Libya watchers believe there is a glimmer of hope as the two main rivals hold a series of talks in Egypt and Morocco ahead of a major summit in Geneva next month. Two main players in the conflict, Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli Fayez Al Sarraj and the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Gen. Khalifa Haftar who controls eastern Libya, may be sidelined as Egypt intensifies its diplomatic effort to reach a solution.
This week a meeting between military officials from the GNA and the LNA took place in Egypt’s Hurghada to draw an agreement on declaring Sirte as the new seat of a unity government. The two sides discussed ways to designate the city as a de-militarised zone as well as ending foreign involvement in the nine-year conflict.
Last week Sarraj announced that he was stepping down by the end of October. The decision was welcomed by the United Nations and it drew attention to his deputy, Ahmad Maitiq, as the new strong man in the GNA. Maitiq is believed to be behind an agreement with the LNA to resume oil exports and share revenues. Oil exports are expected to begin next week.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is intensifying diplomatic efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis. Last week he held talks with Haftar and head of the Tobruk parliament Agilah Saleh. Saleh stands to take over from Haftar, whose human rights record has been denounced especially when his forces attempted to march into Tripoli earlier this year. Various reports suggest that Cairo may be ready to abandon Haftar in favor of Saleh at a time when Sarraj too is stepping down. Also talks have been taking place in Morocco between political rivals amid signs that gaps between the two sides may be closing. But attention has shifted to Egypt where talks have covered ways to bring militias into one national force. That is easier said than done as the powerful Misrata militia has denounced.
Maitiq’s recent agreement with the LNA.
Watching these diplomatic efforts are Turkey and Russia; two powers that have vested and conflicting interests in Libya. Ankara has sided with the UN recognised GNA and sent mercenaries and military hardware to repulse Haftar’s forces earlier this year. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to build an alliance with Sarraj that allows Turkey to explore for oil and gas off Libyan shores. The GNA is backed by Libya’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, one additional reason for Erdogan to step in. On the Other hand, Moscow has sided with Haftar by sending its own mercenaries as well as placing advanced fighter jets in Eastern Libya. The United States, which took an active role in mediating between the GNA and the LNA a few months ago, appears to have made a turnaround. News sources say that
President Donald Trump has changed his mind about getting involved in the Libyan crisis. The White House may reconsider as the Egyptian mediation gains traction. What is important to note is that the two sides have come to realise that a military solution is out of question. The Libyan economy is in disarray and the country faces chaos if the two sides fail to reach an agreement. What stands in their way are two main obstacles: Foreign interference and tribal rivalries. With Sarraj gone Maitiq may be able to decrease Turkey’s involvement in Libya, which is rejected by Cairo. If Haftar is sidelined, Saleh, a moderate, may well have a chance in bringing together various Libyan politicians and tribal chiefs in a bid to form a unity government.
Only a recognised unity government can demand the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries while attempting to merge the militias into one national force. Libya’s tribal nature poses a challenge for politicians who must work hard to preserve the country’s territorial unity against forces that seek partition. Drafting a new constitution for Libya will prove to be a major task and may well end in failure. But for now the Egyptian meditation seems to be yielding results. It is expected that two sides will announce a formal ceasefire while forming joint military and civilian committees that aim to find a power sharing formula between the GNA and the Tobruk parliament with Sirte being the new seat of government. That agreement would precede the resumption of talks in Morocco between members of
the Tripoli-based High Council of State and from the Tobruk-based parliament.
If negotiations in Egypt and Morocco are successful then next month’s meeting in Geneva will have a good chance to reach a wider agreement to form a new presidential council representing the country’s three main regions that could end Libya’s civil war and pave the way for a political settlement.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.