This month Libya faces yet another of its endless crucial tests as the UN-backed peace talks move forward under the new UN Special Representative Martin Kobler. It may be foolish to speculate, but there are some signs for modest optimism when compared to the chaos in Syria. At least Libya has two main coalitions, who are willing to talk and both hold substantial chunks of territory. They can both can see a way forward to a political settlement even if they disagree on the shape of that settlement.
The unfortunate people of Syria are in a very different position as they suffer from a myriad of militias roaming their country will little incentive to settle anything as any minor brigand currently enjoying more power than ever before will lose out to the politicians if a deal was ever struck. And no structure suggested in any of the Syrian talks has won the backing of all major players.
The situation is Libya is markedly more advanced. After the summer the former UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon had won agreement from both sides to negotiate a political deal but was struggling to get agreement on the composition of senior government posts and in November he offered to expand the proposed presidency council from six to nine members, which would allow more representation from Benghazi, Libya’s second city, where protests against the UN deal had turned violent.
Then on December 17, under the guidance of Leon’s successor Kobler, the UN managed to get agreement from parliamentarians on both sides plus a number of independent political figures to unify the government. Around 80 of 188 lawmakers from Libya’s internationally recognised parliament based in Benghazi and 50 of 136 members of the Islamist Tripoli-based General National Congress signed the deal.
Kobler’s deal calls for a 17-member government and has suggested that businessman Fayez Al Sarraj would be prime minister. But any celebrations are far too premature as the political leaders themselves have yet to sign up to the deal, which may fail as the proposal would try to merge the two parliaments, which are stuffed full of hardliners from both sides. This means that any deal requires yet another round in which the leaders from both sides can demonstrate statesmanship and willingness to compromise, if they have any. But at least both sides are involved in a constructive process.
As the two coalitions negotiate through the UN, a third force is trying to take advantage of the chaos. Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), has been trying to establish itself and appeal to disaffected Libyans, without much success to date in contrast to its remarkable wins in Iraq and Syria.
Daesh’s failure to win traction in Libya has been analysed by Kevin Casey and Stacey Pollard of the Carnegie Foundation, who make the important additional point that Daesh’s failure is nothing to be complacent about and Daesh could well use the Libyan civil war to great advantage in due time.
They point out that unlike Iraq and Syria, Libya is missing some of the key conditions that allowed for the group’s rapid gains in the Levant last summer. Daesh lacks enduring ties to influential Libyan tribes and social groups, and Libya has no strong sectarian divide or a common enemy around which to rally a community. Thus, Daesh’s strategy in Libya seems to be directed instead at hastening state failure and fracturing the population’s sense of common nationhood. Meanwhile, it is also intensifying the conditions that will allow it to deepen its influence and form a national religious identity in line with the so-called caliphate’s own views.
Although thus far, Daesh has failed to win the full support of any large tribal constituencies in the Sirte Basin, the group continues to denounce both the Tripoli and Tobruk-based post-revolutionary governments as illegitimate. This may begin to resonate with youth from Sirte and former loyalist tribes that feel locked out of today’s political order. More broadly, this message is likely intended to gain support from large and growing segments of the population who neither support the Libyan General National Council nor the House of Representatives.
Daesh in the Sahel
A final danger is that Daesh in Libya may not see Libya as its end-game. It has already called on the Tawareqs of Libya, the Sahara, and the Sahel to join Daesh, in shrewd appeal to link Daesh to Tawareq dreams of realising their own state in the Sahel which has so far failed to materialise after their defeat in northern Mali.
Daesh in Libya is also making connections with Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) networks in southern Libya, and the accession of Nigeria-based Boko Haram to the caliphate, indicate while territorial control is vital for the two conventional Libyan coalitions seeking to run the country, Daesh does not need the confrontation required to keep territory. It will do its work by positioning itself between the country’s warring parties, advancing its outreach among marginalised and aggrieved communities, and actively supporting the collapse of the state to advance its own wider vision.