Friday, October 23, 2015

Libya Peace Process Stumbles as Crisis Looms
UN talks to deal with competing Libyan governments stall as war-torn country's security and financial situations worsen

October 23, 2015 4:45PM ET
by Al Jazeera Staff

The top United Nations diplomat in Libya on Friday threatened international sanctions against leaders of the country's rival parliaments, after one party rejected a draft U.N. agreement that would broker a unified government in the war-torn country and bring an end its worsening security and financial crisis.

“Some figures in the two camps of Tripoli and Tobruk are sabotaging the agreement," Bernardino Leon, head of the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), told Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "But the international community has decided that it cannot allow it. If the sabotage continues, sanctions will come.”

Libya’s two rival governments — the internationally recognized one in the eastern city of Tobruk, and another in the former capital, Tripoli — have been locked in negotiations to share power in Libya for the first time since a 2011 NATO intervention toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The country has devolved into a chaotic scramble for power by an array of local militias, which have mostly lined up behind one of the two parliaments.

The diplomatic struggles come as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the Obama administration's Libya policy this week in front of a House select committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

Critics of the White House’s handling of Libya have argued that the country was so unstable in 2012 because there was no plan for security after NATO opened a power vacuum in Tripoli the previous year. “We were playing it by ear,” then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who opposed the Libya intervention, told the Daily Beast this week. In an incident that underscored that instability, at least five people were killed in Benghazi on Friday when rockets hit a protest against the U.N.-sponsored peace proposal.

The U.N. plan would create a cabinet headed by a prime minister, with three deputy prime ministers, from the east, west and south of the country. The Tobruk government’s elected body, the House of Representatives, would continue in its current form, while the rival Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) would be transformed into a sort of council with an advisory role.

This week, however, the Tobruk side rejected the proposal. According to some reports, Tobruk negotiators objected to a provision in the latest U.N. plan that says if the new government can’t agree on the national military’s leadership, then the current leadership — a Tobruk-aligned former Libyan general named Khalifa Hiftar — will be sacked and replaced by someone else.

Hiftar’s role in a new, national military remains one of the more contentious points in the prosed agreement. Many fear the polarizing ex-general has designs on expanding his power, or perhaps even mounting a military dictatorship. He is said to have powerful backers in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt who support his campaign to rid Libya of “terrorists,” a term used to refer to hardline factions like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Al Qaeda-connected group Ansar al-Sharia. As the head of the army, Hiftar could be liable to stage a coup, some analysts say.

“You could see any scenario: division of the country, increase in terrorism, anything from much more of the same to increasing violence,” said Karim Mezran, a Libya specialist at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. If no agreement is reached, Mezran said, it “will depend on Libyan commanders to find a truce. It will be an uncontrollable situation.”

The U.N., meanwhile, has insisted that talks will continue as early as next week. Leon, the UNSMIL chief, has sought to underline the urgency of the situation, especially as ISIL expands from its “province” in the coastal city of Sirte. He argues that, while no side is satisfied with the parameters of the U.N. proposal, some sort of ultimatum must be set. Outstanding issues could be open to discussion once a unity government is in place, Leon said, "but we should not make more changes in the agreement because this could delay for months a solution that Libya badly needs."

In a statement released in Brussels on Monday, the European Union and the United States strongly urged all parties in Libya to accept the peace plan "without introducing further amendments."

But Najm Jarrah, a former UNSMIL official, argues that the West has not applied commensurate pressure to back up that position. "All these regional players have verbally supported the U.N.-brokered deal, but they don’t seem to have tried very hard to persuade their clients or protégés within Libya to comply," Jarrah said.

Mattia Toaldo, a Libya analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it could be a "doomsday scenario" if they don't reach an agreement. Without a unity government, the humanitarian emergency that has seen hospitals close and electricity regularly cut "will get worse and worse."

Libya's economy is already in shambles, with output from its oil reserves — the largest in Africa — hovering at 15 percent of capacity. “They’re basically living on reserves they’ve accumulated over years," Toaldo said. "That will dry up quite soon.”

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