It is not for a lack of trying, but the United Nations has struggled to resolve the Libyan conflict. In 2015, the United Nations brokered a unity deal — the Libyan Political Agreement — between the country's two rival governments, the General National Congress in Tripoli and the House of Representatives, which had fled the capital city a year earlier to set up shop in the eastern city of Tobruk. Instead of unifying the country's governments and bridging its largely east-west divide, however, the U.N. peace process created a third government, the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, which the House of Representatives never joined.
Negotiations have continued since — albeit intermittently — and many of the underlying disputes among the country's various factions remain unresolved. On Sept. 20 at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the newly appointed U.N. special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, announced a plan that would kick off a new round of negotiations to resolve some of the lingering disputes. Salame's plan has three phases and is designed to organize elections and a constitutional referendum within a year in what will be an exceedingly difficult task in the fractious country.
A Proposal to Start Again, in Three Steps
First, Salame will convene a drafting committee next week at the United Nations to modify the Libyan Political Agreement. It is unclear whom Salame will select for this committee. Next, a national conference will be held in Tunis to bring Libya's stakeholders together to discuss their ideas for peace and their concerns. Salame said that both the House of Representatives and the State Council, the Government of National Accord's parliamentary body, will need to attend the national conference, as well as those Libyans who feel they have not been adequately represented by either parliament. At the conference, new members of the Government of National Accord's Presidency Council, which currently is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and functions as its executive branch, would be elected.
After the conference, the House of Representatives and the Constitutional Drafting Assembly, which was elected in 2014 and finally voted on a draft constitution earlier this year, would work together to organize a constitutional referendum, plus presidential and parliamentary elections. Salame's timetable from drafting committee to national conference to scheduling a referendum and elections is ambitious — within a year. The envoy's three-step plan also includes a number of points and goals that would be addressed. These issues are likely to be the plan's finer sticking points and likely will determine whether the agreement and process can help resolve the crisis.
The Challenge of the Commander
One of the most controversial aspects of the Libyan Political Agreement has to do with determining the role of Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Hifter. Hifter's forces, which the House of Representatives nominally support, control more than half of Libya, including most of the country's vital oil and gas fields and its ports and infrastructure in the south and east. Hifter's troops have been instrumental in reclaiming Benghazi from jihadists, but Hifter is deeply disliked by many in western Libya. He practically invaded the country with the support of Egypt and a few Gulf Cooperation Council states when he announced a coup against the government in Tripoli in February 2014. After the House of Represntatives fled to Tobruk later that year, it entered into a marriage of convenience with Hifter, and his forces fought Islamist militias in western Libya and militias formed in Misrata, on Libya's Mediterranean coast.
The two sides largely stopped fighting one another in 2015 to confront the Islamic State, which had begun to emerge in the vacuum their fighting created, and in parallel with the U.N.-led peace process, but the distrust and animosity between them remains. Libya's Islamists view Hifter as a secular figure in the mold of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, given that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, another anti-Islamist Arab state, back Hifter financially and politically. Islamists struggle with the idea of Hifter having any role in a unified government. His actions and statements have not changed many of their minds, and he and the Libyan National Army frequently have lumped Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood together with the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Some of Libya's more moderate Islamists may have warmed to the idea of Hifter having a role in a unified government, and western Libya's Salafists may have accepted him also because Salafist militias are a critical part of his army, but the more hard-line Islamists in Libya have not. Others in western Libya, including some Misrata militias, also have warmed up to Hifter, but many worry that he is just another strongman in the mold of Moammar Gadhafi, a figure who wants to centralize power and rule as an authoritarian.
Successfully navigating the controversy surrounding Hifter is critical for the peace process, not only because the House of Representatives is key to achieving peace, but also because the Libyan National Army remains one of the best-equipped and most effective armed groups in the conflict. Hifter's forces do not have the ability to take over the country by force, but their strength gives him tremendous negotiating power and ensures that he will not be marginalized. One of the amendments to the Libyan Political Agreement being discussed would remove the power of the Presidency Council to appoint and dismiss military commanders and give it to the House of Representatives. This change likely would lead to Hifter's appointment as supreme military commander and would block a head of state — such as Serraj — from removing him. This modification to the agreement would prompt substantial complaints and perhaps even rejections from many of the armed groups and political leaders in Libya's west. Hifter also has been preparing himself for a potential presidential bid, a candidacy that many politicians and armed factions in the west would reject, even if he received the necessary votes.
Barriers to Reconciliation
Many Libyans are frustrated with the impasse. Serraj's popularity and support has waned, and he has been criticized as monopolizing power within the Presidency Council, which was designed to create a balance among different interest groups. A measure of the strength of the political forces left out in the cold will come Sept. 25, the date when Basit Igtet, a former presidential candidate who has ties to Libya's Islamists, has called for nationwide protests against both Serraj and Hifter. Already, rival militias have come out either for or against the protest. And therein lies another key problem for Libya's political reconciliation.
Any result of the political negotiations will be difficult to implement. Libya's militias, whose alignments or views are as varied as the political factions they support, remain a complicating force. When the Libyan revolution began in 2011, armed groups sprouted up seemingly overnight: In Misrata alone, more than 250 militias, totaling an estimated 40,000 members, emerged. The vast majority of Libya's political participants — particularly those in the west — do not control the militias, many of which are still armed and active. Any successful peace settlement will need to include a program to demobilize them or integrate them into the military or police forces.
Salame's plan, while noble, will be a tall order to fill, especially with its expedited timeline and given the devolved nature of Libya's militias and the diverse set of interest groups. While the United Nations, as well as Egypt, Tunisia, France, Russia, Italy, Algeria and others, can put into place a mechanism for dialogue to try to end the Libyan civil war, only Libyans have the power to drive Libya toward peace. And right now, that remains its biggest challenge.