Expert Commentary

Outsiders’ Bets on Libya Torpedo Peace

Jonathan M. Winer
Former U.S. Special Envoy for Libya

Political instability continues to plague Libya as the country is mired in its sixth year of conflict following the 2011 Arab Spring. In July, two of Libya’s most prominent leaders, representing competing factions, Fayez Sarraj, the head of Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, met in Paris to discuss a countrywide ceasefire and preconditions for elections that are scheduled for early 2018. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Jonathan Winer, former United States Special Envoy for Libya, about the recent agreement and the different factors that are impacting Libya’s drive for political unity.

The Cipher Brief: What do you make of the agreement struck between Fayez Sarraj, the head of Libya’s UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) and Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army in France in July? Will this agreement have any practical implications for the situation on the ground in Libya?

Jonathan Winer: Libya needs to have its transitional government under Prime Minister Sarraj enabled to function for the duration of its current term, which should be brief, since the GNA is approaching its maximum mandate of two years before elections are supposed to be held pursuant to the December 2015 Skhirat Agreement. An appropriate deal between Haftar and al Sarraj is one potential element of stabilizing Libya ahead of national elections. Another one would be the inclusion of Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh Issah, as a party to the agreement. To date, talks between these three figures have been elusive. And so, therefore, has any deal.

Notably, these three actors themselves cannot dictate arrangements that would automatically be agreed to by other important Libyan constituencies, including representatives of tribes in the South, Misurata, and a range of diverse interests in Tripoli and the West. So a coming together similar to that of Skhirat would likely be necessary, with unified international support.

As mentioned, any agreement would need to be short term in nature, leading promptly to national elections. Libyans would be justifiably concerned about any arrangements that seem designed mainly to keep those who have power now, whether political, military, or economic, in power indefinitely.

TCB: In a recent article you discussed the possibility of using Libya’s oil industry as a template for achieving a political roadmap for the country. Could you expand on how that formula could be applied to the political realm? Is this idea something that can be more easily achieved at the industrial level than at the political level?

Winer: Libyans could decide that the country is best off relying more on technocrats to run things and narrowing the work of politicians to a few major issues such as adopting a budget, agreeing on how to proceed with building national security institutions, and how to end the role of the militias, and other similar issues requiring political directions.

In principle, education, health care, energy, financial regulation and operations, and similar services could be largely depoliticized and given over to managers to manage. How would you get there? Appointments by consensus of capable people who were then given deference to enable them to do their jobs day to day. Is this possible in principle? Yes. Is this likely to happen anytime soon? No.

TCB: Should the international community play a role in Libya’s domestic affairs? Do all the competing foreign countries in Libya exacerbate the problem or have they brought a certain amount of stability to the country?

Winer: When outsiders compete to support their preferred players in Libya, they make it harder for Libyans to come together with one another and deal. Sponsor-client relationships have played an important role in empowering some Libyans to believe they could take the entire country with the help of their sponsors. That said, sponsors have also exerted real pressure on their clients to seek compromise. So these relationships can and do cut both ways. 

TCB: Will it take another strongman, perhaps General Haftar, to unify and stabilize Libya?

Winer: I am very skeptical that Libyans would tolerate anyone trying to act as the new Gaddafi. I don’t see anyone trying to do that succeeding, except perhaps and somewhat paradoxically, through elections, not the use of force.

TCB: Is it realistic to think that Libya will form a unified government in the short-term? 

Winer: Stranger things have happened. It is certainly in the interests of the Libyan people for their country to be enabled to build an inclusive, functioning government at the national level. Perhaps one day, enough of the Libyan political class, acting on the basis of pragmatism as well as the urgings of foreigners, will make this a priority, as an alternative to further unnecessary suffering and failure.

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The Author is Jonathan M. Winer

Jonathan M. Winer has been the United States Special Envoy for Libya, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, and counsel to United States Senator John Kerry. He has written and lectured widely on U.S. Middle East policy, counter-terrorism, international money laundering, illicit networks, corruption, and U.S.-Russia issues. Winer is currently a fellow at the Middle East Institute.

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