The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), which ran from November 7 to 15 in Tunis and virtually resumed on November 23, represents the latest push for peace by the UN aimed at ending the conflict that has plagued the divided North African nation for the past six years.
The much-awaited talks came amid heavy international pressure after the signing of a permanent countrywide ceasefire agreement between the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli (GNA) headed by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) on October 23 in Geneva.
The permanent ceasefire agreement not just paved the way for the LPDF’s relaunch on October 26 with its first virtual dialogue, but it also led to the first UN-mediated meeting inside Libya in years.
Military leaders of the warring sides agreed on a plan for implementing the ceasefire deal during rare face-to-face talks held inside Libya in the town of Ghadames, earlier in November. The meeting of the Joint Military Commission (5+5), part of long-running efforts to broker peace, decided to re-convene in mid-November in Sirte to advance discussions over a ceasefire implementation.
However, the fate of the Libyan political process remains unclear, as peace initiatives have collapsed in the past. Repeatedly scheduled and disrupted since the Skhirat agreement in December 2015, the dialogue was undermined by the military offensive of general Haftar who attempted in vain, between April 2019 and June 2020, to take control of Tripoli. In September, the two rival sides returned to the negotiating table in UN-supported talks, with negotiations being held in Morocco, Egypt and Switzerland.
Truly inclusive talks?
The six-day forum in the Tunisian capital, which was coordinated by the UN’s acting envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams, was set to be a fully inclusive intra-Libyan political dialogue hosting 75 delegates from Libya chosen by the United Nations. It endorsed the conclusions of the Berlin Conference on Libya held in January of this year.
The invited participants were drawn from different constituencies “based on the principles of inclusivity, fair geographic, ethnic, political, tribal, and social representation,” as stated by the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and included representatives of the House of Representative and the State Council as well as active political forces outside the two institutions.
But who are these people and how were they picked?
There was controversy over the lack of transparency about the mechanism adopted in the selection of the 75 figures, which materialized as a list of only names, with no further details regarding their roles or affiliations.
It was unclear whether the list of invitees represented all political forces and social groups in Libya, along with civil society’s role in the dialogue forum process. Some tribal representatives were also said to be excluded.
“The selection process of the participants was not as transparent as a lot of Libyans would have wished it to be,” said Thomas Volk, the director for the regional program for political dialogue in the South Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). “It’s in the interest of the dialogue and the UN itself to have a very clear communication strategy to involve as many Libyan groups as possible.” Whether Libyans think the selected names represent the country and its different interests would be critical, he added.
Many Libyans have expressed frustration at their lack of representation in the structure of the ongoing political process, putting the legitimacy of the talks into question.
In addition to Libyans at large, deep-seated grievances against the process are held by domestic stakeholders in both western and eastern Libya. Local groups aligned with eastern-based authorities, who are critical of the ties that western Libyan government has to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, have accused UNSMIL of favoring Islamists and individuals loyal to Turkey. Hardliners in the west, for their part, have rejected dealing with eastern forces’ commander Haftar or having representatives of the LNA—who led a year-long assault on Tripoli—decide on a political solution for Libya.
“All-time low in trust”
Khadeja Ramali, a Libyan independent research analyst who has been monitoring online activity in the Libyan space in relation to the LPDF, observed some “confusion” in the Libyan community about the ongoing political process but also a desire for progress. She highlighted an “all-time low in trust” among citizens vis-à-vis state institutions, saying that either the forum could result in a positive outcome that helps rebuild public trust, or the North African country may be doomed to war again.
Based on recent remarks by the Libya UN envoy, Ramali hopes the UN’s latest initiative pushes Libyan parties toward “some kind of understanding” to see the transition through.
“I think she [the envoy] is trying to say ‘this is the best we can do in this time,’ and it’s about engaging as many Libyans and moving forward,” she noted.
The Libyan analyst warned against online presence of “spoilers” from several on-the-ground partisan groups discrediting the talks underway and the participating delegation, fabricating allegations, and pushing their own political agendas.
Overall, the Tunisia-hosted summit was focussed on drawing a roadmap to presidential and parliamentary elections, and generating consensus on the establishment of an interim and unified executive authority that will manage the country’s affairs during a limited transitional period of 18 months.
The meeting is supposed to lead to the selection of the new presidential council, the president and two vice presidents, representing the three regions of Libya.
Huge challenges, both domestic and external, lie ahead despite the progress made in consolidating last month’s ceasefire.
In a blog post published for the Atlantic Council, Karim Mezran and Emadeddin Badi, both senior fellows at Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argued that there are “virtually no coercion or accountability mechanisms” that international stakeholders are committed to leveraging against domestic actors who are operating to discredit the agreement with the backing of foreign powers. The two also debated that the security talks’ format assumes “a degree of Libyan leverage on foreign troops and mercenaries that simply does not exist”, which is evidenced by a long track record of failing to address foreign intervention in the oil-rich country.
Far from being treated as one top priority in the Libyan context, accountability has been predominantly missing from high-level discussions before. More reports of discovered mass graves and and gross human rights violations underscore the urgent need for accountability to be at the heart of ongoing political talks.
With the protraction of conflict and no accountability, the reality on the ground does not remotely present a safe environment for free and fair elections.
“A Libyan-owned and led solution”
Another major hurdle in reaching a political settlement to Libya crisis is the plurality of actors involved in the conflict, as the country’s political landscape remains highly fragmented.
KAS’ November report on Libya discussed that the political dialogue summit, by gathering individuals from many divergent backgrounds and seeking to strike power-sharing accords between them, has left an open space “for many opportunistic and illegitimate actors to scheme and collude with one another in an attempt to ensure a certain outcome from the dialogue.”
While acknowledging the challenging process of bringing very different parties together at the summit, Volk highlighted that “a Libyan-owned and led solution must be found to the crisis” which entails involving as many local stakeholders as possible to reach an outcome that is accepted by the largest number of international actors, he explained.
Yet, there are reservations among Libyans as to the legitimacy of the transitional phase underway, and its likeliness to restore Libya’s sovereignty and the democratic legitimacy of Libyan institutions.
In an article in Al-Wasat, prominent Libyan constitutional lawyer Azza Maghur evaluated UNSMIL’s latest peace attempt anticipating that the outlook of the LPDF’s expected outcome is a regional quota system that will represent the region’s interests, as opposed to the general Libyan interest, whose mechanism will be “buying loyalties, relying on foreign advocacy, and exerting pressure,” she criticized.
“What our country has gone through since 2014, the deviation of the national democratic path towards the internationally sponsored path of ‘selection and appointment’ on behalf of the Libyans, the policy of imposing fait accompli through UN Security Council resolutions, and turning the national democratic legitimacy into ‘international legitimacy’ without a local and national cover based on international recognition, should be a motivation for us to learn from the previous experiences, come up with results and lessons, and avoid mistakes,” Maghur articulated.
Analysts say that foreign backers of the conflicting sides should also play their part, especially Turkey, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
“The success of the forum also depends on how the international actors are going to position themselves, which is totally unpredictable until we know the outcome of the Libyan forum,” KAS’ South Med program director observed hinting at Russia and Turkey, in particular, who seem both keen on having greater influence in the Mediterranean, and not upsetting the current balance of power.
October’s UN-brokered ceasefire requires all foreign forces to withdraw from the Libyan field within three months. These presumably include Turkish-supplied anti-Damascus Syrian fighters and a small number of Sudanese and Chadian armed groups on the GNA’s side, and Russian Wagner Group contractors, pro-Damascus Syrian fighters and another handful of Chadians and Sudanese on Haftar’s side.
Although both sides agreed that all foreign fighters, military advisers, and mercenaries should leave Libya by January 23, 2021, International Crisis Group reported that “the problem is that neither side officially acknowledges being supported by foreign fighters, which could lead to future backtracking.”