two distinct external factors that challenge the formation of a unity government also include the growing presence of terrorist groups throughout Libya and economic deterioration. Remnants of the former GNC (namely the Martyrs bloc) and al-Hassi’s government are in willful denial regarding the presence of ISIS in western Libya and its ability to conduct large-scale attacks on targets in the heart of Tripoli. The abundance of militias and light arms further complicates confronting extremist groups. With the sharp drop in global oil prices, the decrease in Libya’s oil production, the 20 percent drop in value of the Libyan dinar, and the general economic effects of instability in Libya, one can only begin to imagine the magnitude of addressing the serious and immediate challenge of forming a unity government with increasingly limited resources.

Positive Indicators Arising from the Dialogue

While the list is considerably small in comparison to the challenges, a number of positive developments resulting from the Geneva talks offer promise for a political resolution. One outcome includes the city of Misrata distancing itself from extremist elements within Libya Dawn who have opposed the dialogue and vowed they would not recognize its results. Boycotting House of Representatives members and the democratically elected local municipal council have represented the city of Misrata in the dialogue with encouraging results from the first two rounds. That Misrata and its leaders can overcome the centrifugal forces at play and accept elected representation in negotiations remains an encouraging indication of its constructive potential in the peace building process.

Furthermore, the formation of a committee tasked with restoring trust and cooperation between the various parties that took part in the dialogue is an encouraging step in the right direction. This committee would look into the issue of prisoners held by warring factions on the ground and work to release them to build trust between these factions. The committee would also look into the issue of internally and externally displaced families and help facilitate a return to their homes. It would also coordinate efforts to ensure basic services and aid can reach affected populations in war-hit areas.

Another factor that could prove vital for the success and sustainability of the peace-building process is the participation of local municipal councils in the dialogue. Other local players such as the tribes are set to take part in upcoming dialogue sessions. These municipal councils are better positioned to engage with local communities in Libya’s main population centers. Local leaders can play a pivotal role in restoring security and basic services and protect the social fabric of areas affected by the unrest. Municipal councils could also prove effective in exercising influence over the armed groups associated with them.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

Despite the obvious challenges that face the Libyan dialogue efforts, building on the positive indicators from the process could reinforce the principles guiding a peaceful resolution—inclusion and compromise with which Libya can be pulled back from the brink. The dialogue should focus on two parallel tracks: defeat the spoilers by empowering localized moderate elements on all sides; and build credibility for the international community and Libyan stakeholders who engage constructively by supporting the delivery basic services. The growing threat of the Islamic State in western and southern Libya could serve as unifying factor, given that Libyans in both of the broader competing camps recognize that a divided Libya stands no chance of handling such threats.

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: U.N. Special Representative Bernardino Leon speaks at the General National Congress (GNC) headquarters in Tripoli February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny