By: Muhamed Mufti*
The supposedly final session of the Libyan Reconciliation Dialogue ended in Geneva, last Wednesday, with a press release saying; “The talks were held in a positive atmosphere, with the different parties emphasising the need to set aside partisan agendas and uphold Libya’s higher national interests. The parties reiterated their …SRSG Leon explained to the parties how discussions would proceed on the annexes to the Libyan Political Agreement…. The parties expressed optimism that …. The parties underscored their determination to conclude the dialogue process as soon as possible, with a target date within the coming three weeks..” However the declaration ignored the most crucial hope of forming a National Unity Government, as originally promised by the UN Envoy.
Needless to say, the Libyan crisis may have potentially catastrophic consequences to the Mediterranean Basin and the European Union in particular. Such concerns were behind the initiation of Reconciliation Dialogue in the first place.
The talks between various Libyan factions, held in different capitals, have been fraught with boycotts over details, reflecting the participants’ suspicions and lack of trust or simply lack of prerogatives. The resultant state of uncertainty has led observers to call for acquiescing to “Half an Agreement” as better to none, or even “no agreement” as better than the one being sought by the UN.
But when you come to think of it, resolving any conflict requires so many factors, the most crucial of which is the accuracy of diagnosis, on which a remedial scheme may be planned. Personally, as repeatedly articulated in several articles published on the pages of this paper, I have been wary of too much optimism regarding the present UN approach. The current civil war must be brought to an end. The Libyan people have endured much unnecessary suffering yet in their evident patient and passive neutrality, have shown complete rejection of the war.
Mr Leon has proven to be a juggler, and able to muster pressure from distant related parties in order to coersce or lure hesitant groups to the negotiating table. Yet suspicions remain and squabbles continue. False promises keep recurring, including the promise of putting together a “government of national unity”. Such a government formed not on the basis of real compromise or a real willingness to share power, will be conditioned by so many ‘ifs’, if it materializes, if it can be installed in the capital Tripoli, and if it can govern etc. Judging from the current slippery undertakings the ride will be arduous and the results uncertain. The present jostle for nominating a premier is revealing as it is pathetic. Hence the flood of sarcastic comments in Libyan media.
The confusion, arguments and false hopes that have accompanied the Reconciliations talks are indicative of a flawed approach. The political crisis in Libya cannot even be really described in terms of governments or legislative assemblies or even political parties. All these entities are secondary, unreliable and unstable.
Simply put, Libya is in the throes of a vicious and devastating civil war. Therefore only leaders of armed groups do possess any import on the ground, regardless of their relative political acumen or undeclared aims.
The Libyan Power Divide
In real terms, the power divide in Libya runs between an army and a broad alliance of Islamic inclined formations (usually referred to as militias, to their dislike). The ‘army’, includes the National Army led by General Hafter in the eastern part of the country (Cyrenaica where its main theatre of war is in Benghazi), the Libyan Army and Army of the Tribes, west of Tripoli. The ‘Islamic Militias’ include those controlling the Capital (Dawn Alliance), dominating Misrata, fighting in Benghazi ( under the banner of the Rebels Shura Council) and now controlling Derna after evicting the extremist IS fighters a few weeks ago. All these formations are the extension of the Libyan Fighting Group, formed in 1990’s against the Gaddafi regime. They also include rebels who rose against Gaddafi in February 2011. The two parliaments and two governments in Tobrug and Tripoli are protected and controlled by either the Army or a Militia alliance.
The extensions of IS in Libya are based in Sirte and around Derna, but are not involved in the current quest for reconciliation. The Libyan oil fields are in the hands of the autonomous and quasi-tribal Guards.
Although the Army as well as the Militias are trying to improve their images, the International community has every right to be nervous of them, since splintering and retributions are a constant threat. There is also fear of military takeover, while the Militias nurture a deep suspicion of state Police & army.
Who should negotiate
It is clear that talks involving politicians and hand-picked activists cannot be fruitful because civilians have no guarantee of personal safety, and politicians are subservient to leaders of armed groups. Besides many politicians are known to be corrupt or had been publicly humiliated, and are hardly credible any longer.
All this leads to one conclusion. For the Libyan Dialogue to be rewarding, negotiations must involve the military leaders on both sides of the divide. This may sound like seeking the impossible in view of the depth of reciprocal hatred, suspicions, and feelings of guilt of talking to those who have killed your comrades.
But continued hostilities also bring with them more victims as well as blame. With suffering and chaos becoming widespread, war engenders a sense of its own futility and sows elements of exhaustion. The word tends then to replace the gun as a negotiating tool. After all many civil wars did end in peace.
What Libya now needs is a truce, first and foremost. Negotiations should be sought through a local initiative which makes use of traditional channels and local means of persuasion, pressure, pledges and guarantees. Such mediation requires individuals with credibility, as well as familiarity with the socio-political geography of Libya.
But, the reader may ask whether the time is ripe for such a truce? And despite all the continued killings and devastation, I venture to say: yes!
* A citizen of Benghazi and an author and commentator on the Libyan scene