The Libya Peace Talks are Dead, Long Live the Peace Talks

The negotiated agreement crafted under the guidance of the United Nation’s Secretary Representative of the Secretary General (UN SRSG) Bernardino Leon, despite all of its flaws and the scandal recently unveiled regarding Leon’s dealings with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), remains the only game in town. This is the mantra repeated in foreign diplomatic and political circles. The argument goes that you cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words, there is some room for maneuver in changing or modifying some parts of the agreement to be developed under the guidance of the new UN SRSG Martin Kobler, but it would be unacceptable to give up all the results achieved so far. In the end, Leon has negotiated an agreement reached by Libyans themselves. Libyans met in the various loci and negotiated among themselves, with the support and guidance from UN officials, an accord to solve the crisis in which the country has plunged since the summer of 2014—or so the argument goes. This argumentation, unfortunately, makes sense only in foreign capitals.

Libyans perceive the situation markedly differently. The everyday life of the average citizen has become extremely hard. Many Libyans have not received their salaries for months. Prices increase daily. Power outages are frequent, unlike garbage collection, which is sporadic at best. The crime rate has spiked and insecurity is the new normal. In this environment, there is no patience for backdoor dealings. Libyans used to have faith in the UN’s reputation as neutral mediator between Libyan factions and as a competent negotiator that could navigate the hurdles of the many national and international interests that have risen around the Libyan post-revolutionary state. This perception has been irremediably shattered by Bernardino Leon’s dealings with a nonobjective party to the conflict and by the behavior of the upper echelons of the United Nations, who appear to have swept the whole scandal under the rug. The attempts by some commentators and analysts to salvage at least part of the accord by either ignoring the relevance of the scandal or arguing its imbalance in favor of one party or the other are preposterous and, in the end, irrelevant. Reluctantly, one must recognize that the UN-fostered agreement and its proposed Government of National Accord (GNA) have reached a dead end. The unveiling of the Leon-UAE conspiracy has dealt the Libyan dialogue a fatal blow.

Martin Kobler can invite the old negotiators—and even some new ones—to further discuss the agreement and gather support for the GNA, but the opposition, which until now was limited to some hardliner militia leaders and political figures, has now spilled over to large parts of the citizenship. Distrust for the United Nations, the GNA, and the entire process is overwhelming. Insisting on it will only increase public discontent and increase the desperation of those suffering from the situation. It may even push some to join or support the many criminal or terrorist groups proliferating in the country. In a recent conversation, a Libyan high-level official told me that if it continues this way for another three to six months, the country will be completely lost. Even today’s limited existing order will collapse.

It is evident that a new approach is needed to devise an agreement that can provide a fast and effective solution to the dire situation in which Libya finds itself today. Despite the distrust, Libya needs the support of the international community as mediator and guarantor that all relevant Libyan actors partake in the process of drafting an agreement.

One proposal gaining traction involves a peace conference. Italy, France, and the main neighbors of Libya (Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia) with the support of the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, and the Organization of Islamic Countries could host a conference of Libyan representatives. These representatives would include all elected mayors, representatives of tribes, political parties, main armed groups, and civil society to privilege a bottom-up approach. If representatives of the former regime’s individual and tribal supporters could also be included, it would mark a truly inclusive addition that could block potential spoilers. Once all participants pledge their adherence to principles such as nonviolence, respect for human rights, national unity, and compliance with the results of the conference, the members would elect a National Council. This Council would meet to discuss a power-sharing mechanism among the various factions to satisfy interests, settle grievances, and appoint a new government. The Council can act as a de facto parliament until the government organizes new elections for a National Assembly whenever a modicum of nationwide security has been assured.

This idea has the advantage of binding Libyan actors to the outcome of the peace conference, enlisting militia leaders who have accepted to participate and making them responsible for guaranteeing security for the Council members and the government. The new transitional phase would likely require an international stabilization force to ensure a minimum level of security, but the force would mostly be limited to advising and supporting the Libyan forces tasked with providing security. To make this proposal feasible, more details need to be worked out, but it is worth pursuing further as a general idea. The summit of Libyan neighbors scheduled for December 1 in Algiers marks an excellent opportunity to explore its benefits.

Libyan scholars and politicians have floated many other ideas that center on the search for an all-Libyan solution. While there is definite merit in this search, the fragmentation and polarization within Libyan society—particularly in the last year—would likely prevent it. Despite Libyan distrust of the international community thanks to Leon’s behavior, international support to facilitate the holding of either a peace conference or some other form of negotiated settlement nonetheless remains essential.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: United Nations Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Martin Kobler gestures during a news conference in Tripoli November 22, 2015. (Reuters)