On Monday, UN-brokered peace talks for Libya will be back where they started, literally and figuratively, when most members of the Libya Dialogue return to Geneva, the place where discussions began in January. And now, as then, the Tripoli-based rump General National Congress (GNC) will staying away. It fears the deal proposed now by UNSMIL Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, who chairs the Dialogue, favours only the House of Representatives (HoR), the internationally recognised government.
Leon himself is seen as stretching credibility by insisting this week’s meetings will discuss appointments for a unity government – a contradiction in terms when one of the two protagonists is not involved.
Back in January, in the cloistered halls of the UN’s Geneva headquarters, Leon, a Spanish diplomat, claimed that while the GNC stayed away, many other groups attended. “It is not one camp that is refusing to come and the other camp is here today,” he said. “We have many people from both camps.”
The problem then, as now, is the irreconcilability of the two sides.
It will be remembered that civil war broke out last summer, after Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist, Misratan and other militias, rebelled against their defeat in the June elections.
Libya Dawn seized Tripoli and about 30 members of the former GNC proclaimed themselves the rightful government.
The elected, internationally recognised HoR has since operated from Tobruk, while about 30 of its members have boycotted it, either because they genuinely support Libya Dawn or because they fear the consequences of attending it.
Leon’s problem is this: Libya Dawn will not accept a peace deal that gives power in proportion to its electoral support – if it did, it would not have rebelled in the first place. The HoR will not accept a deal that gives Libya Dawn more power than it won through the ballot box.
This problem has endured as talks moved like a traveling circus from Switzerland to Libya, and to Algeria, Morocco and Belgium.
Along the way Leon has produced a succession of draft plans for a Government of National Accord. Some of these drafts have swung towards the GNC and been rejected by the HoR. Others – including what is effectively the fifth draft – favour the HoR, and so have been rejected by the GNC.
The process may also be suffering a credibility problem after Leon’s repeated warnings, prior to each round of talks, that these are a “final” chance for peace – only for a new “final” chance to be unveiled a few weeks later.
In January, he declared Libya faced imminent collapse, saying: “The governor of the central bank said financial and economic collapse may be a matter of days, weeks.” In fact, while finances are dire, there has been no collapse.
In April, he said a peace deal was “very close”, but no deal transpired.
A month later he said a deal should be signed by June 17, the onset of Ramadan. Ramadan came and went, with no deal.
Last month, he celebrated the “initialising” of Draft Five, which also included a witnessing, as a sort of approval, by a number of mayors and party political leaders including the Justice and Construction Party’s Mohammed Sawan. But while they have put their names to it, this is more a statement of intent than a binding promise. To get those signatures, Leon omitted key parts of a unity government plan, including who will make up the new united Libyan army. So the “initialisers” and witnesses have not really agreed to anything.
The Geneva talks process is itself a follow-on to the Ghadames process begun by Leon in September. The Ghadames process, named for the town where the meetings were held, was open only to the HoR – both members attending in Tobruk, and those members who were boycotting.
In November, a controversial Supreme Court ruling was taken (at least by Libya Dawn suuporters) to mean that the elections for the HoR were invalid, leading the GNC to declare that it was the only real parliament. The UN has never commented on the validity of the ruling, but since then has treated the GNC and HoR as equal partners.
Optimists say that after a year of grinding civil war, the talks process has at least produced elements of a draft plan. And there are strong signs some parts of Libya Dawn, notably in Misrata, are quitting the alliance and are prepared to collaborate with their former enemies. There are hopes that such a move would encourage the rest of Libya Dawn to quit and enable a unity government to become a reality.
Urgency to the peace process has come not just by a civil war that has left one in twelve of Libyans without a home, or by the misery of life in the current-day Libya of power cuts, petrol shortages, water shortages, hospitals closed, crime rampant and rising prices. There is also the Islamic Satte which has established a powerful presence around Sirte and the oil fields of the Sirte basin. And the migration crisis has exploded too.
Pessimists say the UN’s draft plan is unenforcible as it stands, because the true power in this war rests not with parliaments but with the rival armies.
So far Leon has not seriously engaged either the HoR’s army commander General Khalifa Hafter, or Misratan Saleh Badhi, commander of the Samoud Front, the most hard-core of the Libya Dawn militia groupings. The presence of either man at the talks would trigger almost certain boycott from their enemies, yet no peace plan will be worth the paper it is written on without their agreement.