A Strongman named Hifter.
The latest attempt to bring Libya’s rival governments together has failed. Since December 2015, when the Libyan Political Agreement was signed to unify the rival House of Representatives and General National Congress behind a unity government known as the Government of National Accord, the three administrations have been vying for control of the country. As fighting between the governments’ supporting militias raged on over the past few months, diplomatic initiatives to renegotiate the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement to find a more workable solution intensified. Russia, Europe, Tunisia and Algeria all lobbied to bring Government of National Accord Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, the House of Representatives’ most powerful military supporter, together to discuss Libya’s future. On Feb. 13-14, Egypt coordinated meetings between the leaders — their first in over a year — with high hopes for a successful negotiation. The talks fell apart, however, when Hifter refused to meet with al-Sarraj.
Though the two leaders agreed to negotiate through a mediator and committed to continuing negotiations, they are unlikely to reach a consensus anytime soon. Hifter, the head of the Libyan National Army, has been steadily gaining power in Libya since he launched a military campaign against jihadist and Islamist groups in eastern Libya in 2014. (He then took on Libya Dawn, a collection of militias backing the General National Congress.) Today, his influence in the country is so great that even his opponents in Libya and in the international community recognize that his inclusion and participation will be essential to establishing a viable government. Being indispensable has given Hifter the upper hand in negotiations and enabled him stand firm in his demands, namely that he be installed at the top of Libya’s military command structure. Unlike his counterparts in the Government of National Accord, which has been steadily losing legitimacy, Hifter can afford to play the long game.
Over the past two years, the Libyan National Army has taken control of nearly all of eastern Libya, though it has yet to gain full power over Benghazi. The group also wrested control of four vital oil export terminals in the region from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, sending oil production in the country to 700,000 barrels per day, its highest level in years. Hifter’s military successes as leader of the Libyan National Army have yielded political gains as well. Leaders outside of Libya, including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have advocated his inclusion in a future unity government. In Libya, meanwhile, Hifter’s clout has won over former rivals, including members of al-Bunyan al-Marsous, a collection of militias from Misrata that ousted the Islamic State from Sirte. The group recently distanced itself from militias that are fighting against forces aligned with Hifter in central Libya. Members of Misrata’s municipal council also took steps to prevent the transfer of arms to groups clashing with the Libyan National Army in Benghazi. Even al-Sarraj — who snubbed Hifter for the defense minister post and instead appointed one of his rivals, Mahdi al-Barghathi — seems to be pulling for him to occupy a similar office in the future.
The Sticking Point
In fact, the crisis government that al-Sarraj had reportedly espoused going into the negotiations included Hifter as head of a supreme military council. But Hifter rejected the proposal, which would have subjugated the military to the authority of civilian executive posts, including a joint commander-in-chief structure run by members of the Government of National Accord’s Presidential Council and its legislative bodies. Even so, over the course of their indirect negotiations, Hifter and al-Sarraj managed to find common ground on a handful of issues, such as the establishment of a joint committee to propose changes to the Libyan Political Agreement.
This inkling of progress will not be enough to satisfy the Egyptian government, however. Hifter’s refusal to negotiate with al-Sarraj will strain his relationship with Cairo, which has steadfastly supported him throughout the contest for Libya’s governance. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had been pushing for a negotiated settlement between the House of Representatives and Government of National Accord in hopes of ending the civil war and containing the jihadist and Islamist movements that it has fostered. Egypt’s leaders are also worried that a prolonged conflict will give political Islamist groups in Libya — for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood — an opportunity to gain greater influence in the country. Hifter, a staunch opponent of Islamist and jihadist groups, is similarly leery of that possibility, though apparently not enough to bring him to the negotiating table. (Some moderate Islamist factions also support the Government of National Accord, and Hifter tends to lump all such groups into the same category.)
Holding Out for a Better Deal
For the Government of National Accord, the negotiations’ failure — and Hifter’s steadily increasing power — will further undermine its legitimacy in Tripoli. The government does not have widespread support in western Libya, nor does it have the military might behind it that the House of Representatives does. Although a smattering of militias, including the formidable al-Bunyan al-Marsous fighters, supports al-Sarraj and his administration, the relationship is weak, and the groups lack control of the capital. Instead, hard-line Islamist militias that support the General National Congress hold large swaths of territory in and around Tripoli. In fact, the head of the General National Congress, and not al-Sarraj, presided over the ceremony to re-open Tripoli’s newly reconstructed international airport Feb. 16. As the Government of National Accord struggles to muster support in the capital, al-Sarraj’s negotiating position will continue to weaken.
Hifter, on the other hand, is in an even stronger position. The conditions that he and al-Sarraj managed to agree on during their indirect talks give the House of Representatives control over much of the unification process going forward. For example, the body is responsible for implementing the changes to the Libyan Political Agreement that the joint committee proposes. But the House of Representatives hasn’t even fully implemented the original agreement, having never voted to approve the Government of National Accord. Since the deal was signed more than a year ago, Hifter and House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh Issa have consistently scuttled the unity government’s approval to hold out for a more favorable agreement. If the suggested amendments to the Libyan Political Agreement do not meet Hifter’s demands, he and Saleh will probably keep at it, delaying Libya’s unification for as long as it takes.