What’s Next for Libya’s Protracted Conflict?
We asked a group of Libya experts for their views on recent events and what we might expect in the days and weeks to come.
This week in Cairo, the United Nations will host the final round of scheduled talks between representatives from Libya’s two opposing governments: the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Tobruk and the High Council of State (HCS) based in the western city of Tripoli. The talks which began in April are intended to yield a “solid constitutional basis and electoral framework” for ending the country’s longstanding political stalemate.
Against the backdrop of the U.N.-led talks in Cairo, the conflict in Libya continues to simmer. In May, forces loyal to Fathi Bashagha, the prime minister appointed by the HoR, tried unsuccessfully to take over Tripoli. The assault on Tripoli came after weeks of escalatory rhetoric by both Bashaga and his complement in the west, Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, who was appointed prime minister through a U.N.-led process last year. The Bashagha-Dbeibah showdown temporarily resulted in a partial blockade of Libya’s oil facilities, the primary source of revenue for the country.
As Bashagha and Dbeibah have made competing claims of legitimacy, other Libyan leaders have sought to solidify their constituencies and eliminate or marginalize competitors. Last month, Dbeibah fired his chief of military intelligence, Osama al-Juwaili, amid claims that al-Juwaili had mobilized his military forces without Dbeibah’s consent, presenting a threat to “a number of citizens from the capital.” It’s unclear if al-Juwaili was acting in concert with Bashagha as some have claimed but there is speculation that the split between Juwaili and Dbeibah could force a realignment of powerful militias, potentially bolstering the influence of warlord Khalifa Haftar.
The complexity of Libya’s internal political dynamics mirrors the convoluted patchwork of international actors’ engagement in the country’s conflict. Countries that see an opportunity to advance narrow self-interests have aligned and realigned themselves as the balance of power inside Libya shifts and as the economic impact of the war in Ukraine reverberates across both the Maghreb and Europe. Algeria has traditionally been a marginal player in the Libyan conflict but that could be changing as the country seeks to strengthen its relationship with several key players. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune visited Ankara last month and met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announcing plans to strengthen military cooperation. Similarly, Italy and Algeria have inked new deals to increase natural gas exports to Europe. Russia has reportedly pulled some of its mercenary Wagner forces out of Libya and redeployed them to Ukraine.
USIP’s Tom Hill discussed what’s been happening in country lately with several noted experts on Libya: Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow at Chatham House; Emadeddin Badi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council; Jalel Harchaoui, formerly a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime; and, Karim Mezran, a resident senior fellow and director of the North Africa Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
Tim, from your perspective, was anything accomplished during the latest round of negotiations in Cairo between the House of Representatives Committee and the Higher Council of State?
Tim Eaton: Nothing meaningful. The negotiations in Cairo resulted in agreement on over 137 articles of the draft constitution. Yet, this still leaves around a third of the draft’s 195 articles without agreement, including the most divisive ones. The meetings failed to agree to a constitutional basis for elections, which was not a realistic goal anyway. Further reports out of Cairo indicate that agreement was reached over the parameters of the formation of yet another interim government. This is an indication that the two houses continue to prioritize their own survival — by selecting the new government — over the development of an agreed electoral framework that might lead to their replacement. These developments underscore the conclusion that meaningful progress is not possible under the HoR’s and HSC’s respective leadership. Indeed, many feel the purpose of the Cairo talks was simply to run down the clock on the tenure of the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, which ends in June without an extension.
Tom Hill: Tim, you raise an interesting point about Williams’ impending (and rumored) departure. I think it’s an open question if her replacement will have the trust of the parties and the leverage to continue to make progress. One name that I’ve heard mentioned as her replacement is the former Tunisian minister of foreign affairs, Khemaies Jhinaoui. Jhinaoui was the Tunisia ambassador to Moscow (2008-2011) so presumably he has good relations with the Russians; he is also known to the Americans and the region. He lacks the backing of a major state engaged in resolving the conflict but perhaps that gives him credibility as an independent and neutral arbiter. I think a lot rides on who succeeds Williams.
Emad, you follow closely the internal squabbles of Libyan actors. How will the ouster of Osama al-Juwaili, director of military intelligence, change the balance of power between militias and power-brokers?
Emad Badi: The ouster of Osama al-Juwaili was a reactive measure that formalized his alignment against Dbeibah. The move came on the heels of Bashagha’s surprise attempt to ensconce himself in Tripoli, and al-Juwaili was one of several actors that enabled Bashagha to arrive in Tripoli via the Nafussa Mountains. The military balance west of Tripoli and beyond Janzur now favors the anti-Dbeibah coalition, with Juwaili and several influential local leaders (for example, Ali Busribas and Muammar al-Dhawi) and allies all effectively aligned against the HSC prime minister.
This is primarily why Dbeibah has sought to prop up figures that would support him — like Mohamed Bahroun in Zawiya — in order to pre-empt any military move from this coalition on Tripoli’s western flank. It is also expected that Dbeibah will make more overtures to powerful militia leaders like Mahmoud Bin Rajab and the former supreme commander of the armed forces in western Libya, Salaheddin Namroush, in Zawiya as a buffer against the coalition that has crystallized against him. However, the twilight of Bashagha’s political relevance also makes an anti-Dbeibah military offensive spearheaded by Juwaili and his allies somewhat moot at this stage. The main deciding factor in Juwaili’s maneuvering moving forward (and whether he will reconcile with Dbeibah at all) will be whether Turkey will get involved in mending ties between the two figures.
Karim, I know you think a lot about how the Europeans see the conflict in Libya. It appears that former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (and the former Libyan Ambassador to France Mansour Seif al-Nasr) are leading a push for a future federal Libyan state with increased autonomy for the southern Fezzan region. Does this effort have real momentum or was the meeting in France last week just a meeting?
Karim Mezran: France, despite all its declarations in support of multilateralism and a common European policy, has never given up its search for a solution that would enhance its position in Libya. In 2011 under then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s leadership, France rushed to support the rebels and went to the farthest extent to influence the new political establishment. In 2014, it threw its weight behind Khalifa Haftar — a former general in the Libyan army under dictator Muammar Qaddafi — in his bid to acquire absolute power in Libya. Having failed in all these attempts, instead of giving up and playing on the ground in a way coherent with their public declarations, France is now trying to split Libya so that it can influence and control at least a part of it, the southern Fezzan region. The French are exploiting the dramatic ethnic divisions in the southern province in order to emerge as the arbiter of these differences and establish their dominance of this region, which has a strategic relevance for France’s geopolitical ambitions as well as important mineral resources.
Jalel, what do you think about the meeting in France? Do you share Karim’s analysis?
Jalel Harchaoui: The reports are misleading. There is an inaccurate impression that Ali Zeidan, Mansour Seif al-Nasr and several other Fezzan natives were in Paris to discuss a federal system for Libya in the formal sense. This wasn’t the case; I saw no evidence of such an official meeting taking place here in Paris.
In general, there arguably has been no solid, precise, tangible attempt to construct a federal solution for Libya. For instance, there currently are lots of talk about a potential revival of the 1951 constitution, which was federal in nature. But that document offers no clear way of distributing wealth across a federal Libya.
As for Ali Zeidan and Mansour Seif al-Nasr, these two Fezzan figures — who, by the way, don’t get along — have been working on a mechanism that prevents non-Fezzan actors in Tripoli and in Benghazi from picking illegitimate representatives for the southern region. The initiative consists in devising a way in which the most influential families of the Fezzan can agree on who will speak on the province’s behalf in various national bodies. One can note, for example, that Salem al-Zedma, the deputy prime minister in charge of the Fezzan within the new Government of National Stability, hails from Harawa, a town situated near Sirte — completely outside the Fezzan.
Tim, I see you want to jump in here. What are your thoughts on the meeting in France?
Tim Eaton: When the U.N. Support Mission in Libya has been weak or without leadership, France has in the past sought to put forward its own initiatives. But it is not clear what degree of support Paris has provided to the Zeidan-Seif al Nasr organized meeting. The meeting itself seems to be mostly a forum for debate over who should represent whom in the Fezzan. That the Fezzan organizes itself may not be a bad thing given the neglect it has suffered, although this meeting would appear to be more along the lines of traditional patronage relationships.
Yet it does hit upon a key issue. The need for decentralization is a point of consensus across the political spectrum, but there is disagreement over the extent of that decentralization and no clarity over the future shape of the state. One of the failings of the last 10 years is that these issues have not meaningfully been debated. They should be a cornerstone of any political agreement and therefore need to be addressed in the political process by determining which competencies and budgets remain at the central level and which are decentralized.
Karim, Turkey and Algeria seem to be expanding and deepening their cooperation, especially on security and defense matters. How might an enhanced Turkey-Algeria alliance impact the trajectory of the conflict in Libya?
Karim Mezran: Algeria has not played a role nearly as relevant as it should have given its proximity and strategic interests in Libya. In part, this can be explained by Algeria’s own internal challenges including the weak presidency of Abdelaziz Bouteflika who suffered a stroke in 2013 and a political elite that was divided on Algeria’s role vis-à-vis Libya. There are few if any doubts that a strong Algeria would have not allowed Egypt and the UAE to play such an important role through their proxy Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar’s forces would have never dared to attack Tripoli the way they did in April 2019 if Algeria was playing a larger role. Instead, it was Turkey’s intervention that prevented Haftar from taking over Tripoli. In the years since, Turkey has expanded its influence in large parts of western Libya and acquired the capacity to play a role in the East thereby minimizing any potential role for Algeria. The Turks have sent messages to the Algerians on their interest in creating a closer collaboration with them in Libya. The strengthening of this relationship could help protect the Turkey’s western flank if it were to be seriously involved in an armed confrontation with Haftar’s troops, but collaboration would be limited and certainly less influential to the overall conflict than an alliance between Turkey and Egypt, for example. Only Egypt could assure the means needed to expel the Russians, take back control of public safety, stabilize the country and rebuild infrastructure.
Jalel, do you see a Turkish-Algerian alliance in Libya forming? Or is Algeria playing a different game that goes beyond Libya’s borders?
Jalel Harchaoui: In late April, President Tebboune departed from his usual diplomatic prudence by explicitly declaring Algeria’s recognition of Dbeibah until elections are held in Libya. That rhetorical stance is meant to frustrate Morocco and France, two key backers of the recent alliance of Bashagha, Haftar and Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the HoR. Furthermore, the Algerians are of the opinion that any effort to help install Bashagha in Tripoli would destabilize all of western Libya.
Yet I wouldn’t speak of a tight coordination between Algiers and Ankara, though. Algeria currently provides some symbolic training to Dbeibah’s Defense Ministry. But if war breaks out, Algeria’s military support for the pro-Dbeibah camp may end up paling in comparison to that of Turkey, Britain, Italy and other foreign interferers. Algeria simply isn’t very active in Libya. One reason, among others, is that Tebboune and his powerful chief-of-staff, Saïd Chengriha, don’t see eye-to-eye.
That being said, if conflict erupts in Libya and the pro-Dbeibah war effort turns out to be massive (a distinct possibility), it may receive greater support from Algeria’s armed forces. In other words, Chengriha may seize such an opportunity to inaugurate Article 91 of the new Algerian constitution, which allows for military operations on foreign soil.