Salvaging the Wreckage of Libya's Flawed Peace Deal

The UN must stop giving undue preference to Libya's House of Representatives.

After just over a year of negotiations between rival factions the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) completed what it is calling the “final text” of the peace agreement aimed at ending the country's almost year-and-a-half long rift. Libya’s political division has not only escalated to a civil war, but it has also created a vacuum in parts of the country that the Islamic State has been able to fill. UN Envoy Bernardino León announced names for a new government, and called on the eastern Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and western Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) parliaments to accept it and the peace agreement without amendment. These competing Libyan factions, however face major obstacles and are not likely to come together on this deal. First, it is well known that spoilers on both sides are actively undermining the peace process, and the HoR and the GNC are unlikely to divorce themselves from these powerful actors on the ground without proper motivation. Second, the talks heavily favor the HoR side, whose self-proclaimed legitimacy is quickly dwindling. Despite optimism from the UN and support from Western countries for the “final” agreement, Libya will not come out of its current conflict until its political entities can effectively ostracize and isolate belligerent figures within their own ranks—something that will be no easy feat and likely impossible unless the UN adopts a more balanced approach.

Of the parties at the negotiating table, the HoR currently has been afforded the strongest standing. Each draft of the Libya Peace Agreement has made it the basis of a future government, given it considerably more power than the GNC and renewed its mandate for another year—if not longer. Some of the political figures in the HoR may well want to accept this peace deal to reaffirm their contested legitimacy, but they do not control Libya's eastern government. The HoR is beholden to Khalifa Hifter, a prominent military commander who fought both for and against Muammar Gaddafi during the course of his career. After spending a number of years living in Northern Virginia, Hifter returned to Libya, first to partake in the 2011 revolution, and then to defend the HoR in 2014 against its rivals.

Hifter and his allies fought the Misrata militias that drove the HoR out of Tripoli last May and protected it from the Islamist militias that took over Benghazi last October—a move that was widely welcomed by Benghazans. At the time, even though Hifter’s own militia was known as the "Libyan National Army," they had no formal standing above any other militia in Libya. That changed, however, when the HoR made Hifter the official commander of its armed forces this past March. Both before and after his appointment, Hifter did not engage in his operations out of loyalty to the HoR but rather to establish himself as a strongman in Libya—emulating Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Like Sisi in Egypt, Hifter’s raison d'être is to “purge” Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood, what he calls a “malignant disease.”

It may appear that Hifter’s anti-Islamist stance and his campaign against the GNC and its allies benefit the HoR despite being self-serving in nature—and in many ways they indeed have. Yet, even as the commander of the HoR’s armed forces, Hifter has hardly acted in accordance with his "allies" in Tobruk. When the HoR’s representatives engaged in negotiations with the GNC, he undermined their efforts by ramping up airstrikes in Tripoli and threatening to invade the city. Even more flagrantly, Hifter has controlled the movements of HoR prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, most recently last month when his forces arrested the prime minister as he was trying to fly to Malta to meet with Libya's neutral National Oil Corporation. During the negotiations that led to this “final agreement,” the general re-launched his military campaign in Benghazi, raising the ire of GNC prime minister Khalifa al-Ghwell. Despite Hifter's brazenness, he retains his official status with the HoR, and the HoR's political leadership will not likely act against him. Doing so would mean severing ties with their dominant military force on the ground—a move their GNC rivals would surely welcome.