It’s been six years since the people of Libya toppled Muammar Gaddafi in a bloody uprising, and since then, Libya has been in a near-constant state of civil war. A beacon of hope seemed to have emerged when, in Paris on July 25, Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and de facto ruler of huge swathes of land in the east of the country, agreed to a ceasefire and new elections. While on paper, the agreement represents a step towards an end of civil war, those on the ground in Libya might well deem it a step forward and two steps backwards.
There are a number of reasons as to why this might be the case. First, the agreement itself. While both sides have agreed to “refrain from any recourse to armed force for anything that is not strictly anti-terrorist,” the failure to agree on a joint definition of what constitutes anti-terrorist activity is problematic to say the least. At present, both sides have different interpretations as to what ‘terrorists’ are. For instance, most Muslim Brotherhood officials and leaders are classed as terrorists by the Haftar-aligned House of Representatives (HOR) government based in the eastern city of Torbuk. It came as no surprise then that the agreement was rejected by the Brotherhood-aligned Justice and Construction Party (JCP) mere hours after it was signed. Aside from the Brotherhood, the HOR’s list also includes media personnel and various armed groups that do not see eye to eye with Haftar on various issues. Moreover, while both Sarraj and Haftar have agreed to hold elections “as soon as possible,” the absence of a date or even a tentative timeline in the agreement does little to inspire confidence. Perhaps the vagueness on the matter of elections was deliberate: as the two parties fall some way short of representing all the major political stakeholders in Libya.
The agreement is contingent upon Sarraj’s ability to persuade all anti-Haftar armed groups and militias in the west of the country to lay down arms — a daunting task, to say the least. While Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) might be seen as legitimate from the outside, it is still struggling for widespread support on the ground, not just in the east but in the south and west of the country as well. In Tripoli alone, where the GNA is based, many of the capital’s multiple militia groups are ambivalent about Sarraj’s authority. Their support is conditional on the basis of their own interests. And if the kidnap of former Libyan PM Ali Zeidan in 2013 taught us anything, it is that those with weapons and manpower are the ones that carry real influence on the ground. Keeping the strong militias and their leaders out of the talks is a surefire way to put their resolutions in jeopardy.
If Middle Eastern history has taught us anything, it is that domestic conflicts do not often remain domestic for long. If institutional shortcomings and security vacuum were not enough to aggravate the polarization endemic to Libya, the interference of geopolitical actors including Qatar, UAE, Egypt and Russia seems to have pushed Libya into a state of chaos. The cold war between Qatar, supporting the Tripoli-based National Salvation Government as well as Muslim Brotherhood-aligned members, while UAE and Egypt back Haftar and the eastern-based HOR, have reduced Libya to just another proxy battlefield where both sides continue to arm and financially support their favored actors in a flagrant violation of the UN arms embargo. And to make a bad situation worse, Russia’s financial and military support to Haftar seems to indicate that Moscow might be preparing for another cold-war style stand-off with West similar to that in Syria. Either way, the struggle for supremacy being played out over the oilfields of Libya not only undermines any agreements being signed such as the July 25 declaration, but also puts in jeopardy any attempts at healing the deep rifts that criss-cross the country.
As already recognized by the agreement, an end to the Libyan civil war requires national reconciliation. However, disarmament remains a crucial prerequisite of any such understanding — and as long as weapons and money continue to pour in the country, not only will the conflict amongst various groups remain alight, but the extreme polarization that brought Libya to this point will also continue to be exacerbated. As distrust and skepticism run high in Libya, no one is likely to give up their arms without getting a firm assurance of peace, stability, fair representation and a better livelihood — an assurance that is hard for both Sarraj and Haftar to give. While the July 25 agreement was a step in the right direction, the journey ahead remains long and dangerous.