Expert Commentary

Nobody is in Charge in Libya

Mohamed Eljarh
Former Political Consultant, Libyan Mission to the European Union

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mohamed Eljarh, former political consultant to the Libyan Mission to the European Union, to discuss the ongoing conflict in Libya, the current terrorist threat in the country, and prospects for peace.

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of political affairs in Libya?

Mohamed Eljarh: It has been more than 16 months since the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and more than 12 months since the arrival of the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj in the capital of Tripoli.  However, Libya remains a deeply divided and polarized country – one that lacks any representative or fully legitimate government – and it has witnessed various camps compete for legitimacy and control of key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). In addition, an ongoing armed struggle is taking place in various parts of the country. [The conflict] is linked to the ongoing political struggle for control of resources and state institutions.

Within Libya, there are three centers of political power: the UN-backed Presidential Council based in Tripoli, the State Council (formerly known as the General National Congress), which is also based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in Tobrouk. The failure of these three institutions to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has resulted in significant deterioration in living conditions and a precarious security situation where the risk of a full-fledged civil war and reemergence of violent Jihadist groups, such as ISIS, is real.

Additionally, these institutions and competing governments failed to unify key state institutions that were divided back in 2014 when certain Islamist and revolutionary factions in control of the capital Tripoli refused to recognize the June 2014 national election results and the subsequent move of the newly elected House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk where it has been sitting ever since. Today, Libya has two central banks, two national oil corporations and three competing managements of the Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority. 

As a result of these failures and the ongoing conflict, a growing number of Libyans, as many as 40 percent, are now living under the poverty line. The poverty issue in Libya is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and deteriorating economic and financial situation plagued by widespread corruption and poor governance. Three different governments are printing and spending their own cash and allocating their own budgets.

The value of the Libyan dinar has dropped significantly from a rate of 1.32 Libyan dinars to 1 U.S. dollar to as low as 10 Libyan dinars for 1 U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Additionally, there is a major cash liquidity crisis and shortages in fuel, medicine, cooking gas, and basic goods supplies with significant hikes in prices throughout the country.

TCB: Last year, ISIS was kicked out of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan forces, but there are reports that ISIS may establishing a base in southern Libya. Does the group still maintain a presence in the country?

ME: Political instability, poverty and conflict are key contributing factors to the emergence and rise of jihadist groups. Although ISIS was defeated militarily in Libya and does not control any towns or cities in the country, the environments and factors that gave rise ISIS still exist today, and if not dealt with urgently and properly, will give rise again to ISIS or a much worse Jihadist phenomena.

Currently, there is violent escalation between Libyan National Army forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar on one side and forces loyal to the authorities in Tripoli and Misrata on the other. There is no doubt but that ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups will aim to regroup, strengthen their presence, and potentially expand their control over territory in the southern region.

Local forces in the southern region of Fezzan have already spotted an increase in jihadist activities. There is a real threat that jihadist groups will form deep-rooted connections and networks with criminal gangs in southern Libya. [These gangs] are involved in human and drug trafficking and smuggling activities [that] would provide jihadist groups with a generous source of income to fund their activities and regrouping efforts and would have dangerous consequences not only for Libya, but the entire Sahel and North Africa regions, and of course Europe.

TCB: Has Russia become involved in Libya in any capacity? If so, how?  Should the U.S. play a role in Libya, either militarily or by helping to broker a peace deal? If so, to what extent? 

ME: Instability in Libya and the legitimacy crisis have created a vacuum in Libya that since 2014 has been filled by jihadist groups such as ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia. But it is not just Jihadist groups that are filling the vacuum in a chaotic Libya. Regional players such as Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.

Last year, Russia started to weigh its options in Libya.  It seems that Libya is now part of Moscow’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Initially, Russia seemed to favor the Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, as the Russians treated his wounded soldiers, have him medical supplies, and provided private contractors to help with war related activities. However, recently, Russia started to reach out to all Libyan stakeholders and has been working to push forward the peace process and the Libyan Political Agreement. Regionally, Russia is coordinating efforts with Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is clear that Russia is neither keen nor capable of getting involved militarily in Libya. Hence, political and diplomatic involvement is the best option available for Moscow. However, it is important to keep in mind that Libya is important to Russia for obvious economic reasons. Libya is also important to Russia because it is very important to Europe. For Moscow, Libya is another battlefield where [Putin] could twist Europe’s arm.

Russia is getting more involved in Libya while everyone waits to see the Trump Administration’s strategy towards Libya. On April 20, President Trump said, “I do not see a (U.S.) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called the U.S. role in the country “critical.” This confirms fears of many EU leaders that the U.S. might be heading for disengagement in Libya.

However, Trump’s position on Libya could easily flip, as it did in Syria. But it is important for the Trump Administration to have the right strategy in Libya and not just a reactionary, ad-hoc figure-it-out-as-you go approach.

There are two key issues that any strategy towards Libya has to deal with. First, the legitimacy crisis that led to the current constitutional and legal vacuum. Second, there is the issue of political participation of all Libyan factions in producing a legitimate and representative government. The UN-led peace process was meant to solve the legitimacy issue through the dialogue and consensus process, but has failed.

TCB: Where do you see the situation headed in the short term?

ME: It is very likely that the current status quo will continue throughout 2017. It is important to point out that the term of the LPA and the UN-backed government of national accord ends on December 17, 2017. The president of the House of Representatives has already called for the Higher National Elections Commission to prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2018. Given that negotiations based peace process did not yield the anticipated results, a democratic, free and fair elections could be the best way to solve the legitimacy and participation issues highlighted above.

What the United States, Europe and the international community at large can do is to put in place mechanisms and guarantees to support the election processes and ensure they are transparent and fair. Most importantly, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must ensure that elections results are respected and protected.

Additionally, Libya would require two key agreements that need to happen simultaneously:  first, a Libyan Economic Agreement that deals with the management and distribution of Libya’s wealth and ensures equitable and efficient management and distribution of oil revenues between Libyans; and, second, a Libyan Security Agreement that deals with the issue of disarming militias, collection weapons, and the rebuilding of Libyan Armed Forces under civilian oversight and authority, as well as the protection of borders, vital sites, and installations.

TCB: What do you make of the recent meeting between Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar in the UAE earlier this week.

ME: The meeting in Abu Dhabi and the joint communique issued by Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar is a major breakthrough and a significant step in the right direction. However, there are still many details to be worked out. Additionally, there are enough spoilers in Libya that could ensure the meeting does not result in any real progress on the ground. Some Islamist factions that are loyal to the Libyan Grand Mufti in Tripoli, Jufrah and the city of Derna are likely to reject the meeting and its outcomes. Within the city of Misrata some hardline factions have forcefully closed down the city’s democratically elected municipal council and the city is extremely polarized and divided. The hardliners within the city of Misrata are likely to reject the meeting and its outcome. Most importantly, the meeting must be followed by other steps that widen the participation and support base for the new agreement and the upcoming elections. 

The key obstacle facing Libya today is the legitimacy crisis that resulted in institutional and legal vacuum. One way out of this conundrum would be holding parliamentary and presidential elections after speeding up the constitution drafting committee and agreeing a constitution for the country. This will ensure the end of the current institutional divide and restore some confidence in governance and the economy. However, any democratic elections will require guarantees from the international community that the electoral process would be free and fair and that the election results are respected. 

The Author is Mohamed Eljarh

Mohamed Eljarh is a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council residing in Libya. He writes extensively on post revolution Libya, his work was published in the New York Times, CNN, World Politics Review. He is also a frequent expert commentator on Libyan affairs with BBC, CNN, Aljazeera, Sky News and al-Arabiya. He previously worked temporarily as Political Consultant to the Libyan Mission to the EU in Brussels in the summer 2015.

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