Libyan factions' peace talks key to solving migrants crisis
Published 15/08/2015 | 02:30
If only the walls of the council chamber at the UN's Palais des Nations in Geneva could talk.
Formerly home to the League of Nations, the imposing, high-ceilinged room has played host to many tense peace negotiations over the decades. This week it was Libya's turn. Representatives from the country's rival political factions sat beneath Spanish artist José Maria Sert's sepia-coloured murals depicting the progress of humankind as they negotiated face-to-face for only the second time in an almost year-long dialogue.
That process, aimed at ending the political power struggle at the heart of a civil war that has raged since summer last year, has been grindingly slow and at times has shown signs of petering out completely. But diplomats insist these efforts to agree a national unity government are the only way to bring Libya back from the chaos into which it has descended.
Four years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, the country finds itself torn between two governments, two parliaments and two army chiefs. In the eastern town of Baida sits the internationally recognised government of prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, appointed by a parliament elected in a June 2014 ballot and which is based further east in the town of Tobruk.
Both Thinni's government and that parliament support the anti-Islamist offensive launched in May 2014 by controversial general Khalifa Haftar and backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In Tripoli, a self-declared "national salvation" government holds sway backed by a militia alliance known as Libya Dawn, which drove rival Haftar-aligned militias from the capital last summer.
In post-Gaddafi Libya, political and military alliances are more often than not very loosely constructed marriages of convenience.
The two broad camps of political and armed factions that formed last summer have now fractured considerably, making it even more difficult to find a solution to the crisis. There is also the question of who is truly representative in a country where the constellation of militias that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising wield more power than government officials or elected representatives. Libyans sceptical of the UN-facilitated dialogue process argue that those meeting in Geneva - a mix of MPs from the two rival parliaments, civil society figures and leaders of political parties - have little real influence on the dynamics on the ground. But others say that while a national unity government - if it happens - will only be the first step towards getting Libya's derailed transition back on track, the very fact that Libyan political figures of opposing views are talking to each other is something.
The country's experiment in democracy after more than four decades of Gaddafi's iron-fisted rule has been marked by zero-sum politics and an almost complete lack of consensus. Learning the art of compromise is taking time.
Britain's special envoy to Libya, Jonathan Powell, often draws on his experience as Tony Blair's chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process when assessing the latest twists and turns of the Libyan crisis.
The two main factors that made the Good Friday Agreement possible - a recognition that there was no military solution to the conflict plus the existence of leaders that could deliver their respective communities - are currently absent in the Libyan context.
Too many key players in Libya still delude themselves that they can prevail militarily. There is a dearth of real leaders. Power is diffuse in post-Gaddafi Libya and the influence of even prominent figures can ebb and flow dramatically depending on developments on the ground.
The price of not resolving the political crisis is high. With the country split between rival political and armed factions propping up two governments vying for power, oil-rich Libya's economy is increasingly under pressure. Low oil production, combined with plummeting global energy prices, has forced the central bank to eat into its reserves. Bank officials and foreign diplomats warn reserves could be depleted within a year or so.
Tackling that fiscal gap presents a major challenge, as oil exports are not expected to recover significantly any time soon. Most of Libya's budget is allocated to public sector salaries (a quarter of Libyans - most adults - receive a state salary) and generous subsidies on fuel and food.
Cutting either risks further stoking public discontent, and could even trigger social unrest. A further complication is the fact fighters on both sides of the current conflict are on the state pay roll.
Furthermore, a range of actors, from Isil militants to human smugglers and separatists bent on establishing their own state in eastern Libya, see opportunity in the current chaos. Without a unity government, UN envoy Bernardino Leon has argued repeatedly, Libya will remain paralysed and unable to deal with the threat posed by Isil or the challenge of masses of refugees and migrants slipping through its porous borders on their way to Europe. Leon says he wants to see an agreement for a unity government by the end of this month but many are sceptical.