Libya’s Christmas Miracle: is this the turning point to a better future? by Omar Khan
On 24 December 2021, legislative elections that could change the fate of the nation are planned to be held in Libya after the “permanent ceasefire” agreement last October formally ended the civil war. Since the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been in a devastating state of violence and chaos perpetuated by a complex network of international alliances. The most recent Libyan conflict phase has been the civil war between the UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Libyan National Army (LNA). The latter’s failed attempt to take Tripoli in late 2020 brought both sides to the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Geneva. This January, the peace agreement was confirmed, a new interim government selected, and elections planned. However, given the North African state’s record, whether this agreement will hold is questionable at best, and December elections seem an eon away. Will the peace last long enough for the elections to go ahead? What could threaten the agreement? And even if the elections happen, will Libya see a better future?
Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah has been symbolically chosen by the Dialogue Forum to become Libya’s interim prime minister and lead a national government that would take over from both the Tripoli and Tobruk administrations, unifying the nation for the first time since 2014. On 8 March, parliament will hold a special session to confirm the new cabinet, thereby giving their blessing for the interim government and the December elections. At first glance, it looks like Libya is finally about to see some peace, but on closer observation, it becomes clear that this agreement and, therefore, the nation’s future is, in fact, very fragile. Fragile and vulnerable, especially to foreign intervention.
Turkey, Qatar and Italy are the primary military supporters of the GNA, while the LNA, led by the notorious Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is backed by Egypt, Russia, France, Syria and the UAE. Sudanese, Chadian, Malian and Syrian militias are also heavily involved in the conflict on both sides. Other Western nations nominally stand with the UN in supporting the GNA, but several companies, including from Britain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have been implicated in illegally funding the LNA. Numerous armed groups operate across Libya, constantly switching allegiance to different powers, while the violent presence of al-Qaeda and other extremist terrorist groups adds to the mess.
So will these foreign powers allow the peace to hold? Unfortunately for Libyan civilians, many of these nations profit politically from the instability. Starting with Russia, the Wagner Group is a company of mercenaries that acts as the Kremlin’s proxy – Moscow stands to take advantage of the vast oil and gas resources and deep-water ports; fuelling divisions between various groups justifies their presence and therefore benefits them like a European colonialist. On the other side, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman, expansionist foreign policy stretching from the Caucuses to Cyprus saw it back the Muslim Brotherhood-linked GNA militarily – its 2019 intervention stopped Haftar and the Wagner Group dead in their tracks and prevented the fall of Tripoli. Proof of the influence of these nations is the fact that a short phone call in January 2020 between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin instantaneously caused a ceasefire. For the Arab world, Egypt and the UAE (and more subtly, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia) provide the bulk of the LNA arsenal with a primary motivation to destroy political Islamism (an ideology manifested in the Muslim Brotherhood) and a secondary aim of securing maritime trade posts and geopolitical strategic positions. Abu Dhabi, as well as being linked to funding the Wagner Group, has also funded armed African militias and terrorist groups. Their involvement is directly connected to Doha’s who, despite the Gulf embargo being lifted in January, is still refusing to fall in line with the rest of the Quartet.
Europe has always been divided on Libya, with Italy and France actively supporting opposing sides. While Berlin and Brussels prefer to stay away, Italy’s Mediterranean concerns and France’s controversial involvement from the start, after it was exposed that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election campaign was illegally funded by Gaddafi personally, have caused deep divisions in the EU. However, unlike the others, Western European states do not stand to gain much from continued violence. Naturally, they would like to secure oil and gas reserves and see the terrorist threat removed, but overall they will be more inclined to back the peace agreement. A key point to note is that an integral part of the peace agreement is the full withdrawal of all foreign powers from Libya, which is its Achilles’ heel. While Libyans, through the 5+5 Commission, are able to understand their differences and arrive at a consensus, foreign powers have very little reason to withdraw. Abu Dhabi, pre-empting anger at their continued presence in Libya, have arranged for Darfuri militias from Sudan to act as their proxy on Haftar’s side. This way, they can withdraw without actually leaving.
Joe Biden, the man who stood beside Barack Obama as he made one of the worst decisions of his presidency in invading Libya, could now amend for the US’s past errors and guide the nation out of this geopolitical maze. Considering President Biden was present when his former superior began the bombing of Yemen and has since withdrawn all American military involvement there, his attention could soon turn to Libya. Rather than reticently focus on the terrorist threat and, in reality, change nothing, the White House is presented with a unique opportunity to throw its diplomatic weight around and secure Libyan peace. One option would be to arrange for a UN group of peacekeepers to oversee the formal withdrawal of most nations while allowing some states such as Turkey and Egypt to keep some forces in Libya officially acting as “advisers” to hold the peace. Ankara and Cairo are the best placed to do this and will respectively represent the informal coalitions of foreign powers on either side. Ensuring the fair, Libyan-led distribution of oil and gas supplies while also exploiting the solar power potential of the nation could lead the way to its rebuilding and truly prove that “America is back”. China, whose pre-2011 trade with Libya was worth tens of billions of dollars, would be very enthusiastic about rebuilding Libya’s infrastructure (as it is doing in many other African countries) and slowly adding it to its infamous Belt and Road Initiative. If foreign powers cannot be kept out of Libya, let their geopolitical rivalries at least lead to something good. And let’s hope that this year’s Christmas season will see joyous smiles across the nation.