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Op-Ed: Joint statement by 22 countries on the situation in Libya

The statement reiterates positions often taken by members of the international community. In spite of the fact that under the leadership of Faiez Serraj the Government of National Accord (GNA) has been unable to convince the House of Representatives (HoR) to vote confidence in the GNA, the statement praises his leadership. There are many other problems Serraj has not solved, such as hydro outages, and cash shortages that Serraj has not yet solved.

The statement also supports the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the work of the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) although the statement does not mention Martin Kobler by name. While many of the countries are actively intervening in Libya, the statement says that Libyans should decide their own future without foreign interference. The statement also promises: “The international community will not provide support to or maintain official contact with parallel institutions that claim to be the legitimate authority, but which are outside the LPA as specified by it.”

It could be argued that the HoR government of Al-Thinni and the LNA under General Haftar are parallel institutions as of now since they do not recognize the GNA and consider themselves legitimate authorities. While many of the signatories give lip service to the monopoly of the GNA to legitimate power, in practice many countries deal with the government and officials of the HoR as well as Haftar.

The statement calls once more for the Presidency Council (PC) of the GNA to present a new cabinet to the HoR. For once, the necessity for amending the constitutional declaration of 2011 is also mentioned. There is no mention of the fact that the HoR has already twice rejected the GNA, as well as having had numerous meetings which were without a quorum. Two were disrupted without a vote. Unless there is some agreement to change the LPA so that Haftar does not lose his job it is not likely that a vote of confidence in the GNA will be taken. It is not clear that the PC will ever be able to come up with a satisfactory cabinet. The vote which rejected the GNA was on August 22. The deadline for the presentation of a cabinet with only eight members has long passed and there is no new deadline presented in the statement.

The significance of the statement is in a large degree what is left out. The statement notes: Given recent tensions in various parts of the country, we urge full de-escalation and avoiding provocative actions. We share the Libyan people’s desire to transform Libya to become a secure, democratic, prosperous, and unified state, where state authority and the rule of law prevail. This can only be achieved peacefully through inclusive political dialogue and national reconciliation.

There is no specific mention of the seizure of the four oil export ports of the Oil Crescent from the forces of the Petroleum Facilities Guard headed by Ibrahim Jadhran. This group already had a deal with the GNA and National Oil Company before being seized by the Libyan National Army of General Haftar. The statement already accepts the provocative actions of Haftar and is in effect urging that there be no counter attack. Earlier six of the countries had urged that Haftar withdraw. No further mention of withdrawal is made.

In a recent article Mattia Toaldo, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the altered situation on the ground had changed the situation considerably and perhaps brings into question the policy that the west has been pursuing up to now: First, the House of Representatives (HoR, the internationally recognised parliament based in Tobruk) has rejected the list of ministers for the GNA. The EU and some member states had been engaging with the ministers designated as if they were already in charge. It is hard to predict whether a new list will be submitted soon, how different it will be from the current one and whether it will stand any chances of being approved by the parliament. At the moment, the implementation of the LPA is blocked while the government in Tripoli seems to be suffering from lack of domestic political support and an inability to deal with the many economic challenges it faces.

The joint statement neglected to mention the failure of vote of confidence on August 22 by HoR. This is already the second failure, after numerous meetings which were without a quorum and two that were disrupted without a vote. Toaldo could have noted that the list of new members is long overdue. There is no sign of it. No deadline. Just urging that it be done. Western states have been dealing with ministers and other officials for ages as if there were no question that they were legitimate. There seems no good reason to think that a new list will fare any better than former ones. There is some doubt that the PC can even arrive at a new reduced list of eight cabinet ministers, as there are no doubt divisions within the PC itself, especially as two boycotters who favor Haftar have returned to the PC. Toaldo is certainly correct to point out that the GNA has been unable to gain support by solving the economic challenges it faces. It also faces other failures such as constant power outages.

Toaldo mentions another key change in the situation that is virtually ignored in the statement: The second development is that the main force which remained outside of the LPA – namely general Khalifa Heftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and his political supporters in the HoR – have made significant progress both politically and on the ground. On 11 September, the LNA seized the main oil terminals in the so-called Oil Crescent from the Petroleum Facilities Guards of Ibrahim Jadhran, a backer of the government in Tripoli who had demanded payment in exchange for unblocking exports. Haftar gave control of the terminals to the Tripoli-based National Oil Company. Toaldo fails to mention that negotiations for the merger of the Tripoli and Bayda-based NOC’s are still ongoing with the heads of the two NOC’s working on the final agreement. The HoR had rejected the earlier agreement. Even under the existing agreement the revenues will ultimately go to pay civil servants in both governments and armed forces including the LNA as well. Far from causing parallel institutions to wither and collapse for lack of funds, the GNA has created a stituation where its oil revenues provide funding for an opposition government and forces. No wonder Haftar can hand over control to the NOC. However, if the arrangement goes awry, Haftar has the upper hand through control of the oil ports and fields.

In the light of these changes Toaldo suggests that the sky may be falling on existing plans. The international community may consider alternative scenarios and adapt their policies to the changed circumstances. Toaldo argues that the changed conditions make it actually possible that Haftar’s Operation Dignity that would see many of the miitia associated with the GNA defeated. As Toaldo points out Haftar already has advanced to within 50 km of Sirte which is now occupied by brigades mostly from Misrata. There are forces in Bani Walid and other cities east, south and west of Tripoli that might side with him. Of course there are Zintan militia near Tripoli and others who might make deals with him such as non-aggression pacts.

Any deal with Haftar will involve giving him a strong mililtary role that would marginalize the Islamist and anti Haftar forces that support the Presidential Council. Indeed, this would surely destroy the PC and the GNA government altogether. It could very well result in an all out civil war with constant clashes between pro-Haftar and anti-Haftar forces. Toaldo puts the matter quite aptly: “Europeans and Libyans should consider whether having avoided a new Raqqa on the Mediterranean, they are ready to have another Cairo.”

Toaldo says that there will likely have to be a renegotiation of the terms of the LPA, either formally or informally, and there could be fighting. Toaldo says external stakeholders such as the EU should try to ensure that the negotiation happens without the fighting. Toaldo claims the renegotiations cannot just reflect Haftar’s goals. Presumably, Toaldo wants a new model with more control on the armed forces. Toaldo says of Haftar. ” He hasn’t clarified how different his model would be from Sisi’s Egypt in which the armed forces are unaccountable and therefore above civilian authorities.” Surely Haftar’s actions in replacing civilian local authorities such as mayors by military commanders should make his views clear. Haftar admires Sisi and takes him as a role model. He even replaced civilian corporate officials in the electric company with military figures.

Toaldo suggests that the U.K., France, and Italy could use the handover of the oil terminals and resumption of oil exports “to build a shared economic governance, help factions agree on a budget, and guarantee transparency on how oil revenues are spent.” Haftar surely has the upper hand on this. He will share only in a way that he regards as favorable to him and his supporters or else he will shut down facilities. It is not clear that the “factions” as they exist now can reach agreements on sharing or if they do that the agreement would be stable.

Toaldo also suggests a rewriting of the ground rules for the interim statement. He notes that the joint statement suggests quick approval for a new constitution. However, Toaldo claims it is not clear that in the current environment Libyans could approve a definitive constitution. The existing draft and the process of generating it are also questionable I should think. Toalda thinks that the call by in the statement for amending existing constitutional rules is the way forward. However, this would be going beyond the LPA which only requires an amendment to incorporate the GNA into the constitution as I understand it. Elections would be held under the new constitution. Nevertheless it seems a possible way forward.

Finally, the EU and others should provide logistical and technical support to create a dialogue on reconciliation over issues that could create further hostilities. This would include the fate of prisoners, conditions of detention centres, and monitoring of ceasefires. All of this presupposes that the UN and others are willing to completely abandon a policy that they have invested in very heavily. What appears to be happening is that the same formulae about the LPA and the GNA are being mouthed and supported officially while in practice, many countries are in effect switching sides, and giving more support to Haftar. I expect that anti-Haftar forces are going to be sidelined if there is any agreement with Haftar. The State Council has already tried to assume the power of the HoR as legislature of the GNA in order to assert its power. The situation appears very fluid but Haftar is growing constantly stronger and the GNA and the international community are simply accepting that fact. There is absolutely no sign that the international community will confront Haftar. Haftar is probably not interested in negotiations. His agenda is the completion of Operation Dignity.

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