A week is… a week, in politics

Houses of Parliament

Former Labour Prime Minister of the UK, Harold Wilson, once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’.

It is thought he was talking about the sterling crisis of 1964, though in 1977 he claimed ‘not to remember’ precisely when he said it.

The idea – that everything may change in extremely short periods, with little or no warning, and that politics is a ‘game’ of responding to new challenges and unforeseeable occurrences – is seductive. And it was not new, even in 1964: Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain had said ‘in politics, there is no use looking beyond the next fortnight,’ as early as 1886.

But like most seductively simple ideas, Wilson (and Chamberlain)’s is deceptive.

It is in fact extraordinarily unusual (one could in fact count on the fingers of one hand the number of times it has happened) to experience a political or military event that was truly unpredictable – or indeed unpredicted.

One must choose one’s advisors carefully, but the idea that politics is a series of chaotic, scattered occurrences, each taking place randomly and unconnected to anything around them – or that anyone paid to enact or analyse political or military activities should be excused from looking further ahead than 14 days – does not withstand even the most cursory scrutiny.

Such is the case in Libya today – even though at a first glance two situations central to the state’s future appear to have changed for the worse in the last seven days.

Last week (I write on Friday 23rd October), Libya had a government which could – and did – convince themselves was legitimate. It now has none.

It had a political agreement – and with it the potential to end a civil war after 17 bitter months – which seemed more likely than not to occur. It has now been effectively rejected by its two major potential participants.

But under the surface, very little has changed – though, for a state in Libya’s current situation, that is by no means a positive thing.

On Tuesday (20th October) the mandate – such as it was – given to the House of Representatives (HoR) came to an end.

As noted in a previous blog, it had already taken the dubious step of voting to extend its own mandate, rather than using the generally-accepted-as-legal route of holding an election to do so.

And as also noted in previous posts – and in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis – the HoR had already been declared legally illegitimate by Libya’s own High Court.

But up until Tuesday, it had been internationally-accepted (albeit incorrectly) as Libya’s rightful government. On Tuesday, the last vestiges of its legitimacy fell away, leaving Libya in the remarkable position of being run by two ‘governments’, where most states require just one, and with zero legitimate governments: one fewer than most nations tend to prefer.

(At this point, we should note that Libya’s other ‘government’, the General National Congress, has at least as little legitimacy, if not less. The Libyan High Court never ruled on this, because it didn’t need to: the GNC is the remnants of Libya’s first elected government. Its mandate ran out in December 2013, but it chose to extend it to June 2014. Once again, the circumstances are detailed in The Toss of a Coin).

However, the point remains that although this change in status may appear to the HoR’s international backers to be significant, it actually changes things in Libya very little. One of its two already illegitimate governments lost its fig-leaf. Nothing more.

Which leaves us where we were last week. Libya is still a state with two illegitimate ‘governments’, each supported by opposing illegal militias (‘Operation Dignity’, led by Khalifa Haftar, is aligned with the HoR, ‘Libya Fajr’ – ‘Libya Dawn’ is largely comprised of Misratan fighters and stand with the GNC) which claim to support the ‘government’ they prop up, but were in fact both fighting before either ‘government’ existed.

Its Second Civil War is still in its 17th month, and is still a four-way contest, with Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia, strongest in Benghazi, and IS in Libya, which has taken control of my one-time hometown, Sirte, also attempting to snatch control of the state. All four are murdering civilians as they do so.

The sole hope for the war’s end lay in the lengthy negotiations, led by the UN and its special representative in Libya Bernardino Leon, which had at least brought the opposing governments to the table.

As noted in previous posts, agreement by the two illegitimate ‘governments’ would not have delivered peace per se – neither has control of, and in fact both are effectively controlled by the militia which claims to back them, while Ansar and IS were not invited to the table – but the talks were aimed at forming a unified, legitimate government, which might have stood some chance of unifying dawn and Dignity to work for it.

(The most likely sequence would have had to have been for the newly-united force to temporarily unite with Ansar to remove IS from the state – no easy task – and then some attempt made at a ‘remain in peace or leave’ deal done with Ansar after that: likely little simpler)

And in a state already at war, anything which brings peace closer – even if only precariously – is an improvement.

The negotiations have not been simple. Both the GNC and HoR have walked out more than once – sometimes because of a misdemeanour perpetrated by the other, sometimes through their own pride and temporary blindness, and sometimes by some unusual decisions from Leon and the UN team – but at the end of last month it appeared agreement had been reached, and that a new government could be set up. (For details and analysis, click here, and visit many previous posts on the same page)

All that needed to happen was that the GNC and HoR’s negotiators would bring home the agreement to be rubber-stamped. Libya and its people had a chance for peace – or at least a chance of a chance for peace.

The deadline for the signing and approval of the new agreement – the seventh presented by the UN after months of negotiations – was Tuesday.

But on Monday, one side expressed doubts about doing so. The other rejected it outright.

First, the GNC. So far, the GNC has not rejected the agreement. But what it said on Monday was that to sign it would ‘lead to further complications’.

On the one hand, it has a point. By asking it to sign the agreement, the UN is effectively asking the GNC’s members to sign themselves out of existence: to volunteer to step away from their hopes of governing a ‘new Libya’ and instead taking a secondary (though still important and prestigious) role.

It may also be referring to the curious decision by Bernardino Leon to name the members of the new unity government (named the ‘Government of National Accord’) before that government even existed.

Though the names presented by Leon held few unpleasant surprises – and in many cases could be said to be largely chosen because of their ability to bridge part of the gap between the HoR and GNC (I discussed this in a previous post, here) – it was still an unusual move, perhaps motivated by a desire to lend the putative government some ‘substance’ to help the GNC and HoR feel they were voting for something rather than the potential for something.

However, even though the GNC may have more than one reason for its fear of ‘complications’, it is hard to justify a belief that voting to create a government could be any more complicated than a bitter, four-sided Civil War and the mayhem and bloodshed which has resulted.

The GNC has not actually refused to pass the agreement, however.

By contrast, the HoR has not only refused to vote in favour of it, it has refused to hold any vote whatsoever.

Instead of holding the vote it had promised – and which might have saved it the embarrassment, had the agreement been accepted, of losing even the pretence of legitimacy on Tuesday – it stated that it wished to return to ‘a previous agreement’.

There is no doubt that what it meant by this was that it wishes to vote on and accept the sixth rather than the seventh agreement.

The problem is that there is no possible justification for this.

Because the ‘previous agreement’ the HoR hardliners favour has no greater legitimacy than the new ‘agreement’. In fact, it was superceded by it – it holds less legitimacy than the seventh because the seventh was agreed most recently.

Equally, and once again, as previously noted, the sixth ‘agreement’ was never even an agreement – it was supported only by the HoR and opposed by the GNC which (correctly) argued that it had been created when HoR hijacked the negotiation process, demanded changes to the UN proposals behind closed doors, then signed the document and left without enabling GNC negotiators to discuss it.

Whatever it may have been, it was not an ‘agreement’.

In fact, the hardliners within the HoR (there are certainly other members at least willing to give the new government a chance) are arguing for a thoroughly discredited and never legitimate non-agreement to be the basis of the entire future of the state.

At best, it is a remarkably irresponsible and childish position to take.

And it is particularly disappointing because more than 50 illegal militia leaders – including those from the city of Misrata (meaning the Libya Dawn force was extremely likely to follow), and Ibrahim Jadhran, who led an attempt in 2014 to split East Libya from the rest of the state – had already publicly stated their support for the new agreement, though Haftar and his erstwhile allies the Zintan khetiba stated they opposed it, placing themselves even further outside of the law and reasonable behaviour than even the illegal armed groups they had opposed.

And it is perhaps fitting that Haftar’s name is mentioned here.

Because one reason mentioned by Ali Tekbali, a spokesperson for the HoR, for the refusal of the ‘government’ even to vote on the agreement was a clause within it that means the new government would be able to fire all senior officials who were not unanimously approved by its members.

Tekbali noted that some HoR members saw this as a chance to get rid of Haftar, and as a result refused even to risk a vote on the entire government.

In the light of this, to call Haftar ‘divisive’ might seem unnecessary. It would also be a massive understatement.

On 14 February 2014, he called – on national television – for a military coup to depose Libya’s government.

He now heads an illegal militia, and has ordered another illegal armed group (the Zintan khetiba, mentioned above), to open fire on politicians at work in the Tripoli parliament (at this point, May 2014, the Tripoli government was – though illegitimate – the only government the state had. Its politicians were not soldiers, but civilians attempting to do their jobs, however poorly).

He has wrongly – and in full knowledge he is wrong – claimed that all his opponents, including civilians, are ‘terrorists’ and ‘fundamentalists’, ordered three airstrikes by Egypt on Libya’s capital city, and as noted earlier, despite his claims to support the HoR, he and his militia were fighting before the HoR had even been elected.

Most dangerous to the chance of a political agreement, the HoR knows only too well that it is beholden to him (some of its members actively support his activities) and as a result, he is far closer to ‘ruling’ it, than it him.

A fuller analysis of Haftar is contained in The Toss of a Coin, but in short, as noted above, he is at best an extraordinarily divisive figure, whose involvement in the new Libyan state at any level would almost certainly prevent Libyan unity, and prevent the new state thriving as it should.

At worst – and in fact this is the most accurate view – he is a murderous, illegal warlord, whose attempts to hide behind the ‘legitimacy’ offered by pretending to support a ‘government’ must not obscure the fact that of all the people involved in Libya’s conflict, he is the one man most responsible for it, for its continuation, and for the failure of Libya as a state.

Haftar is a violent, dangerous man. He is not alone in that, but at present he is the major cause of Libya’s current atrocious situation. He has blood on his hands and has consistently misrepresented his opponents as terrorists even though he is a man who has no legal legitimacy, and has used guns and missiles against civilians, including elected politicians in parliament.

In a bitter irony, at almost exactly the same time as the HoR decided to refuse even to countenance an agreement which might see Haftar prevented from dispensing ‘justice’ with missiles and bullets, the EU had been distributing to its members suggestions that when agreement was reached, it might deploy peacekeepers to the state, to offer the new administration stability, and assistance during its weakest moment, when certainly IS and almost as certainly Ansar Al-Sharia might strike at it.

Without agreement, the proposal will not even be considered – though I am not alone in believing it should.

Nor is Haftar’s influence preventing only peace-keeping measures by the EU. The bloc had been set to debate a €100m grant to Libya, to assist it in beginning to rebuild after two civil wars. This is a remarkably small amount of money, given that a) the EU is the richest group of nations anywhere on Earth, and b) Libya’s current budget deficit is €13.4bn, but a financial commitment now could at least encourage other wealthy states to contribute to, and give vital encouragement to those who will lead, Libya’s recovery. At present, Haftar stands between Libya and that outcome.

The HoR itself has not stated it is against any agreement at all. It should be noted that its announcement of the latest political agreement ended with the statement that: ‘We call for the peace dialogue to continue’.

But that statement misses an important point: the HoR, which has been officially illegitimate since November 2014, no longer even has the mandate it claimed to have been granted in June 2014’s elections. Equally, the negotiations have been closed: the current agreement was the seventh proposal, and was agreed by all negotiators. The HoR knows it is unreasonable to demand yet more negotiation, especially to attempt to return to an ‘agreement’ that was nothing of the sort, to attempt to save the position of a violent warlord.

And while it attempts to save one blood-soaked man, who by starting the Civil War must take the greatest responsibility for the deaths in Libya, and the country’s degeneration into a failed state since May 2014 (there are many more reasons than Haftar, but he bears the single largest responsibility amongst them for the immediate crisis in Libya today) Libyan civilians continue to die, and to struggle to survive day by day.

Haftar stands in opposition to peace in Libya. He is the power behind the HoR’s refusal even to vote on the sole chance Libya (currently) has for an end to its bitter civil war. Arguably, even if it did nothing else, the new government of national accord must remove him from a position of any influence.

Only then can Libya unite to remove IS and other illegal militias from its midst, and enable its people to rebuild.

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Libya’s neighbour to its immediate East, Egypt, held the second least convincing elections in its history last weekend (18-19 October).

The least convincing had taken place from 26-28th May 2014, when General Abdel Fateh al-Sisi, a bloodstained military dictator who shot his way into power, overthrowing the democratically-elected government, killing more than 1,400 people, maiming more than 4,000 and imprisoning 18,000 political opponents – including all members of the Muslim Brotherhood Party, which had been elected into power in 2012 – ‘won’ the state’s Presidency in which he ‘stood against’ two of his close supporters, taking an eye-wateringly improbable 96.91 per cent of the vote.

But last weekend ran it close.

In this election, called 17 months since Sisi’s false election as President, and 26 months since he slaughtered his way to power, 13 of Egypt’s 27 states went to the polls to elect a new Parliament.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has won every single Egyptian election in which it has been allowed to stand, was not only still banned, many of its members remained in prison.

They were joined there by representatives of almost every single other opposition party in the state, as Sisi has systematically outlawed – or jailed most of the leading members of – all political organisations which have not expressed their support for his illegal, bloody Presidency.

Though some groups managed to put up a few candidates, with little funding and facing systematic state repression they stood little chance.

This is not to say there was no choice for voters. Those who turned out to help elect 568 of the state Parliament’s 596 members (28 people will be directly appointed by Sisi), could choose between:

> For The Love of Egypt, a pro-Sisi coalition group;

> the Egyptian Front, led by Ahmed Shafiq, the last Premier appointed by the dictator removed by the Egyptian people in 2011, Hosni Mubarak, and a publicly-declared supporter of Sisi, and;

> Al Nur, an Islamist group which won the second highest number of votes in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak election (held in 2011-12: the Muslim Brotherhood won), and supported Sisi’s coup in 2013 after the Brotherhood refused to accede to Nur’s demand that it ban women from running for Parliament.

Perhaps in reflection of the varied and enticing options left available by a President who has made a mockery not only of the Arab Spring, but also the concepts of democracy, justice, morality and human decency in Egypt since 2013, just 26 per cent of the Egyptian electorate bothered to vote.

Whichever group wins after the remaining 14 provinces have voted (scheduled for 21 November), it seems that the Egyptian experiment with allowing its people to choose their leaders is now definitively over.

It took hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to rid themselves of dictatorship, millions to partake in its democratic process, and just one man – General Abdel Fateh al-Sisi – to reverse the entire process.

A farce of an election is set to leave a sham government in charge of Egypt once again, while its democratically-elected politicians – including but by no means only those of the Muslim Brotherhood – are left to rot in jail.  

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