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A breakthrough in Libya, or just too much ado about nothing?

January 28, 2021 at 8:00 am

Former Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, and newly-appointed UN Libya envoy, Jan Kubis on November 29, 2018 in Iraq [HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty Images]

Slovakia’s former Foreign Minister Jan Kubis was approved as the United Nations’ new Libya envoy almost one year after the last envoy, Ghassan Salame, resigned. He is number seven in almost ten years and will also head the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). In a statement announcing the appointment, UN Chief António Guterres conveyed a rather long and carefully written CV of his new envoy, not forgetting that the experienced diplomat speaks five languages, excluding Arabic.

As is usually the case, Kubis’s resumé does not mention any of his failures while working for the UN in countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. To see how successful the UN has been in conflict resolution, just look at Afghanistan or Iraq today.

What Kubis can do in Libya is yet to be known. However, it is almost certain that he will do very little to help stabilise the country and avoid another war, which increasingly appears inevitable. UNSMIL has so far failed to tackle Libya’s political problem – the key to everything else. There are two reasons behind such failure, the first being foreign meddling in the country’s affairs.

Turkey, Russia, Egypt, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to name few, are involved in the Libyan mess by supporting different quarrelling sides. In fact, foreign rivalry in Libya is the driving force for war, not for peace. The UN, despite dozens of resolutions banning meddling, has until now failed to stop interfering in Libya.

READ: Can the EU ever have boots on the ground in Libya? 

The second reason behind the failure, is that almost all Libyan politicians crowding the country’s political landscape are mean figures acting as local proxies to foreigners. They care little about their countrymen, and Libya itself. They are well-paid, safe and able to flee the country whenever they want, while ordinary Libyans suffer.

Dinosaurs and “kleptocrats” are the kinds of words recently used by Stephanie Williams, the current acting UN envoy, to describe Libya’s disastrous politicians. Salame, her former boss, described them as “loot[ers]”, as they loot the rich country in unimaginable ways. This might give Kubis a preview of the kind of people he will be dealing with, helping him to devise his own descriptions of them.

To keep the positive political momentum going, Kubis might delay his takeover of UNSMIL to allow Williams time to see through her latest successful efforts in bringing Libyan protagonists to move forward. Her aim is to get a unity government up and running before leaving office – a task easier said than done.

Between October 2020 and last week, Williams managed to resuscitate the peace process by making tangible progress. On 23 October, 2020, she had the 5+5 military commission agree to a ceasefire across Libya. The commission comprises an equal number of military officers representing the Libyan National Army (LNA) in eastern Libya, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

Many nations are trying to interfere in Libya's affairs- Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Many nations are interfering in Libya’s affairs – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The agreement mandates the departure of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya by 23 January, 2021, the withdrawal of frontline troops and the opening of a coastal road connecting east and west. The deadline has passed, no foreigners have left, no roads have opened and troops are still facing off at the frontline.

In the meantime, the Libyan Political Dialogue Form (LPDF) concluded its series of meetings last week in Geneva with a document that dictates how the new united government will be set up. UNSMIL, on 21 January, announced a one-week deadline ending on Wednesday to receive nominations for the Presidency Council and the prime minister. The idea is to have a three-member Presidency Council, instead of the current nine, with executive power shifted to an independent prime minister.

Parallel to the LPDF meetings, delegations from the eastern-based parliament and Tripoli’s Higher Council of State, a consultative body, met separately last week in Egypt and Morocco. In Morocco, the meeting produced an agreement on criteria governing nominations for the top sovereign jobs, and how to allocate them. The group in Hurghada, Egypt, agreed on the long-awaited referendum on the draft constitution. If passed, the new constitution will provide the legal basis for the national elections planned for 24 December.

READ: Is Cairo trying to counter Ankara by warming up to Tripoli? 

While this kind of progress came rather quickly by Libyan standards, it has the potential for disruption that could unravel the entire process. Failure at this stage could easily lead to yet another episode of violence.

Furthermore, there are reports that the Russian Wagner Group fighters, supporting the LNA, are digging trenches around the Jufra Airbase close to Libya’s oil fields, in what appears to be part of an extended stay. Turkey, supporting the GNA, never stopped supplying arms to the GNA and is said to be developing Al-Watiya Airbase, southwest of Tripoli.

The 75-member LDPF will also have the final say when parliament and the Higher Council of State fail to agree on the new executive set up. This will render them both useless.

Whether the incoming UN envoy will succeed in maintaining this momentum is doubtful. The main obstacles remain unchanged: the lack of strong UN Security Council support and the Libyan rivals’ willingness to submit to regional and international powers as a way of maintaining the status quo.

This means if Russia or Turkey are not happy with the new arrangements, they can disrupt it with ease by having their local proxies negate on any agreement by simply withdrawing from it, rendering it unworkable.

Such failures do not necessarily mean that Kubis will fail, as expected, but rather that the UN is failing, as it has been, in assisting Libya ten years after it aided in its destruction. It also means that Libyan politicians are miserably disappointing their own people, as they have been since 2011.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.