The Libyan dialogue: ending the impasse

The UN-sponsored Libyan dialogue has entered a final and ‘decisive’ moment according to chief mediator Bernardino Leon. Last week, Leon shuttled from Morocco (where the main political dialogue is taking place) to Brussels (meeting with representatives of Libyan municipalities) through Libya in his herculean multi-track effort to salvage the Libyan peace process. Last Tuesday, in the absence of an agreement by the parties, Leon released a six-point plan indicating what such an agreement might look like:

  1. A unity Government headed by a president, and a Presidential Council composed of independent personalities not belonging to any party or affiliated with any group acceptable to all parties and by all Libyans. The main members of the Presidential Council will be the president and his two deputies.
  2. The House of Representatives as a legislative body representing all Libyans under the full application of principles of legitimacy and inclusion.
  3. A High State Council inspired by similar institutions existing in a number of countries. A fundamental institution in the governance of the State.
  4. Constitutional Drafting Assembly.
  5. National Security Council.
  6. Municipalities Council.

While these points are neither comprehensive nor specific, they would represent significant achievements. Unsurprisingly they are also fraught with difficulty.

The first point has long been seen as the main aim of the dialogue process. Leon has suggested that a list of potential members of the unity government is under discussion and might be agreed upon by the end of the week. Not surprisingly, this point is the source of considerable disagreement: in the polarized Libyan political field, finding personalities acceptable to all parties is hard. According to the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk, their opponents are described respectively as Gaddafi supporters or Islamist terrorists.

The second point is also likely to spurn a significant degree of controversy. By insisting that the House of Representatives be Libya’s legislative body, Leon’s plan is essentially rejecting the legitimacy of the parallel parliament in Tripoli, the General National Council (GNC). The Tripoli government argues that the GNC is the only legitimate parliament, drawing support from a Supreme Court decision from last fall (although the process and implications of that decision have been questioned). Meanwhile, the House of Representatives operating out of Baida in East Libya remains the sole internationally recognized legislative assembly in Libya. It has been suggested that the GNC, or elements from it, may be included in the High State Council and that balance between the two assemblies would thereby be achieved. More details are needed to see exactly how this balance pans out.

The fourth point would likely mean an extension of the current Constitutional Assembly, operating out of the Eastern city of al-Bayda. The Constitutional Assembly has long been regarded as one of the few non-politicized institutions in Libya, although its president, Ali Tarhouni, arguably is closer to the Tobruk government than to the authorities in Tripoli.

The two last points of Leon’s plan arguably reflect the parallel tracks in the negotiations, involving militias on the one hand, and Libyan municipalities on the other.

It appears that the threat of Islamic State (IS) expansion into Libya has pushed the parties to come to the table. Militias loyal to both Tobruk and Tripoli are currently engaged in fighting IS: the former against an increasing IS presence in Benghazi, and the latter against their main base in Sirte.

Both sides however appear capable of ‘multitasking’: Khalifa Heftar, Tobruk’s military lead, recently launched a campaign to liberate Tripoli while Tripoli jets have carried out airstrikes on Zintan, whose militia is allied with Heftar. A number of these airstrikes have been launched with the intention of derailing talks: in the latest round in Morocco, the departure of the Tripoli delegation was delayed due to bombing of the capital’s only remaining airport.

A return to a political solution still appears a long way off. Even in the event that the UN succeeds in bringing about a unity government, such a government will risk being just as fragile as the transitional governments that preceded it. Unless the fundamental problems of Libyan politics are dealt with – particularly the issue of integrating the militias within the framework of  the state – real progress will not be achieved.

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