Libya divided: How can you talk peace when each side is resolved to win?

A UN mediation effort has brought Libya's two rival governments to the negotiating table, but both continue to gird for military victory over the other. The chaos benefits the Islamic State and others.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni speaks to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their meeting in Moscow, April 15, 2015.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Five minutes before Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni addresses the press in the eastern city of Al-Bayda, staffers rush to raise the tricolor national flag behind the podium, sticking it to a makeshift base with transparent masking tape.

It’s one of the many indignities that come with trying to run a country from a small city 750 miles from the capital. If only Libya, like its moon-centered banner, had such an easy and quick fix.

Since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has struggled to establish the rule of law and a state monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Its political transition is hobbled by weak institutions and rapacious armed factions.

Today the oil-rich nation is split between two governments, each responding to rival legislative bodies, and exerting only partial control over its military allies.

Mr. Thinni, in essence, is the leader of one of those governments vying for nationwide recognition in a country increasingly divided along partisan, regional and tribal lines. For him, a military man, the easiest solution to the dispute is victory over his rivals in Libya’s capital. 

“The key to solving the crisis in Libya is entering Tripoli,” Thinni says, nursing a late night coffee in a discreet rural residence. “The collapse of the capital means the collapse of the state. Restoring [Tripoli] to state control will prove its power and open its horizons.”

Leaders on both sides say dialogue is the best way to settle their disputes and stop the country from fracturing beyond repair. However that commitment to dialogue does not appear to be matched with a similar commitment to compromise when it comes to sharing real power. UN mediators have proposed setting up a unity government, but both sides have dug in their heels over who gets what.

Last August, Thinni was tasked by the elected House of Representatives (HoR) to form a crisis government, shortly after militias overran Tripoli. The capital is now controlled by an Islamist-leaning administration known as the General National Congress (GNC).

“When the military situation changes, when the army enters Tripoli, the GNC will have no role. The ceiling of its demands will drop. They will accept anything,” he says, clearly banking on a shift in power dynamics in the near future.

A common refrain among officials in Tripoli also betrays their stubbornness: “We have one hand open to dialogue, the other on the gun,” commanders and politicians often say.

Inching towards a solution

Somehow, the last round of talks held in Morocco mid-April ended on an upbeat note. UN special envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon said the warring factions had agreed on 80 percent of a draft proposal to form a national unity government that would serve for a maximum of two years, pending the drafting and approval of a new constitution.

Mr. Leon says he would like a political deal to take effect before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, expected to start June 18. That may be an overly ambitious deadline given the remaining areas of disagreement, but he is working on a new proposal while urging all sides to compromise on key issues.

"The new draft should address the concerns of the parties with the need to make them understand that they will never have a draft with 100 percent of their wishes, 100 percent of their ideas reflected," Leon said in Brussels last week.

Vying legislatures

A major point of contention is the future role of the competing assemblies.

Based in the eastern coastal city of Tobruk, the HoR is an assembly dominated by liberals and federalists. It stakes it claims to legitimacy on the fact that it was elected in June 2014, a vote that was marred by violence and disappointingly low voter participation compared with the country’s first democratic election in 2012.

Libya’s Supreme Courts ruled that the 2014 elections were unconstitutional, leaving the country in legal limbo. The HoR rejected the ruling as one made “at gunpoint.” The GNC, revived with the support of militias from Misurata, cites the court's decision as the basis for its legitimacy, since it was established by the previous election. 

The solution, says GNC spokesman Omar Hmeidan, is a bicameral system of government, with the GNC in pole position. “We would become the superior council holding legitimate authority and the parliament (HoR) will remain as it is,” he says.

While the HoR tentatively accepted the UN’s unity-government proposal, influential GNC members and their Libya Dawn military allies flatly rejected it.

What role for Islamists and Haftar?

One proposition on the table at the UN talks is the creation of a presidential council. Thinni insists that the council must exclude “Islamist personalities,” a reference to individuals linked to Ansar al-Sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Its counterpart in the east is Operation Dignity, a tribal and military coalition led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. He defected from the Qaddafi regime in the 1980s and lived in the US, before returning in 2011 to join the revolution.  

The future role of Gen. Haftar, appointed by the HoR as army chief in March, remains a bone of contention. Libya Dawn insists that Haftar must play no role in any future government or military.

“There are only three possible futures for Haftar: the grave, prison or exile,” is a common refrain among Islamists who accuse the general of seeking to partition the country with the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Hmeidan and other GNC officials involved in the UN-mediated talks are a little more diplomatic, describing him as a major “obstacle.”

In the east, many look up to Haftar as the strongman who can put Libya back together again. “People lie when they say they are ok under Libya Dawn. We back Haftar and the army,” says Lubna, one of his female admirers, who compares him to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. “If he takes off his military uniform like Sisi, we have no problem with him holding political office.”

Tenuous commitment to dialogue

The rhetoric of officials across Libya suggests their commitment to finding a political-over-a-military solution is tenuous at best. Hmeidan admits that the dialogue in and of itself has proved a tough sell at times, with hardline Islamists allied to Libya Dawn particularly skeptical of its benefits.

“There are many members of the Dawn forces who are not in favor of peace talks. We are not launching military offensives at the moment, we are only taking defensive measures until a political solution is found,” he says.

Two developments last month aptly illustrate the scope of the challenge and the fissional forces at play. Forty-five brigades from the city of Misurata, the linchpin of the Libya Dawn coalition, issued a statement announcing their support for national reconciliation and dialogue, while also criticizing the UN draft as “unfair.” The grand mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ghariani, condemned the show of unity, declaring it un-Islamic for anyone to stop fighting in the absence of direct orders from the GNC or top military commanders.

“Sometimes bloodshed is needed to prevent bloodshed,” he said in an address broadcast by Al-Tanasah TV. Mr. Ghariani is recognized as the highest religious authority in the west but not in the east.

With neither camp able to secure outright victory militarily, jihadist groups –including the Islamic State have spread in Libya. Both Operation Dignity and Libya Dawn clash sporadically with IS militants but are mostly focused on fighting each other and peddling propaganda that ranges from the disingenuous to the outright dangerous.

‘Zero Hour’

In Tripoli and al-Bayda, Libyans are paranoid and polarized, and cafes abuzz with talk of “Zero Hour” – the prospect of a final and decisive battle for the capital, as in 2011. The danger of such talk became evident in April when clashes between two groups in a Tripoli suburb raised expectations that Haftar’s army was marching in and contributed to a small uprising in a central neighborhood.

Libya Dawn crushed the dissent. “We botched it,” lamented an official in Bayda.

It is clear that both camps are prepared to fight to the end if the talks fail, frantically seeking out weapons and ammunition to do so, even though the UN has imposed an arms embargo on the country.

“If we cannot get weapons the legitimate way, we will form an alliance even with the devil to obtain weapons to defend our people,” said Thinni during an April visit to Moscow.

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