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Libya: ‘Haftar is one of the time bombs on Libya’s road ahead’ says analyst

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Thursday, 17 June 2021 10:20

Khalifa Haftar © Khalifa Haftar © Angelos Tzortzinis/dpa/MaxPPP

The hope raised in February by the arrival of Libya’s new interim Government of National Unity (GNU) has quickly faded away. It is becoming less and less likely that the December presidential and legislative elections will go ahead as scheduled.

Furthermore, the GNU, which was supposed to symbolise the country’s reunification, is facing regional divisions. Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dabaiba seems to have little room for manoeuvre.

But according to Ali Al-Isawi, Tripoli’s former economy minister and current adviser to the foreign affairs ministry, the government’s failure must be tempered. “The GNU didn’t do something significant so far for many reasons. We don’t expect too much from this government. It is still stuck restructuring the ministries, the government agencies, etc. It seems that the only focus for this period will be the electricity problem and Covid-19 pandemic.”

These are already difficult issues to deal with, as Dabaiba is running the country without a budget. Totalling D93bn ($20.8bn), it is currently being blocked by the House of Representatives (HoR), in the east, which is chaired by Aguila Saleh.

The likelihood of elections grows less likely the more Saleh and Mishri are allowed to proceed with their stalling tactics without response and the more that destructive, venal, political positions are indulged by the international community for the sake of not upsetting those they believe to be power holders.

The members of parliament who support Khalifa Haftar are also criticising the fact that the budget of his Libyan National Army (LNA) will be integrated into the GNU ministry of defence’s.

Aguila Saleh interferes with the elections

For his part, Saleh is seeking to postpone the elections so that he can maintain his position. “He did enable the HoR vote to approve the GNU, but it is clear he is back to obstructing the peace and transition efforts,” says Benjamin Fishman, a fellow at the Washington Institute and former director of North Africa at the US National Security Council. “The international community must pressure him to take the steps needed to allow elections.”

While Saleh has been subject to US Treasury sanctions since 2016, the European Union (EU) lifted its sanctions on him in October 2020. Four years ago, he had tried to obstruct the implementation of the Skhirat agreements, which led to the creation of Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA).

Tarek Megerisi, a researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, also sees the posturing as “an attempt by Aguileh Saleh to be a populist to his constituencies, to make the government and Dabaiba look bad, and to stall the electoral process so that he can stay in position for as long as possible.”

In this arm-wrestling match with the GNU, Saleh hopes to replace, before the elections, the representatives of seven sovereign institutions. “These political moves are all about growing his political control and power,” says Megerisi. In particular, there is talk of replacing the governor of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), which is an extremely strategic position as the governor is in charge of funds and their redistribution.

Saleh went to Rabat on 3 June to attend a meeting to which Khaled al-Mishri, head of the High Council of State, had been invited. The purpose of this meeting was to create a committee that would be tasked with determining these institutions’ future representatives. Megerisi criticised this move.

“The likelihood of elections grows less likely the more Saleh and Mishri are allowed to proceed with their stalling tactics without response and the more that destructive, venal, political positions are indulged by the international community for the sake of not upsetting those they believe to be power holders,” he says.

“Nevertheless, given the international consensus behind elections it seems most likely that they will occur,” he adds. “The more potent question is whether the elections will be a constructive moment that allows Libya to emerge from its transition or the spark of a new conflict,” he adds.

Outdated UN Mission

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is trying to pursue its roadmap for the elections. But the Libyan committee that was set up under its auspices, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), is also shaken by internal disagreements. It is divided over the basis of the future constitution, which was drawn up for the upcoming elections.

At issue is whether to have a direct or indirect vote and if presidential candidates with dual nationality should be allowed to run. This second point would allow several figures to run for/remain president, including Haftar and Libya’s current President Mohamed El-Menfi, who are both US citizens, and Ali Aref Nayed, Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who is close to the eastern camp and a Canadian citizen.

“These questions are underlined by people already working for their candidate,” says Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group.

Researcher Benjamin Fishman fears that without a quick resolution to these differences, the election will not be able to go ahead as planned. “Instead of mediating among different [groups], UNSMIL has now put the ball back in the HoR’s court, which is a disappointing result,” he says.

European attempt in Berlin

Beyond these technical issues, the GNU’s main challenge is ensuring the departure of foreign forces from Libyan soil. Washington and the EU are increasingly insisting on this. But both Ankara and Moscow are turning a deaf ear.

In 2019, Turkey, Tripoli’s main ally, sent military support and Syrian mercenaries to Tripolitania to fight alongside the ex-GNA’s forces against Haftar’s offensive. Russia, for its part, has relied on the paramilitary company Wagner and has stood by Haftar, who was also supported by Syrian mercenaries.

However, these forces, which the US Security Council had ordered to leave the country by March, are still present in Tripolitania, where the Turks have taken control of the Al-Watiya base. Meanwhile, Wagner’s men are stationed in Jufra and Fezzan.

The holding of the December elections and the departure of foreign forces will be the main topics of the upcoming Libya conference in Berlin. It is due to be held on 23 June, under the auspices of the UN, and aims to strengthen the international community’s commitment to resolving the conflict.

But unlike the previous Berlin summit, this conference will bring together foreign ministers instead of heads of state. This initiative is, therefore, less likely to bear fruit on the ground, where the allied forces on both sides are sticking to their positions.

“The inclusion of Libyan representatives shows that there has been some progress since last year,” says Megerisi. It “will help create an environment of pressure for them to at least agree on a roadmap to move forward.”

Gazzini sees the June Berlin meeting as an opportunity for the international community to come together and put the UN, which has lost some of its grip in recent months, back in the driver’s seat. “The United Nations should not sit back and let the Libyan authorities think things will move on organically in Libya. A common agreement to move the process forward is needed,” says the researcher.

Haftar flexes his muscles

The reunification of the army, which is seen as the backbone of the ceasefire, remains at a standstill. While the joint committee (called the 5+5) between representatives of the west and the east continues to meet on the ground, reconciliation has not yet been achieved.

Haftar is one of the time bombs on Libya’s road ahead.

Their greatest point of contention was the LNA’s military parade on 29 May in Benghazi, which Haftar had organised. He used the parade, which was shunned by the GNU’s representatives, to portray himself as the leader of an imposing and professional army. “Haftar today is trying to feign that he has more control over the east than he really does,” says Megerisi. “The military parade is an expression of his insecurity.”

Haftar also supervised the graduation ceremony of several LNA recruits in Benghazi on 5 June. Meanwhile, Dabaiba presided over the Misrata soldiers’ graduation ceremony, which was criticised by pro-LNA supporters.

These demonstrations of force reflect the contradictions of the promised reunification. Haftar has not formally recognised the GNU and he may end up hindering the elections. “Haftar is one of the time bombs on Libya’s road ahead,” says Megerisi. “Haftar has made it clear, repeatedly, that he has no interest in sharing power or agreeing to anything that isn’t a discardable stepping stone on his road to absolute power.”

Fishman adds:“Because of his military resources and assets in the east, Haftar can obstruct the transition at any moment. He can easily prevent voting from occurring in the east or resume boycotting oil.” Stopping oil production in the east has been frequently used by various actors in their struggles with the Tripoli authorities.

In Tripoli, Isawi, the adviser to the foreign affairs ministry, is not optimistic about the future. ”Any political progress with the participation of the UN mission in Libya and the international community does not […] include real unification of the military institution with its subordination to the civilian government. [It] will only be a political romance that will collide with the reality of a new war.”

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