By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
Libya-watchers believe there is a glimmer of hope of ending the country’s conflict as the two main factions hold a series of talks in Egypt and Morocco ahead of a major summit in Geneva next month. But the two central individual players — the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj and the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya — may be sidelined as Egypt intensifies its diplomatic effort to reach a solution.
A meeting between military officials from the GNA and LNA took place in Egypt’s Hurghada this week to draw up an agreement on declaring Sirte as the new seat of a unity government. The two sides discussed ways to designate the city as a demilitarized zone and end foreign involvement in the nine-year conflict.
Al-Sarraj announced this month that he intended to step down by the end of October. The decision was welcomed by the UN and it drew attention to his deputy, Ahmad Maitiq, as the new strongman 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 again next week.
Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is intensifying his diplomatic efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis. Last week, he held talks with Haftar and the head of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh. Saleh stands to take over from Haftar, whose human rights record has come under scrutiny. Various reports suggest that Cairo may be ready to abandon Haftar in favor of Saleh at a time when Al-Sarraj is also stepping down.
Talks have also been taking place in Morocco between political rivals amid signs that the gaps between the two sides may be closing. But attention has shifted to Egypt, where talks have covered ways to bring the various 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-recognized 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 Al-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, which is another 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 US, which took an active role in mediating between the GNA and the LNA a few months ago, appears to have made a U-turn, with news sources saying that President Donald Trump has changed his mind about getting involved in the Libyan crisis. However, the White House may reconsider as the Egyptian mediation gains traction.
What is important to note is that the two sides in Libya have come to realize that a military solution is out of the 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.
When Al-Sarraj goes, Maitiq may be able to decrease Turkey’s involvement, which is rejected by Cairo. If Haftar is sidelined, the moderate Saleh may well have the chance to bring together various Libyan politicians and tribal chiefs in a bid to form a unity government.
Only a recognized unity government can demand the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries while attempting to merge the militias into one national force. However, Libya’s tribal nature poses a challenge for politicians, who must work hard to preserve the country’s territorial unity against the forces that seek partition. Drafting a new constitution 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 the two sides will soon announce a formal cease-fire, 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. Such an agreement would precede the resumption of talks in Morocco between members of the Tripoli-based High Council of State and the Tobruk-based parliament.
If the negotiations in Egypt and Morocco are successful, then next month’s meeting in Geneva will stand a good chance of reaching 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. Twitter: @plato010