Armed clashes in Tripoli on 28th August sparked fears in Libya and internationally that the country was set to slide back into outright war in scenes reminiscent of the battle for Tripoli in 2019 (Megerisi 2022). Yet Libya has managed to step back from the brink of civil war, in no small part due to mediation efforts by Qatar. After a frenzied period of diplomacy and the visits of key players in the Libyan political scene to Doha, a new Qatari proposal is on the table charting a pathway towards stability (Qarjouli 2022). The proposed plan holds the potential to seriously revive the political process in Libya. Nevertheless, for a truly lasting and durable peace, there is a need to take stock of previous failed mediation efforts and to create a truly inclusive peacemaking structure that engages all Libyans.
Background to the Current Crisis
Libya faces a complex political crisis that is the product of over a decade of revolution, civil war, instability, and faltering political processes. Following four decades of rule under the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya in 2011 experienced a major political transformation following the February revolution (Lacher 2011 ). Following weeks of protests, the revolution swiftly morphed into a violent uprising with revolutionary armed groups aiming to overthrow the Qaddafi regime. After unsuccessful attempts by the international community to negotiate with the regime (Mancini & Vericat 2016), the Security Council passed Resolution 1973, referring for the first time to the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (Morris 2013:1271). The imposition of a no-fly zone and NATO support that followed constituted a "post-interventionary" mission that tilted the balance of power between the two sides and enabled military victory by the revolutionary forces within a matter of months (Pratiwi 2017).
During the transitional period in 2011-2014, Libya struggled with numerous challenges including the legitimacy of the transitional authorities in the eyes of myriad armed factions (Aslan 2020), the widespread availability of weapons (Chivvis & Martini 2014), interference by external parties, and the lack of a common vision amongst all Libyans on the future direction of a unified state (Sawani & Pack 2013). In 2014, Libya returned to open conflict in a civil war marked by the split of the country into rival political and military groupings broadly marked by an East/West division. From 2014, the use of military force became the default strategy of the conflict parties in their attempts to resolve the question of who controls the Libyan state.
Following a political and military stalemate from 2017 until early 2019, indicators of an inclination of the parties towards compromise and potentially a peace agreement emerged, in particular in the National Conference that was due to be held in the Libyan city of Ghadames in April 2019 (Costantini & Hanau Santini 2022). However, in the days leading upto the national dialogue, armed forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar enacted a siege of Tripoli (HRW 2019). The Battle of Tripoli that transpired shattered the fragile political stalemate and was accompanied by interventions from regional powers who came to the support of the two parties to the conflict (Harchaoui & Lazib 2019). Whilst the internationally-recognized government claimed victory after a year of fighting, it came at a high cost for all sides and the Libyan people with hundreds of people killed, and 370,000 people displaced from Tripoli and its suburbs (Megerisi 2020).
The aftermath of these events undermined prospects for stability in Libya, which continued to be divided between an assemblage of various executive and legislative institutions along with myriad armed factions vying for territorial control. Whilst negotiations in the form of the Libyan political dialogue in Tunisia mediated by the United Nations led to the formation of a Government of National Unity led by Dabaiba (Lacher 2021), a parallel government emerged months later under Bashagha, which renewed the struggle for legitimacy (AJE 2022a). In recent months, this political contestation has escalated into violent clashes in the capital Tripoli between factions supporting the two sides. In May 2022, Bashagha initiated attempts to capture Tripoli, after clashes between his and Dabaiba's forces that did not long or change facts on the ground (Oxford Analytica 2022). The most recent attempt by Bashagha to wrest control of Tripoli occurred in August 2022, as clashes erupted in the heart of the capital lasting two days, which killed 32 people and wounded dozens, in the heaviest fighting witnessed in Tripoli in two years (AJE 2022b).
Throughout the 2014-2022 period, the UN and other parties have attempted to mediate between the various conflict parties in Libya. Most prominently, the United Nations (UN) has for years led the process of mediating between the General National Congress and Parliament. The UN mediated through its envoys, who have often been found to have dubious conflicts of interests and links to countries with vested interests in Libya's conflict (Watanabe 2019). Most famously was the scandal involving former UN envoy Bernardino Leon who leaked information during negotiations and later assumed leadership of the Emirates Diplomatic Academy (Watanabe 2019).
Notwithstanding this, the UN contributed to resolving the political impasse through the Skhirat Agreement, which divided the cake between the conflicting parties (Asseburg & Lacher & Transfeld 2018). That agreement however broke down, with Haftar – who was excluded from the negotiations – declaring in 2019 at the outbreak of the war on Tripoli that the Skhirat Agreement was a thing of the past (Cherkaoui 2020). Similarly, the UN mediation resumed with negotiations in Tunisia that produced the Government of National Unity headed by Dabaiba in February 2021 (Lacher 2021). Yet this unity was swiftly unraveled by the commissioning of a new government led by Bashagha and subsequent clashes in Tripoli. This pattern of UN-led mediation failing to produce durable outcomes, we contend, is a product of a short-sighted approach to peacemaking that focuses narrowly on elite track one negotiations and does not extend a peace process to a broad and inclusive cross-section of social forces in Libya.
Proposed Mediation Offer
The current proposal for a new political process aims to resolve the crisis of rival administrations by holding parliamentary elections to be held prior to any presidential elections. The assumption underpinning this sequence is for the parliament to enable the formation of a new government that would resolve the conflict between the rival administrations of Dbeibah and Bashhaga. The proposal has however only been consented to by Aguila Saleh – a Libyan jurist and politician who is the speaker of the Libyan House of Representaives since 5 August 2014 – upon the condition of the creation of a new Presidential Council led by him and to include two other members – Khaled Al-Mashri, as the head of the High Council of State from the west, in addition to a representative of southern Libya (The Libya Observer 2022). Saleh returned from his trip to Doha energised, and reportedly addressed a closed session of the Libyan parliament at which the new political roadmap was discussed extensively (LNA 2022).
The proposal by Aguila Saleh has also been interpreted as paving the way for General Khalifa Haftar to compete for the presidency. The new agreement removes all conditions on presidential candidates, such as disqualifying dual nationals, stipulating only that the President must have two Libyan parents. Whilst some High Council members oppose this move to enable Haftar's presidential bid, there is no response so far from Khalid Mishri. Qatar is known to have good relations with Khalid Mishri and may have persuaded him to remain silent on the issue in the interests of passing the deal to hold elections. Haftar's inclusion in the track one political process is necessary given that he would oppose any process in which he does not have a seat at the table. Haftar views himself as a national leader and will not settle for being simply a member of an enlarged Presidency Council. His role as a spoiler should not be underplayed. In 2019, when faced with the prospect of a national dialogue that held the potential to produce a workable political settlement in Libya, Haftar chose the path of war and triggered the Battle of Tripoli (Wintour 2019; Costantini & Santini 2022). For this reason, there is a need for clarity over Haftar's role and to integrate him into any power sharing solution at the track one level.
Qatar's New Role in the Libyan Political Process
The latest Libyan political proposal comes in the aftermath of an intense period of shuttle diplomacy in Doha and elsewhere. In September 2022, Doha welcomed Parliamentary President Aguila Saleh alongside Belkasim Haftar, son of Khalifa Haftar. Just two days previously, PM Dabaiba also paid a visit to Qatar (Qarjouli 2022). The visit of Aguila Saleh to Doha was particularly notable during this phase as it was the first official visit by a political leader from eastern Libya to Qatar since at least 2014. Through these visits and high-level diplomatic engagements, Doha sent a powerful message that it is offering its role as third party mediator. Whilst Qatar's actions in Libya have not yet gained much attention from analysts, the importance attached to this portfolio is clear from the proactive role played by the Emir of Qatar. At the UN General Assembly in September 2022, HH the Emir stated that:
The positive developments that Libya had witnessed during the past year give rise to cautious optimism. The ceasefire and convening the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, and the election of representatives of the interim executive authority and winning a vote of confidence of the House of Representatives by the National Unity Interim Government, are all positive developments. We call on all Libyan parties to maintain these gains and to ensure the full implementation of what has been agreed upon on the political, economic and security tracks, and the successful holding of elections and working to achieve a comprehensive reconciliation (QNA 2022).
Qatar's renewed role in Libya may surprise some observers given its role in the Libyan revolution in 2011. In March 2011, Qatar was the first Arab country to recognize the legitimacy of the Libyan revolution (Nuruzzaman 2015). In August 2011, Qatar received the first official visit of the National Transitional Council, which was the executive institution tasked with leading the political process following the February Revolution (Nuruzzaman 2015). During the transitional process, Doha continued to receive Libyan political figures, such as Abd al-Rahim al-Kib, the first prime minister in the post-Qaddafi era. However, Libya's transitional period was seriously derailed with the outbreak of a new civil war in 2014. Following the emergence of two rival governments in Libya, Qatar became associated with support for the Western-based, internationally-recognised government. Consequently, the eastern government cut diplomatic relations with Doha, as well as the parliament led by Aqila Saleh (Reuters 2017). Also from 2014, Haftar and Egyptian media promulgated the line that Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism, which affected Qatar's reputation amongst parts of the Libyan public. This perception that Qatar supported one side in the Libyan political scene ensured that it did not have the neutrality and acceptability by conflict parties to serve as a third party mediator in any peace process...
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