The Five Key Challenges to a Sustainable Peace in Libya

Libya’s political factions met in Skhirat, Morocco on December 17 to sign the UN-facilitated political agreement after more than 15 months of dialogue. This agreement represents the best hope for Libya’s reconstruction after a long political and armed struggle over power and resources. But it also has the potential to set Libya on the path of a new kind of instability that could result in further fragmentation and potentially increase violence throughout of the country. Outlined below are the five main fault lines related to the future success or failure of the UN-mediated Libya peace accord.

Legality and legitimacy: One of the key challenges to a sustained peace includes the legality and legitimacy of the political agreement. Initially, the House of Representatives in Tobruk and its rival the General National Congress in Tripoli were meant to endorse the agreement before the signing. However, former UN Envoy Bernardino Leon understood that a vote in any of the two rival parliaments would have faced difficulty given that key figures and groups within each body opposed the agreement. As a result, the United Nations drafted Article 67 to drop the requirement that both parliaments vote on the agreement before it is signed. The leaders of the rival parliaments have called the signing of the agreement—and by extension its resulting Government of National Accord (GNA)—illegal and unconstitutional.

These claims could easily come back to haunt the GNA and would play into the hands of hardliners who question the legitimacy of this agreement, which could lead to legal challenges in Libyan courts. Although the GNA would undoubtedly receive the international community’s support through a UN Security Council resolution, acceptance of the government as legal and legitimate speaks directly to the likelihood of a durable peace in Libya. Supporters of the political agreement within the House of Representatives (HOR) must now return to Tobruk (the seat of the parliament), hold a vote to endorse the political agreement, and start working for the required constitutional amendment by which the agreement becomes part of the interim constitutional declaration (Libya’s political road-map since the overthrow of former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime). This vote will undoubtedly face opposition from the President of the House of Representatives Aguila Saleh, but that should not stop the first deputy president and the majority of members that support the signing of the deal from seeking to hold a vote on the agreement inside the parliament as soon as possible. The situation is slightly more difficult for the pro-agreement camp in the GNC in Tripoli, given that only 50 GNC members attended the signing session, while around 80 HOR members were present.

Returning to Tripoli: Another major challenge for the GNA involves returning to the capital, Tripoli. For the past few weeks, UN negotiators have tried to align competing militias to secure the return of a new government. The latest reports suggest that forces from the cities of Misrata, Zintan, and Zawia have agreed to provide security. Some of the Islamist armed groups that control Tripoli—especially those linked to the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Jabhat al-Somoud led by former GNC member Salah Badi—remain opposed to the agreement and the GNA, offering no guarantees that this settlement would go smoothly. The Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gheriani and the country’s highest religious authority (Dar al-Ifta)—recognized by the Tripoli-based Islamist government—declared in a statement that the signing of the agreement is not in line with Islamic principles. Unfortunately, some groups could consider the statement a green light to resist and attack this government, which could lead to the start of a new war for control of the capital.

General Khalifa Haftar: Another security-related challenge includes the issue of senior military posts. According to Article 8 of the agreement, the powers of all senior military posts revert to the Presidential Council as soon as the agreement is signed. Yet General Khalifa Haftar continues to direct ongoing military operations in eastern Libya, despite the signing of the agreement. This situation presents a clear challenge to the authority of the presidential council and the GNA. The agreement provides the Presidential Council twenty days to reach a unanimous decision on the leadership of senior military posts, with General Haftar in particular, it is an impossible task. Haftar remains closely aligned with the internationally recognized Tobruk government, but under the power-sharing arrangement, at least two of the deputies out of five in the Presidential Council strongly support him and two others strongly oppose him.

ISIS in Libya: Another important issue facing the GNA includes the issue of Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) expansion and potential foreign intervention by Western countries. Some Western capitals—specifically London, Paris, and Rome—are on standby, waiting for permission from the GNA to take action against ISIS targets, including the use of air strikes and troops to help Libyan forces combat the increasing influence of the group in key areas of Libya such as Ejdabyia, Sirte, Sabratha, and the southern region. Failure to formulate a clear and comprehensive intervention and post-intervention strategy would have disastrous consequences on Libya. The GNA and the international community must first work on reconciling key local groups, especially those previous rivalries such as Misrata and Zintan in western Libya, and the Libyan National Army and the Petroleum Facilities Guards (led by Ibrahim Jathran). By uniting previously competing armed groups to work towards defeating ISIS in their respective regions, reconciliation offers the best chance to end ISIS’s expansion in Libya. Reconciliation, however, requires trust-building measures that could include direct meetings between the leaders of the various armed groups. It would also require taking serious steps to disrupt the flow of arms and ammunition from ports in western Libya to extremist groups in Benghazi and from regional players such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey to their proxies in Libya. In addition, any Western intervention would require careful GNA management of expectations such that it does not vindicate the claims of its opponents that the GNA is a Western-imposed government.

Libyan ownership: Finally, the issue of ownership will be critical for the agreement’s long-term success and sustainability. UN Envoy Martin Kobler’s and Western governments’ insistence on a quick signing of the agreement sacrificed consensus and cohesion among Libyan actors. The National Front Party—among others who supported the dialogue process throughout—did not attend the signing ceremony in Skhirat due to their firm belief that the agreement did not achieve the consensus that would bring real unity. This divergence poses a challenge to the claim that this agreement is Libyan-owned. For the GNA and supporters of the political agreement, the real dialogue has just started and they must prove Libyan ownership of this agreement by winning over skeptics and appealing to the support base of hardline opponents.

Mohamed Eljarh is a Nonresident Fellow for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: UN Special Representative and Head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya Martin Kobler (C, top) looks on as representatives of Libyan municipalities sign documents to support Libya's new national government during a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, December 21, 2015. (Reuters)