Libya’s New Peace Deal Has a Serious Flaw

Against all odds, the U.N. has helped Libya's factions sign a peace deal -- but a major one is refusing to sign.

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First, the good news: The United Nations has finally persuaded most of Libya’s warring factions to sign a peace agreement. Now the bad news: one of the main players has opted out, posing a major obstacle to the peace process.

This absence of a major participant in Libya’s grinding civil war — the Islamist-dominated government in Tripoli — is the immediate challenge facing the deal. Known as the General National Congress (GNC), this faction is the main opponent of the internationally recognized administration now headquartered in the cities of Tobruk and Bayda in the country’s east. (The Tobruk government has agreed to the deal.)

The GNC’s refusal to countenance the deal is important because it controls all of the government institutions in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. Though the agreement sets up a framework for a new government to run the country, the GNC’s unwillingness to sign means that a future administration won’t have access to the buildings and infrastructure belonging to the various ministries. The new government will also find itself confronting hostile militias and controversial political and religious figures such as Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Gheriani, Libya’s senior Sunni cleric, who has already begun denouncing the peace agreement as one-sided and irrelevant (noting that it will have little validity without the GNC’s participation). All this threatens to undermine the fragile peace deal.

All hope is not lost. Because the majority of Libya’s factions (including the powerful city of Misrata, an erstwhile GNC ally) have approved the deal, the GNC finds itself in an increasingly difficult position. Faced with the prospect of international isolation — possibly even extending to sanctions — it may find itself compelled to rejoin the peace process.

U.N. Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, who has been overseeing the talks, has made it clear during his statement at the signing ceremony that the door is still open for the GNC to sign. The head of Misrata’s representatives in the peace talks, Fathi Bashagha, said during a TV interview after signing the agreement that “the GNC will join the next round of talks.” After the signing ceremony the GNC declared it would be ready to rejoin the talks if its reservations were addressed. What it wants is fairly clear: more influence in the new government to be created by the agreement. The GNC is also demanding the sacking of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the armed forces of the Tobruk government — something to which Tobruk almost certainly won’t agree.

Unfortunately, the hardliners within the GNC camp have prevailed, and they have little reason to change their minds. Many powerful figures, militia leaders foremost among them, fear that a peace agreement will cost them too much. It may be time to look at trust-building measures to address their concerns and find incentives to bring them on board. Such measures could include an amnesty by the future government and the House of Representatives in Tobruk.

Although this initial deal is a crucial step towards achieving unity and restoring a measure of political stability, there are still plenty of sticking points on the path toward a final agreement. The most troublesome of these are Libya’s security arrangements during the period covered by the agreement, when the thorny issue of militias and the army must be addressed. Many militias that have fought on the GNC’s side in the civil war are demanding that their fighters play a key role in the security and military sectors, either by integrating them into the army and police forces or by creating a new security body that would work in parallel to the Libyan Army. However, the last four years have proved such a task to be impossible: militias have refused to disarm and to allow their men to enter the army as individuals, instead insisting that they join as units. The Libyan Army, currently commanded by General Haftar, is also unlikely to accept an arrangement that allows for other military forces to operate alongside it unless they were trained and disciplined first.

Yet the GNC may yet find a way to push its case. Even though Misrata has signed the initial agreement, it has joined the GNC in insisting that General Haftar be removed from the scene. All of these groups see Haftar as an existential threat after the military campaign he waged against Islamist armed groups in eastern city of Benghazi last summer. They also accuse him of attempting to grab power by force and fear a repeat of the scenario in neighboring Egypt. On the other hand, the Tobruk authorities accuse Misrata and the GNC of supporting extremist groups fighting against the army in Benghazi and Derna.

The commitment of those factions that have signed the deal, as well as the international community’s will to see the peace process through, will be put to test over the next few weeks. The factions must rally their supporters, especially the skeptics, to support the process. In addition, they should start a media campaign aimed at promoting the agreement’s advantages and countering the attacks by anti-peace figures such as the Grand Mufti.

The international community must be ready to protect the agreement against the hardliners who want to undermine it. This means using any means possible to deter spoilers from sabotaging the process — including, potentially, asset freezes and travel ban sanctions, as well as providing meaningful support to those factions that are willing to back the deal. In addition, the international community should rally regional support and prevent regional players from meddling. On July 15, Bernardino Leon will brief the U.N. Security Council on the progress made so far, at which point he will probably issue a set of recommendations on how to take the process to the next step. This will be a golden opportunity for the international community to demonstrate its commitment to the Libyan peace process.

In the photo, Libyans in Tripoli protest against U.N. Special Envoy Bernadino León and the peace talks he is overseeing.
Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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