Hold the champagne: Libya’s new peace deal may not stop its chaotic civil war

From left to right, Mohammed Chouaib, head of delegation from the UN-recognized government in the eastern city of Tobruk, Libya; Fayez Sarraj, Libyan Prime minister; and Dr. Saleh Almkhozom, second deputy chairman of the Libyan General National Congress,
From left to right, Mohammed Chouaib, head of delegation from the UN-recognized government in the eastern city of Tobruk, Libya; Fayez Sarraj, Libyan Prime minister; and Dr. Saleh Almkhozom, second deputy chairman of the Libyan General National Congress,
Image: AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar
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There were smiles all around when representatives of Libya’s two competing parliaments finally signed a comprehensive settlement to end the country’s civil war on Dec. 17. The agreement, led by the United Nations, came about after a year of intensive U.N.-facilitated negotiations full of wrangling and false starts.

But it would be premature to assume that peace in Libya is now a foregone conclusion. Foreign powers including Europe, the United States and the Arab world vastly underestimated the difficulty of the political transition after Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi was killed in 2011. The past four and a half years of post-Qaddafi rule have been, in essence, no rule at all. Instead the country has been torn apart by a system of competing, rival administrations, each with their own set of militias rampaging across the country. The tentative peace brokered by the Libyan Political Agreement could easily fall apart.

The agreement between representatives of Libya’s internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) and the Islamist-dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli creates a new system of institutions tasked with governing Libya during a year-long transitional phase. A nine-person Presidential Council will act as the interim executive body, staffed with a Prime Minister, two deputies, and a number of ministers empowered to draft laws. The House of Representatives will remain as Libya’s legislative body. An alternative State Council will also be created to ensure that a broad section of Libya’s political establishment is united on key administrative appointments, including but not limited to the Governor of the Central Bank of Libya and the head of the Anti-Corruption Authority. Before any nominations are confirmed for those positions, the House of Representatives will need to consult the State Council and arrive at a consensus.

That all sounds good in theory. Yet several lingering issues could ruin the entire transitional process:

Moving back to Tripoli: Libya’s new government will be located in the capital of Tripoli. The goal is the make Tripoli “a safe place for all Libyans, and activate the concerned state institutions, especially the police service, so as to carry out their tasks fully to maintain security and order as per the law,” according to the agreement.

Under normal circumstances, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that a country’s government would be located in the capital city. But Tripoli is anything but normal. Some of the very militia commanders that are opposed to the U.N. agreement have been camped in the area for years, including the Islamist GNC. Will the GNC—and the militias supporting that government—allow the new administration free and unhindered access into the city?

U.N. Special Representative to Libya Martin Kobler is optimistic that local truces or de-escalation agreements can be reached with militias in Tripoli to get the Government of National Accord seated in time. Yet when has everything in Libya gone according to plan over the past four years?

Poor representation in Morocco from both parliaments: The Associated Press reports that 88 lawmakers from the GNC and HoR were present at the signing ceremony in Morocco. If that number is correct, this means 70% of parliamentary representatives couldn’t be bothered to fly into Skhirat. This fact does not in itself indicate that the political deal is dead. But it does highlight the difficulties the new government will confront as it sets itself up in Tripoli. How will it function without vocal support of key constituencies?

What about that rival political agreement? Libya has rival peace initiatives as well as rival administrations. About two weeks before the Libyan Political Agreement was signed, a different set of lawmakers from the GNC and the HoR arrived at a separate compromise in Tunisia. That agreement established two committees made up of an equal number of members from both parliaments: one to nominate a consensus prime minister and another to work on a new constitution.

The Tunis compromise was scheduled to be put to a vote in both legislatures. If this plan remains on course, it could further discredit a document that many Libyan powerbrokers dismiss as a U.N. and foreign imposition. What happens if the arrangement in Tunisia actually receives more votes than the Libyan Peace Agreement? The U.N. could potentially be forced to reassess their hardline position and renegotiate the terms of the agreement again.

Now comes the hard part: Persuading Libyan politicians to sign a peace agreement was a daunting and thankless task until the very end. But signing a document is one thing. Implementing it is something else entirely.

The hardest provision in the LPA is the long list of security measures that both parties are required to meet. This includes requirements for a nationwide ceasefire and for militias to withdraw from populated areas and infrastructure. Militias must hand over their weapons systems to Libyan national security forces. The agreement also creates an initiative to integrate some of the militias into the country’s national security forces. To make things more complicated, militias outside of the state’s official security institutions are mandated to begin redeploying from their positions inside Libya’s cities a short 30 days after the ceasefire takes effect.

For a state that remains in chaos, these demands will be enormously difficult to implement. That’s particularly true given that there is no viable international peacekeeping force to ensure the militias are actually following through on their security commitments. Libyan authorities simply don’t have the capacity to monitor and enforce a ceasefire and disengagement plan.

Without some kind of U.N. mandate or European-led peacekeeping mission, there is nothing stopping the armed factions that oppose the peace agreement from continuing to press their advantage on the battlefield. And if the fighting continues, there is no guarantee that the historic signing in Morocco will work.