Libya: Turning a New Page?
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

After months of stalemate, a cease-fire in Libya was announced on 21st August in parallel statements by the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representative (HOR) based in Tobruk. General Haftar however, issued a dismissive statement. The cease-fire represented stepping back by the principals backing the two sides in the interminable civil war. Egypt had threatened to intervene in case Turkish backed GNA forces advanced on Sirte. The lull in fighting on the front-line was followed by demonstrations first in Tripoli, and then in the eastern region. This led to the announcement of resignation by Thinni, head of the Government-backed by the House of Representatives. Now Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has stated that he would step down by the end of October. The protests show that people are war-weary. The situation has become worse with the spread of COVID. General Haftar in the meantime has announced the lifting of the oil blockade by his forces, provided there is a fair and equitable distribution of resources. Could this be the beginning of a new dawn?

The people on both sides were protesting against shortages of essential commodities, and worsening security situation. The demonstrations in Tripoli on 23rd August were met with firing by the police. The government action was criticized by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). In a statement issued the next day, the UNSMIL called for ‘an immediate and thorough investigation into the excessive use of force by the pro-GNA security personnel in Tripoli yesterday, which resulted in the injury of a number of protesters.’1 The Sarraj government announced the sacking of the Interior Minister, who was however reinstated shortly thereafter.

A fortnight later, protests erupted in Benghazi. By mid- September, the protests had spread to al-Bayda, in Sabha in the South, and even in al-Marj where General Haftar is based. The protestors set fire to a government building in Benghazi.2 The demonstrators were protesting worsening living conditions, lengthy power cuts, and severe banking crises.3 UNSMIL issued a statement on events in Al Marj expressing ‘grave concern regarding reports that one civilian was killed, three were injured and a number of other demonstrators were arrested on 12th September following reported excessive use of force by eastern authorities.’

While the Libyan people on both sides of the divide have suffered deteriorating living conditions, and a serious health crisis with the spread of COVID, the arms build-up has continued in violation of the UN arms embargo. The acting representative of the UN Secretary-General in Libya, Stephanie Williams in a briefing to the Security Council in early September stated that Libya is at a “decisive turning point” with the infusion of weapons and spread of coronavirus. She mentioned ‘reports of large scale presence of foreign mercenaries’. She said that since July 10, 70 flights and three cargo vessels had arrived in eastern Libya to resupply the forces of Gen Haftar while, western Libya, the seat of the GNA, received 30 flights of arms and equipment and nine shipments by sea.4

Both the contending sides as well as their backers have realized that a decisive military outcome is not possible. Turkey has over-extended itself by picking up simultaneous quarrels over drilling for oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean, and militarily intervening in distant Libya though this was at the request of the GNA government. There is a link between Turkish positions in these two different theaters. The agreement over a maritime corridor stretching from Turkish shores to Libya requires a friendly regime in Tripoli to survive. The House of Representative or General Haftar backed by Egypt and UAE are unlikely to accept it. The corridor delineated by Turkey and Libya will interrupt the gas pipeline for the evacuation of gas from Egyptian and Israeli offshore fields. Both Egypt and UAE have a bitter dispute with Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkish quarrel over drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean has also pitted it against Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel. This initially brought French naval forces in support of Greek and Cypriot positions. This was followed by the visit of an American ship to the region. The EU threatened Turkey with sanctions unless it pulls back from drilling activity. The US Secretary of State Pompeo also brought to bear the weight of American diplomacy to bring the NATO allies to the negotiating table. The deadline for the EU’s action was the EU Council meeting scheduled for 24th September. Before this date, Turkey finally decided to recall its drilling ship. As a face-saving measure, the Erdogan government announced that this brings to completion of the present phase of drilling activities. Turkey is also facing a severe economic situation. Recently, Moody’s has downgraded its sovereign rating to B2 level.

In Libya, Turkey is pitted not only against Arab countries led by Egypt and UAE, but also Russia which is backing General Haftar. The ceasefire was announced following direct contacts between Turkey and Russia. The EU also has a naval operation Irene to check the supply of arms to Libya in breach of UN sanctions. While this may not have been a decisive factor, the possibility of Egyptian intervention and clash with Russia which is backing General Haftar, must have weighed with Turkey in deciding to back down. It has however managed to create a major headache for the EU by bringing battle-hardened Syrian mercenaries to Libya. The growth of ISIS on its door-steps is a major EU concern.

There are ongoing attempts to start a political dialogue between the Libyan parties. A meeting under the auspices of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue took place in Switzerland between the Libyan parties in the presence of UNSMIL between 7 to 9 September. A ‘consensual view’ has emerged that ‘Presidential and Parliamentary elections must be held at the end of the 18-months period on the basis of an agreed constitutional framework’.5 This is to be preceded by ‘the establishment of a representative unity government’6 to create ‘the necessary conditions for the holding of national elections’7. Parliamentary approval of an Amnesty law and facilitating the return of displaced persons would also be one of the building blocks. This is a mammoth task. But at least outlines of a future settlement have begun to emerge.

The UN Security Council has adopted the resolution 2542 (2020) on 15th September by a vote of 13 in favor to none against with 2 abstentions (China and Russian Federation) to extend the mandate of the UN Support Mission in Libya for 12 months.8 The resolution calls for the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement and the government of the National Accord to stabilize post-conflict zones. The UNMSIL is also charged with helping to achieve a ceasefire. It also mentions support to Libya in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It calls for the appointment of a Special Envoy to undertake mediation between the parties. Russia, which abstained from the vote stressed in its statement that any future ceasefire monitoring arrangement must be carried out with the agreement of the Government. This aspect was also reiterated by China, which said that such an arrangement must be agreed upon by all the parties concerned.

The oil embargo imposed by General Haftar has badly affected Libyan government revenues. According to Mr. Sanallah, Chairman, National Oil Company, this has resulted in a loss of US$ 6.5 billion in lost revenue as well as permanent damage to the infrastructure. The Libyan National Army (LNA) under General Haftar controls 4 out of 5 export terminals. The export of crude oil also needs the approval of the National Oil Company (NOC), which is based in Tripoli. There has been a statement from the GNA declaring agreement with Haftar’s agreement. Mr. Sanallah also said that this would allow NOC to lift force majeure on oil exports. The production has come down to 100,000 barrels per day. This is less than 1/10th of its OPEC quota. Though the resumption of crude export is welcome, it will be some time before the demand for oil, and prices, recover.

The political compact has to accommodate the aspirations of the people of all the regions. The Libyan people need a chance to rebuild their future. It is interesting that despite the fighting, no region or group has asked to secede. Fair and equitable distribution of oil revenues is critical to maintaining peace. The country could explore greater devolution of powers to different regions within a Federal system. One of the unfortunate legacies of the Ghaddafi era was a highly centralized State. This needs to change. The process of return to stability should begin with disarmament and demobilization of militias.

India has a long association with that country. Indian companies have played a major role in developing infrastructure in Libya. During my term as Ambassador for more than for years, I have seen roads, hospitals, power plants, and even airports built by Indian companies. Indian doctors were remembered fondly in Libya. The Indian oil experts were regarded very highly. The Libyans are warm-hearted people. Contrary to media stereotypes, they are good professionals. It is very creditable that despite the war and exodus of foreign experts, Libyans had managed to boost production to 1.2 million barrels per day by November last. The immediate priority is to fight against COVID. India could help by providing medicines and medical equipment.

  1. Aljazeera, UN urges probe after ‘excessive use of force’ at Tripoli protest, 24 August 2020
  2. Aljazeera, Protesters set government building on fire in eastern Libya., 13 September 2020
  3. Ibid
  4. Financial Times, Libya at a ‘turning point’, warns UN official, September 3, 2020
  5. UNSMIL Statement on the HD-OrganisedLibyan Consultative meeting of 7-9 September 2020 in Montreux, Switzerland, 10 September 2020
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8., Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Mission in Libya for 12 Months, Adopting Resolution 2542 (2020), 15 September 2020

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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