It’s called a ‘parliament’ because…

Bernardino LeonAt the end of last week, a cartoon graphic appeared on social media sites of a handshake in front of the Libyan flag.

Under the headline ‘Together for Peace in Libya’ the text reads ‘We will be highlighting in the next few days the importance of reaching a peaceful settlement in Libya as soon as possible, given the worsening security and economic conditions in the country. The aim is to explain the importance of the dialogue and the need to reach agreement to end the conflict and restore stability. We urge you to support this effort, in the national interest of Libya, by ‘sharing’ the infographs we are releasing as of today, through your professional as well as personal profile on social media.’

The message, which appears to have originated from the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was shared not only by public users, but also by bodies including the UK Embassy to Libya.

I wrote something guardedly optimistic on the topic, which was to have been published at some point later this week.

In the event, however, no more posts were released by UNSMIL until late on Monday night, when it issued The Libyan Political Agreement (Draft IV).

Within hours of its release, the document was at the centre of the derailment of nearly three months of political negotiation.

Talks led by UN Special Representative in Libya (and head of UNSMIL) Bernardino Leon have been running since March between Libya’s House of Representatives, HoR, (based in Tobruk, Eastern Libya, internationally-recognised but declared illegitimate by the Libyan High Court), and the General National Council, GNC, (based in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, having re-formed after elections which were scheduled to bring it to and end and elect the NTC, and not quorate when it appointed its own Prime Minister – in other words, equally illegitimate).

If that seems like a long time for negotiations (especially considering Leon has met both the HoR and GNC separately, on several occasions, since his appointment in November 2014) that’s because it is. And although the sides were reported to have reached agreement ‘on 80 per cent of matters’ it was also understood that the remaining 20 per cent ‘is the most difficult’.

The talks were due to restart this week, and it was in preparation for this that Leon released the Political Agreement, which both sides were to examine, debate and vote on, prior to meeting in Morocco to debate details and sign up to the plan.

On the face of it, the Agreement (which can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/libya-agreement) was a reasonable proposal. It suggested setting up a stable Libyan armed force, all of whose members which would be prevented from political activity (this would have prevented the continued manipulation by Khalifa Haftar of the so-called Operation Dignity force, which is currently fighting for control of Benghazi against Al-Qaeda affiliated militia Ansar Al Sharia, and also seeks to destroy the ‘Libya Dawn’ (Al Fajr) force, which claims to support the GNC – though does not take orders from it and is not under its control. Haftar claims to support the HoR, but began fighting before it existed, and had previously called for a coup on Libyan national television).

It also proposed outlawing all terrorist paramilitary forces (which would have applied to both Ansar Al-Sharia and IS, both of which are active combatants in Libya’s ongoing Second Civil War) and any illegal militia groups, which would have removed any cover previously offered to both the Dignity and Dawn forces.

With those laws in place, the Agreement proposed the removal of all military forces from the streets of Libyan cities – the first time since February 2011 that would have been achieved – as well as from important civil and economic sites such as oilfields and water distribution foci.

More than that, the Agreement would have officially outlawed both pro- and anti- Muslim intimidation (IS and Ansar have been delivering street ‘justice’ in the name of Sharia law, while the GNC has, during the negotiations, pinpointed moments at which politicians in the HoR have used threatening language about the GNC’s major political bloc, which belongs to the international Muslim Brotherhood movement).

Neither the GNC nor HoR has made any official objection to any of these proposals.

But at the centre of the Agreement was the political proposal of its title.

The document created by UNSMIL calls for the creation of a Government of National Accord, which would exist for 12 months from the signing of the Agreement. The Government would be expected to oversee the creation of the Libyan Constitution (which is now 16 months overdue), and set out and enact a full legislative programme for the year it existed.

It was to be made up of a Council of Ministers (the Libyan Prime Minister and two Deputies, as well as other ministers), and a Presidency Council (including the Prime Minister, two deputies and two Ministers).

The state’s legislature was to be the HoR.

Its consultative body would have been the High Council of State – a 120-member ‘advisory’ body, which would have binding opinion (based on a set majority vote) on draft laws and legislative decisions which were to be passed to the HoR from the Government of National Accord (this would apply only to domestic policy – it would be entitled only to an advisory role on international matters).

In effect, this meant that the High Council of State would have been the weakest of the arms of government, but held a prestigious and strategically-powerful position, with the ability to block some proposed laws, and be heard on other matters.

It was to be made up of 30 completely new members of government, as well as 90 of the current GNC.

Shortly before lunchtime on Tuesday (9 June) the HoR announced it would not attend the ongoing UNSMIL talks, as a result of the proposals within the Agreement.

‘Leon has brought us back to square one,’ Essa Abdel-Kauoum, HoR spokesman, said. ‘To appease an ideological group in a horrible way. He succumbed to extortion.’

In life, most of us come to understand that the weaker someone’s position, the harder they are willing to push to defend it, and it’s hard not to conclude that this is what fuelled Abdel Kauoum’s statement.

We can ignore the claim that one of Libya’s illegitimate governments was powerful enough to strongarm the United Nations, and we can gloss over the word ‘ideological’ (for which, read ‘extremist Muslim’, which is not an accurate description of the GNC, based on its words and actions).

But to claim that after three months of negotiation, coming to a conclusion that allowed the HoR’s fellow at the negotiating table a small share of the power which was being granted to the HoR itself, and then describing that as ‘back at square one’, or ‘appeasing’ in a ‘horrible way’ seems to indicate that it was never really committed to the idea of negotiation to begin with: one does not ‘negotiate’ simply to defeat one’s rival and walk away with the spoils.

The GNC – or more accurately the Muslim Brotherhood – welcomed the Agreement.

Its leader in Libya, Mohammed Sawan, said: ‘We think this should be built upon to reach an agreement that ends the political division and achieves stability.’

Before we are carried away, however, we should remind ourselves that the GNC is also entirely without legitimacy as a political body in Libya, and has just as little right to any modicum of power there as the HoR’s shaky claim – perhaps even less.

In the end, the reasons for HoR’s objection are meaningless. The Second Libyan Civil War is in its second year (the first lasted eight months) and things are getting worse, rather than better.

At around the same time as the HoR was rejecting the Agreement, IS seized a base on the West side of Sirte, which was being used by Fajr to attack the terrorist militia (the fact both the militia ‘supporting’ the GNC and that ‘fighting for’ the HoR have launched attacks on IS’ strongholds in Sirte and Derna, respectively, has caused some optimistic commentators to suggest opposition to IS might bring both sides together: where there is life, there is hope).

Though stories have been circulating for several months that IS has ‘conquered’ Sirte (not least coming from IS itself) and have as yet not been proven entirely correct, taking the base was both a symbolic and strategically important gesture: as the war continues, there are signs IS is becoming stronger.

Even if it were not, the facts are that Libya’s economy is on the verge of collapse, confidence in its political and military bodies has never been lower, and that – most importantly of all – people are dying, every single day.

Libya needs people who are prepared to talk more now than it ever has before. It needs argument, and agreement, and it needs its political representatives to be prepared to give a little away to gain a state which is safe for all, and free from IS and other terror organisations.

Of course, the latest round of UNSMIL talks may have delivered nothing.

Neither ‘government’ is really in any position to deliver peace in Libya even if they could agree. The HoR has no power over Haftar and the Dignity militia, while the GNC exercises equally little control over Fajr.

And it’s certain that Ansar Al Sharia and IS are even less likely to lay down their arms at the behest of either parliament.

But Bernardino’s talks are literally the only game in town when it comes to the possibility of a peaceful resolution of Libya’s second civil war.

And while it seems wildly unlikely that the combatants will be convinced to stop fighting by an agreement between two bodies which have little relevance to most militia members, if example is to encourage peace, then the GNC, HoR and Bernardino are the only actors with any chance of making it happen.

Failing that, even the most cynical of observers could concede that a unified Fajr and Dignity force defeating both IS and Ansar Al Sharia would be far the best of several less than optimal outcomes.

But at present, as of lunchtime on Tuesday 9 June, the HoR stands in the way of any of these developments.

Neither it or the GNC really stands any chance of ‘winning’ Libya’s Second Civil War. And while it continues, the people of Libya lose money, their homes, many lose their lives, and most start to lose all hope.

It is time for the HoR to set aside its pride, and its weak claim to legitimacy, to come back to the table and breathe new life into the hope that things can improve in and for Libya.

For perhaps the first time, the buck actually stops with the HoR – it holds real power, and Libya’s future – or at least its potential – rests upon it. It must not, now, stumble and drop the load it has demanded to carry.

In a previous blog, I said that ‘talk is cheap’. I pointed out then, that it was still better than bullets and missiles.

Today, I’ll repeat – ‘talk is cheap’. But the moment when talk is your only hope is not the moment to shut your mouth.

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