Finally, There’s Some Hope for an End to Libya's Pain

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If the recent news of a United Nations-brokered deal for a “unity government” in Libya has a familiar ring, it is because we’ve seen this movie before — and it didn’t end well. But if the principal actors stick to their parts, there is a chance the script will play out differently this time.  

At the end of 2015, a UN-brokered deal promised an end to Libya’s political turmoil. After months of fractious talks, delegates from the country’s warring factions met in the Moroccan coastal town of Skhirat and agreed to form a unified government of national unity, headed by a presidential council. The council had one month to name a cabinet, which would stabilize the country, extirpate terrorist groups like the Islamic State and eventually pave the way to general elections.

Within months, the agreement was in tatters. The warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose so-called Libyan National Army dominated the country’s eastern half, took control of the “oil crescent,” a string of towns along the Mediterranean. Advancing toward him were western forces loyal to the UN-approved council in Tripoli that had defeated ISIS in Sirte. But Haftar brushed aside the westerners and brought his army to the gates of the capital, before a Turkish military intervention sent him packing

A stalemate ensued, with an assortment of foreign governments picking sides in the Libyan civil war: The easterners were backed by Egypt, Russia, France and the United Arab Emirates, while the Tripoli government relied on Turkey, Qatar and Italy. To make matters murkier still, thousands of mercenaries — Syrians, Sudanese, Chadians, Russians — were deployed in the fighting.

This impasse finally brought the UN to mediate a new agreement. This time, the delegates gathered in Geneva and elected a slate of candidates such as the western businessman-politician Mohammed Dbeibah, who will be Libya’s prime minister, and Mohammad Younes Menfi, an easterner, who will head the new three-member presidency council. They have until the end of this week to form a cabinet, and the end of the year to hold new national elections. 

Can they make it? There are some grounds for optimism. For one thing, the foreign patrons of both sides seem to have concluded that neither can pull off a decisive military victory. That may explain why Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have all pronounced themselves satisfied with the new deal and pledged to back the Dbeibah-Menfi government. For another, Libyans themselves are plainly tired of the fighting and are hurting from its impact, along with that of the coronavirus pandemic, on their economy.

The challenge for the government will be to manage expectations — of ordinary Libyans, of the political factions and of the international community. The first test will come this week with the naming of the new cabinet. Although the political factions are jockeying for control of key ministries, the prime minister’s own druthers are to appoint technocrats.

Libyans, exhausted from 10 years of nearly continuous fighting, are counting on the new government to reenergize a sclerotic economy, which will require a steady flow of oil exports. The recent end of a nine-month blockade by Haftar’s forces has allowed production to rise to about 1.3 million barrels a day, but poor infrastructure has interrupted output and strikes by port security have disrupted exports.  

Still, Libya finally has a unified national budget for the first time since 2014 and its central bank has unified the exchange rate, which augurs well for currency stabilization and the easing of a longstanding liquidity crisis.

Ultimately, though, the success of the new deal will depend on the willingness of the factions and their patrons to keep their weapons sheathed. Hopes that foreign forces and mercenaries would begin to go home have been dashed; instead, Turkey and Russia are setting up permanent military bases, the better to protect their local partners as well as economic interests. Turkey, for instance, has billions of dollars in business contracts at stake, as well as an interest in new oil and gas exploration deals.

The foreign patrons have promised to prevent the resumption of hostilities, but they have a history of breaking their word. A UN-imposed arms embargo has repeatedly been flouted on both sides. Some Libyans hope that the change of guard in the White House will allow the U.S. to take on a bigger role in keeping the peace, but President Joe Biden will likely be leery of American involvement: He opposed the 2010 intervention that helped bring down the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The new Libyan government will, for the most part, have to count on its own wits to avoid the fate that befell the 2015 UN-brokered deal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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