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All is not quiet on the Libyan front

By Osama Al Sharif

Libya has not been much in the news lately but that does not mean that all is good. Five years after western powers intervened militarily in that country in the height of the so-called Arab Spring resulting in the collapse of the regime of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi and his subsequent murder by rebels, Libya continues to be embroiled in political divisions, internecine infighting, financial crisis and institutional failure. Successive governments and parliaments have failed to secure national consensus and prevent secessionist trends, especially between the western and eastern parts of the country.
Today the likelihood of a civil war erupting between loyalists of the Tripoli-based, UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and supporters of the Libyan National Army chief Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi is stronger than ever. Many observers believe that clash is imminent, especially since Haftar’s forces took over the oil-rich region last month, cutting off vital revenues to the Sarraj government and the ailing Presidency Council.
Meanwhile, the “legitimate” parliament in Tobruk, whose term has ended, continues to deny Sarraj’s cabinet its approval and insists on altering the political agreement reached in Skhirat in Morocco last December. That UN-mediated agreement brought about the Presidency Council and the GNA, both of which lack parliament’s support.
To make things worse the Tobruk legislature has created its own parallel government, under Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni who refuses to recognize Sarraj and the Tripoli administration. Sarraj has other problems following last month’s seizure by militia groups of government buildings thus denying access to national accord ministers. The militias appear to be backing the unrecognized, Islamist-supported government of Khalifa Ghweil.
The real victims in this chaotic situation are the Libyan people. The economic situation has become so dire that western powers, meeting in London last month, appointed a “supreme expenditure council” to take charge of the Libyan economy and back Sarraj who is at odds with the head of Libya’s Central Bank governor. Libya’s oil exports have fallen drastically since 2014 and the World Bank warned in October that the country was on the brink of collapse.
The West’s main interests in Libya are twofold: It wants to have access to the country’s huge oil and natural gas reserves while hoping that a strong government will check the daily flow of illegal migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan countries, who use the country’s long coasts as a departure point to European shores.
But following the West’s military intervention, there has been little interest to address the deep-seated suspicions among various tribes and the need to incorporate as many local players as possible in any political agreement. Critics of the Skhirat accord say it was forced by UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler who had failed to take into account political sensitivities especially between tribes in the West and those in the eastern parts of the country.
Haftar’s future role in the Libyan Army has become a bone of contention as well. This is why many believe that the Skhirat agreement needs to be renegotiated in light of the current political deadlock. Kobler is refusing to budge.
Adding to Libya’s piling problems is the fact that Arab countries have failed to appreciate the larger picture and opted to choose sides in the current standoff. While western countries object to Haftar’s current role and future ambitions, a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan and some Gulf states, have supported him. Not surprisingly, the Arab League has no role in ending the crisis and has not proposed an alternative road map. Even Libya’s immediate neighbors have failed to take measures to bring stability to the beleaguered country.
One positive sign coming from Libya is that the threat of Daesh, whose fighters, mostly locals, were expanding their control at the beginning of this year, appears to have been thwarted. Forces loyal to Sarraj assisted by US airstrikes were able to clear the terrorist group from most of Sirte recently. But a possible military confrontation between government backed forces and Haftar’s Libyan army over the oil crescent could create a vacuum that militants could use to regroup.
Libya’s failure as a country is a real possibility and its breaking up remains a looming threat. Such scenarios will undoubtedly destabilize North Africa, threaten Egypt’s western borders and increase the flow of migrants to Europe. Understanding Libya’s inter-tribal tensions is key to providing a flexible political framework that the Libyans can subscribe to and support. Engaging all players, including the Islamists, is the only path forward, but by the end of the day it is the Libyan leaders who must find a common base to keep them together. Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
‘Courtesy Arab News’.



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