May 24, 2021 - World

Libya's fragile moment of unity

A pro-government rally in Tripoli last January. Photo: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Six months after a ceasefire ended the most recent civil war, the UN and U.S. have been expressing a rare sentiment: optimism about events in Libya.

The state of play: Libya achieved an unexpected breakthrough in March by forming a national unity government that was recognized by all the major players from opposing sides of the barricades.

  • Now all the country has to do is expel a medley of foreign fighters, unify its financial and military institutions, decide on a system of government, grapple with 10 years of on-and-off civil war (and four decades of dictatorship before that), and hold elections — all by the end of the year.
  • There's also the "elephant in the room," notes Mohammed Ali Abdallah, special envoy to the U.S. for Libya’s Government of National Unity. Khalifa Haftar, the rogue general who attempted to overthrow the Tripoli government, remains a force in eastern Libya.
  • Haftar's offensive was repulsed last year when Turkey intervened on behalf of the Tripoli government.

What he's saying: In an interview with Axios, Abdallah acknowledged that Libya's recent history is littered with transitional governments that overstayed their mandates while failing to deliver. But he insists that this time is different.

  • "People are starting to realize that, you know what, those who were part of the [Muammar Gaddafi] regime or those who were part of the revolution, people who are from the East or from the West, people who were supporting a military takeover versus those who were holding onto the democratic process — the rivalries and the polarization are starting to blur."
  • The leaders of the transitional government — Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Presidential Council chairman Mohamed al-Menfi — are intent on delivering elections because they know their political prospects will collapse if they don't, Abdallah contends.
  • Yes, but: A recent report from the International Crisis Group notes that Dbeibah was accused of buying votes to get his job and reportedly wants to keep it for at least two years.
  • Still, the report notes, "The seamless power transfer — with no armed group mobilizing to prevent it and no foreign power trying to obstruct it — is historic for a country awash with militias and where foreign meddling has become the norm.”

The regional winds have been helpful, including recent reconciliations between Haftar backers Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other.

  • Most promising, Abdallah says, is the dialogue between Egypt (another Haftar backer) and Turkey, both of which will have big roles to play in stabilizing Libya. The transitional government has even proposed a trilateral summit in Libya, he says.

That leaves just one major external player that "actually benefits from an ongoing crisis in Libya," Abdallah says: Russia, whose interests are represented by mercenaries from the Wagner Group.

  • Moscow has indicated that the mercenaries will withdraw if Russia is awarded infrastructure or mining projects or, most controversially, is allowed to establish a permanent military presence, Abdallah claims.
  • Moscow hasn't made that request explicit but has long wanted a base on the southern shore of the Mediterranean and is trying to prey on Libya's "vulnerability," Abdallah claims.
  • Like the UAE, Abdallah says, Russia has lost confidence in Haftar but continues to view him as a "bargaining chip."

Abdallah takes a very different tone when it comes to Turkey.

  • Ankara has a "legitimate military presence that’s helping us as a country," he says.
  • Between the lines: The UN and Libya's own foreign minister have called on all foreign fighters to leave Libya. Abdallah says the militias Turkey brought into the country should leave, but Turkey's troops are a special case.

There is one country that should intervene more strongly in Libya, Abdallah says: the U.S.

Driving the news: The Biden administration last week dispatched acting Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood to Tripoli alongside Richard Norland, President Biden's special envoy to Libya, in a show of support for the unity government.

Dbeibah (right) shakes hands with Norland while Hood (C) looks on. Photo: AFP via Getty
  • The transitional government wants the Biden administration to pressure the UAE and others to stop meddling in Libya while helping Libya develop its institutions and prepare for the elections.
  • Abdallah notes that many senior officials in the Biden administration witnessed Libya's collapse while serving in Barack Obama's administration. Some may see an opportunity to “make a wrong a right," he says.

What to watch: Abdallah concedes that there are major constitutional and security gaps to be filled before an election can be held, and he even acknowledges that it might become impossible to hold a vote in December, as planned.

  • But he contends that active U.S. involvement could make the difference.
  • 'The U.S. has a chance to turn a very bleak story into a very positive story, and I think the U.S. could use a few success stories in the region right now.”
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