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A member of security forces stands behind a weapon. Libya descended into chaos after a 2011 Nato-supported armed revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years. Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: Libyans’ recent success in picking an interim administration has rekindled hopes for ending the country’s decade-long conflict. The transitional administration, selected in a UN-sponsored vote in Switzerland, will be tasked with leading Libya to long-awaited national elections. The path is still strewn with pitfalls, though.

Roots of anarchy

Libya descended into chaos after a 2011 Nato-supported armed revolt that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country for 42 years. After Gaddafi’s overthrow and ensuing killing, Libya was split up among rival militias amid an inflow of arms into the country. Competing politicians failed to patch up their disagreements, giving rise to feuding governments mainly based in Tripoli and the Libyan east.

The situation provided fertile ground for squabbling local militias as well as radical Islamists, mainly Daesh and Al Qaida to thrive in Libya. The country has also emerged as a hub for human trafficking and migrants illegally seeking to reach Europe.

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Muammar Gaddafi was brutally lynched by rebels in 2011.

Since 2014, Khalifa Haftar, an army officer who took part in the anti-Gaddafi revolt, has spearheaded a relentless campaign against militants first in the eastern city of Benghazi and later in other parts of the country. He has since established a clout and expanded territorial control in Libya. Gen. Haftar is the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

In December 2015, Libya’s feuding factions reached a UN-mediated peace deal in talks hosted by Morocco. Under the so-called Skhirat Agreement, the interim Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al Serraj along with the advisory State Council were set up in Tripoli. The functioning of the GNA was dependent on recognition from the elected House of Representatives based in eastern Libya. The GNA was formed and took office in 2016, but without securing recognition from the parliament.

The Skhirat Agreement also bogged down over a stipulation that gave a presidential council led by Al Serraj wide powers including the appointment of the army chief. The stipulation was rejected by the parliament in the east and its government allied with Haftar, who saw it as targeting the military commander. The GNA has largely been perceived as weak as it has failed to assert its territorial authority on the ground, being in control of only Tripoli and parts of western Libya. The GNA is aligned with a motley of militias mainly from Misrata who are calling the shots for the Tripoli government.

In recent years, Al Serraj and Haftar have been brought together at several meetings hosted by the UAE, Egypt and France. Nonetheless, their talks produced no breakthrough.

Libya's pathway to transition:
October 23, 2020: Major parties to Libya's conflict agreed at UN-brokered talks in Geneva to a countrywide ceasefire and departure of foreign fighters from their country in three months.
November 9: A Libyan political forum kicks off in Tunisia under UN auspices and agree to hold general elections in December 2021, the country's first since 2014.
January 23: A three-month deadline for foreign fighters' departure expires without any sign of compliance.
February 5: The UN declares the "historic moment" at the end of a five-day Libyan vote in Switzerland, selecting a transitional administration to lead Libya to national elections scheduled December 24.
February 26: The deadline for the prime minister-elect to finalise a proposed cabinet line-up that will be presented to the parliament for a vote of confidence.

Haftar’s anti-militancy campaign

In May 2014, Haftar’s forces initiated a campaign against militant Islamists in Benghazi, the birthplace of the anti-Gaddafi uprising. In July 2017, he declared full control of the city and flushing the extremists out of it.

Almost a year later, Haftar’s LNA forces seized Derna, the last eastern city that was outside the east-based administration’s control. He has since undertaken a campaign against radicals and militias in other parts of Libya amid an inflow of weaponry supplies to Al Serraj-allied militias from Turkey and Qatar in violation of a UN arms embargo.

An LNA offensive, which kicked off in April 2019 to recapture Tripoli from the GNA-aligned militias, descended into a stalemate mainly due to the LNA concerns about the city’s civilians and generous Turkish support to rival militias.

Turkish involvement

In December 2019, the Tripoli government and Turkey signed two controversial maritime demarcation and security cooperation pacts, which allowed Turkey to dispatch military personnel to Libya. The pact on maritime demarcation in eastern Mediterranean gives Turkey disputed access to a zone where Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are jointly drilling for gas and oil. The European Union, of which Greece is a member, also condemned the Libya deal as a breach of international laws.

The accords were sealed as Haftar’s forces was pushing to capture Tripoli. Turkey has since transferred thousands of allied rebels from war-torn Syria and poured them into Libya.

The elected Libyan parliament said Al Serraj has no mandate to sign them and pushed for ending international recognition of the GNA government.

Light in Libya’s dark tunnel

Amid those counter-productive developments, the UN intensified its efforts for a Libyan-Libyan solution to the festering crisis while curbing foreign involvement in the oil-wealthy country. The endeavours have paid off in recent months.

In October, key parties to the Libyan conflict agreed at UN-brokered talks in Geneva to a countrywide ceasefire and departure of foreign fighters from their country in three months. The following month, a Libyan political forum, meeting in Tunisia, agreed on a political roadmap, including holding general election in December 2021.

In yet another landmark step, on February 5, a 74-member Libyan forum voted in a UN-sponsored process in Switzerland to elect a presidency council and a prime minister to prepare for the December 24 elections. Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibeh was elected as prime minister and Mohammed Menfi as head of the Presidency Council. The selection has generated wide support inside and outside Libya.

The Haftar-led LNA welcomed the outcome of the vote and congratulated “patriotic” members of the transitional administration. “Libyans hope that the election of the executive authority will lead to providing services and readying the country to the obligation of the general election,” LNA spokesman Ahmed Al Mesmari said in a televised statement.

Several influential Libyan figures, who ran for the presidency council and the prime minister, conceded defeat and congratulated the winners.

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Militias allied to the government in Tripoli have been behind the chaos that has engulfed Libya. Image Credit: Reuters

Arab countries welcomed the selection of the interim administration, hoping the step will re-establish stability in Libya.

The UAE confirmed full cooperation with the new authority to “achieve security, stability, prosperity, and aspirations of the brotherly Libyan people.” The UAE Foreign Ministry said that the UAE looks forward to success of the remaining tracks under the UN auspices and voiced hope that “this achievement” would support stability throughout Libya in order to preserve its national sovereignty.

Internationally, praise poured in. “This critical step towards reaching a negotiated, inclusive political solution is the result of a genuinely Libyan-led and Libyan-owned process, the mediation of the United Nations, and the support of the Libyan people,” the US and the EU said in a joint statement. “We call on all current Libyan authorities and actors to ensure a smooth and constructive handover of all competences and duties to the new unified executive authority,” they added.

The premier-elect Dbeibeh, who hails from Misrata, has 21 days starting from February 5 to form his government before presenting the line-up to the parliament for a vote of confidence.

Uphill challenges

In an address to Libyans, Dbeibeh this week pledged to hold the elections as scheduled and endeavour to end the country’s turbulent post-Gaddafi transition. “Failure is not an option,” the 61-year engineer said.

However, the task is uphill, according to observers. A major challenge facing the new administration is ensuring departure of foreign fighters. In January, a three-month deadline expired without a sign of those foreigners leaving.

Other challenges include unifying Libya’s fractured state institutions, disbanding armed militias, achieving national reconciliation and easing economic hardships.

“Support is vital from everyone to the new executive authority,” said Libyan political analyst Al Senussi Al Sharif on Facebook. “We have in front of us very tough 10 months, which brook no differences or negative thinking,” he added.