Author: Kenan ROVSHANOGHLU
Unless for something supernatural, it is highly likely that Libya holds both the parliamentary and presidential elections this year. The decision was reached following the UN-led negotiations on November 14 in Tunisia between the representatives of 75 Libyan military and political groups. The parties agreed on a ceasefire and holding parliamentary and presidential elections in the country on December 24, 2021.
In fact, similar agreements on a ceasefire and elections have been reached more than once over the past ten years of the civil war in Libya. But each time, for various reasons, the parties could not go beyond their obligations. However, observers and experts are more hopeful this time thanks to guarantees from the leading world powers. Moreover, the five-day negotiations, which ended with the adoption of final decision on the ceasefire and elections did not involve a single representative of foreign countries.
According to the document, the parties agreed to create a special Presidential Council for the transition period, which is going to act as the country's executive body. But this is just technical details.
‘Dark corridor’ spanning ten years
This spring marks the tenth anniversary of the armed conflict in Libya. In February 2011, following Tunisia and Egypt, street protests that soon escalated into a violent civil war broke out in Libya. The country survived the first armed uprising against the government – an unprecedented event of such scale during the entire season of the hot ‘Arab spring” that encroached on the North African coast at that time.
The armed confrontation did not stop even after the capture and lynching of Muammar Gaddafi in October of the same year. In fact, the explosive growth of destructive events in Libya occurred right after the assassination of Gaddafi, who ruled the country for 42 years. It became impossible to subdue or disarm the armed groups hastily made of the representatives of diverse tribal unions, Islamists and individual political factions. This has eventually made the country a hostage of their interests for many years. The government formed after the 2012 elections turned to be a temporary one, while the diarchy established in 2014 plunged the country into the abyss of civil war.
Over the past six years, there have been many initiatives for a ceasefire and peace in Libya, but none of them have been successful. The conflicting parties and the countries supporting them could reach an agreements on a ceasefire only in January 2020 in Moscow and two weeks later in Berlin.
It is not a secret that it was Turkey that has triggered a series of processes leading the international community to act in order to resolve the Libyan conflict. Ankara supports the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj. Thanks to Turkish military assistance, the GNA troops have rescued the country’s capital from a long-standing (since April 2019) siege of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, who is reporting to the government of the House of Representatives based in Tobruk in eastern Libya. In addition, the GNA army has been able to advance toward the centre of Libya and deliver heavy blows to Haftar's troops. Shortly after Ankara adopted a decision to provide military assistance to Libya, European countries took steps to intensify diplomatic efforts aimed at a ceasefire in the country.
In spring, the Turkey-backed GNA army besieged the cities of Sirte and Jufra in the centre of Libya. Short after that, France requested the international community to begin an inspection of ships suspected of transporting weapons to Libya through the Mediterranean Sea, including several Turkish ships.
Finally, on August 21, an agreement was signed in Libya on a ceasefire, disarmament of the cities of Jufra and Sirte and the resumption of oil production. The final ceasefire agreement was signed on October 23 in Geneva. In November, a separate agreement was signed on the transitional government and elections. In October, politically motivated mass protests against high unemployment rates and social problems erupted in the cities controlled by both the Libyan governments. GNA Prime Minister and a close friend of Ankara F. Sarraj announced his resignation. However, shortly thereafter, he announced that he would leave his post immediately after the approval of the political transition of power in the country.
In fact, the ongoing processes in Libya are yet another manifestation of a classic proxy war. The Government of National Accord officially recognized by the UN is supported only by Turkey and Qatar. The government of the House of Representatives in Tobruk backed by the notorious General Haftar is openly supported by France, Germany, Egypt, the UAE, Greece and other regional states. It is believed that many mercenaries from Egypt and Sudan, as well as soldiers of the Russian PMC Wagner have joined the Haftar army.
In the opposite camp, we can see militants from Syria and the Turkish military. By the way, the lack of information on the exact number of Turkish military in Libya does not prevent Ankara from continuing to send its troops to the country in accordance with the agreement signed on November 27, 2019. For this reason, the clause on the "withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya" included in the above ceasefire treaty is quite controversial.
"New old players"
According to many observers, the US is one of the key actors in the new political situation in Libya. It was Washington's intervention in the Libyan process that laid the foundation for reaching a lasting political agreement on a ceasefire and elections. By the way, Stephanie Williams, an American diplomat, a former staff member of the US Embassy in Tripoli, who replaced Ghassan Salame in March as the UN Special Envoy for Libya, has made a special contribution to the adoption of the above-mentioned decision.
In addition, the US Ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, has visited Ankara, Cairo and Moscow, and has also met with the leaders of the Libyan conflicting parties to finally conclude an agreement on a ceasefire and peace in Libya. Furthermore, President Donald Trump held a telephone conversation with Prime Minister F. Sarraj to discuss the peace process. In other words, Washington was one of the main authors of the latest ceasefire in Libya.
Despite official assurances from Washington about keeping equal distance from both sides of the conflict, the US officials emphasize that "the forces that besieged Tripoli to fight radical Islamists and other militants have actually made the country's government (GNA) dependent on armed groups."
Washington is also concerned about the Russian supplies of weapons, equipment and mercenaries to Libya. In May, the US military announced that they had facts about the Russian military in the country. Ambassador Norland said that the real reason for the escalation of tensions in Libya was the dispatch of the Wagner mercenaries to the country. According to Norland, the dispatch of the Turkish military to Libya was a sort of Ankara's response to Russian intervention. “Libyans do not want to see foreign military personnel in their country,” Norland said.
Although the US officials show Russia as the main reason for their discontent, in fact Washington is trying to expel not only Russians, but also Turks from Libya. Speaking after the announcement of a ceasefire in Libya, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that "according to the agreement, all foreign fighters must leave the country within 90 days and allow Libyans to decide their own future."
Pompeo reinforced his position during a telephone conversation with the French president on November 16 criticizing the transfer of the Turkish military to Libya.
What is next?
Undoubtedly, Washington's involvement in the Libyan process changes the situation in the country and the rules of the game. After all, in January 2020, Turkey and Russia were the only two states negotiating the fate of the country with the key representatives of the conflicting sides. Now the US is obviously changing the balance of power. Rest assured, Germany and the US are leading the process with Egypt, the UAE and France likely to join the process soon. And given that Democrat Joe Biden steps into the White House from January 2021, Russia will be trapped in a vice environment throughout the entire settlement process.
Washington has a strong influence on both conflicting sides in Libya. Presumably, the US government will try to persuade both sides to reach a political solution in the present situation. Currently, Russia has less chances in Libya than Turkey. However, the degree of Ankara's involvement in the negotiation process will be directly proportional to the success of its relations with Washington.
Remarkably, the most discussed issue in Libya is the identity of the country's future leader. It is clear that the leaders of the current governments (GNA and the House of Representatives) will hardly be able to win the national elections and, most importantly, reunite the country. There are two possible scenarios. First, the mediating countries can propose a technocrat, who has never been involved in the conflict, as a new ruler of the country. In principle, it is possible to achieve under the influence of the intermediary countries. But how and to what extent the new successor will be able to unite the country is not an easy question to answer.
The second option is to select one of the successors of the country's former leaders. There are two such candidates for now. One of them is the political successor of Muammar Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam Gaddafi. The other one is Mohammad Hassan al-Sanusi, the grandson of King Idris al-Sanusi of Libya ousted back in 1969.
Nearly ten years have passed since the day of Gaddafi's assassination by his own compatriots, and the negative public attitude towards the autocrat has noticeably diminished. On the other hand, Gaddafi was a descendant of the second largest tribe in Libya, the Gaddafa tribe, which consists more than a million people equal to a sixth of the country's total population.
After the revolution, Seif al-Islam Gaddafi was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. However, in the spring of 2017, he was pardoned and immediately after leaving the prison he met with the leaders of influential Libyan tribes. In other words, if Seif al-Islam becomes the winner of the upcoming elections, he will be able to unite the country with the help of people loyal to his father and his tribe.
Mohammed Hassan, the grandson of the Libyan king Idris is a relatively new face in the Libyan politics. There is no information available about his political and other potential. However, he can be supported by royalists, his own tribe and the Sanusites – the followers of the main religious Sunni movement of Libya. However, the offspring of King Idris, who left Libya many years ago, cannot be considered as lucky as Seif al-Islam.
Either way, the ongoing processes in Libya give reasons to assume that the country's fate will be decided in the West. The chances of possible candidates will depend on the agreements reached at the negotiating table in the Western capitals.