The hopeful scene in Paris July 25 was a familiar one. Libyan leaders, in this case General Khalifa Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, meet under the umbrella of another world leader, in this case, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, and announce progress on a deal to put Libya back together and hold new elections.
It was a scene that had last played on May 2 in Abu Dhabi, under Emirati guidance with the same Libyan players, and one I and others had sought to put together a full year ago when I was serving as U.S. Special Envoy for Libya.
And, as has been recurrently the case, it was immediately followed by counter-moves undertaken by spoilers.
This time, the Tobruk-based speaker of Libya’s House of Representatives, Agila Saleh Issa, did not even await the event to declare it dead and buried. One week earlier, Agila, who had played a key role in 2015 in selecting members of the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Presidency Council, or PC, described the PC in a statement as an “illegal body,” PM al-Sarraj as illegitimate, and any elections called by him as equally illegitimate. Agila, who refers to himself as Libya’s president, has spent the last 20 months doing his best to systematically frustrate every effort of the GNA to form a cabinet and to function.
It took General Haftar only a few days to walk away from the French photo-op, too. On July 26, PM al-Sarraj agreed with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to allow Italian vessels to assist the Libyan navy and coast guard in combating illegal immigration within Libyan territorial waters. In response, General Haftar on August 2 promised to blow the Italians out of the water as affronts to Libyan sovereignty.
The explanation for all of this is, unfortunately, easy. In Libya, all parties play to more than one audience, and those audiences are in turn, fractured.
The international community generally wants a deal enabling Libya to build a functioning national government, stability, and security. A functioning Libyan government could in turn work with other governments to combat the major threats to other countries emanating from Libya – the illegal migrants who have been using Libya as the jumping off point to Europe and the terrorists who have been using Libya as a safe haven to train for future attacks against Libya, its North African neighbors, and Europe, as took place in the May Manchester bombing that slaughtered 22 people. But some external actors – Egypt’s security services, for example – want their particular client, General Haftar, to emerge as the hand-picked winner.
Local constituencies also have diverse goals. While most pay lip-service to the idea of building a government that actually delivers electricity, water, health care, education, and personal security to the Libyan people, in practice, intra-Libyan competition generally trumps the cooperation needed to make this possible. In the East, the main goal of those working with Speaker Agila over the past two years has been to continue to grab more of the benefits from Libya’s revenues than was ever possible during the Tripoli-dominated Qaddafi years. Even as Libyan quality of life has deteriorated generally, Agila and General Haftar and their followers have had access not only to the salaries still paid by Libya’s Central Bank, but to billions of additional dinars printed by the Russian state printer, Goznak, doled out to their supporters. In talks with me and other envoys, easterners like PC member Ali Faraj al-Qatrani have been explicit about maintaining their economic gains, and threaten to secede rather than give them up – a threat that packs more punch now that Haftar’s forces control territory covering some 60% of the oil terminals.
In divided, militia-infested Tripoli, local forces also want to hold on to what they have, which may be little more than a neighborhood. Those focused on the economy would also like to restrain the parties of the east from taking what those in the capital are used to having for themselves, and as a byproduct, causing inflation and devaluing the currency. The Libyan dinar is currently trading on the black market at more than six times its official exchange rate against the U.S. Dollar. In Misrata, the political goal has been to be treated with the respect due Libya’s most successful commercial city. For the south, it is to be treated with the respect it was never shown under Qaddafi – or since. And so on.
Foreign sponsors continue to play a big role in enabling Libyans to refuse compromise. The six-year Libyan tug of war between Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan on the other, encouraged Libyan clients to take maximalist positions inconsistent with achieving national concord. In recent months, Russia has thrown its further weight to support General Haftar and Tobruk. In this setting, General Haftar’s breach with al-Sarraj just a few days after promising to work with him carries minimal consequences.
One surprising area of progress is in Libya’s oil sector, where National Oil Corporation head Mustafa Sanalla’s visible success may provide a clue on a way forward. In essence, Sanalla promised his neutrality on Libyan politics and reached out to everyone, regardless of political affiliation, who was willing to stop groups from shutting down Libyan oil to extort political or economic benefits. The result is that Libya, which was pumping only 350,000 barrels a day throughout most of 2016, was up to some 865,000 barrels a day during July 2017. At that level, Libya was generating some $41 million a day in oil revenue, or more than $15 billion a year, five times what it earned in 2016.
Sanalla’s success provides a template others in Libya might follow: appeal to the self-interest of all Libyans, don’t take sides, let technocrats do their jobs, and some success may follow. Applying that formula to enable a vote on Libya’s draft constitution, a version of which was endorsed by its framers in Bayda on July 29 and 30, could lead to what Libya needs: a roadmap to rebuild unified national political, security, and economic structures through agreement on a constitution and democratic elections.
To get there, French President Macron, the new Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Ghassan Salamé, and other would-be peace-makers will need to align the major international actors first as a precondition for achieving success among Libyans. Recalling the French adage, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.