The shift in the discourse of the head of the Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, concerning the future of power in Libya proposed new variables. Al-Sarraj changed the short-term political plan from a program to hand over power in six months (September 2020 – March 2021) to his leaving the presidency of the GNA in October 2020.
The key changes concern the “shifting alliances and political options”. Al-Sarraj’s reliance on a comprehensive dialogue mechanism to draw up a Libyan roadmap that ends the Skhirat Agreement stage reflects a new tendency towards an alliance with national forces participating in the Geneva process of a political settlement. The starting point in setting the agenda of that process was the Montreux round, (7-9 September 2020). Turkey’s response to Al-Sarraj’s announcement reflected Ankara didn’t welcome his move nor anticipated it.
Al-Sarraj’s move may be an optimistic step towards containing the political crisis Libya has been suffering from in recent years, but it will not usher in the political transition Libya needs.
The Skhirat Agreement resulted in a power formula that depends on multiple leaders. Hence, Al-Sarraj’s decision to step down means a change of one of the figureheads in the GNA rather than a change that represents the entirety of the government.
Settling the Libyan crisis is faced with intertwining challenges and opportunities.
1- Freeing the GNA’s decisions from Turkish hegemony
Al-Sarraj’s recent decisions, particularly the ceasefire and handover of power, have broken Turkey’s hegemony over the decisions of the Libyan Presidential Council. However, they will not ultimately end this hegemony. This is due to the many players who are close to the Turkish position, be they members of the Presidential Council, the High Council of State, or other institutions, especially the economic institutions such as the National Oil Corporation and the Central Bank of Libya. In addition, there is the Turkish military infrastructure in western Libya, where Ankara has acquired all military bases and has concluded a number of bilateral agreements in this regard.
Al-Sarraj’s stance should curb the signing of more agreements. However, the next Government of National Unity shall find itself constrained by those agreements, and it will face the challenge of working out that dilemma. This explains the statement of the spokesman of the Turkish presidency, Ibrahim Kalin, who said that Al-Sarraj’s handover of power shall not affect these agreements; and that either Turkey will find an alternative or seek to conduct its business away from Al-Sarraj – the statements of the GNA Defense Minister-designate Salah Al-Din Al-Namroush, during his visit this week to Turkey being the proof. Al-Namroush referred to Turkey’s role in “building and developing the army.”
2- Limiting divisions
This means limiting the divisions between the eastern and western Camps, through the rapprochement with the Libyan Speaker of Parliament Aguila Saleh, the ceasefire, and the Montreux round, which constitutes a preliminary step on the path of a comprehensive settlement. The two camps suffer from internal rifts. This was apparent, for example, during Al-Sarraj’s crisis with Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, and the differences in political visions between the General Command and parliament. It is likely the outcome of these divisions and disparities in each camp will lead to new alliances. In parallel to the rapprochement between the President of the Presidential Council and the Speaker of Parliament, there is rapprochement between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA), and Ahmed Maiteeq, Vice-Chairman of the Presidential Council. What is significant in these interactions is the dimension of the external factor, as Haftar’s rapprochement with Maiteeq created additional space for the Russian role in Libya. In contrast to the opposite alliance, Saleh and Al-Sarraj are the closest to European powers, the United States and the UN mission. This alliance’s most recent manifestation was the lifting of European and, later US, sanctions on the speaker of parliament.
3- The time factor
That Al-Sarraj chose to step down in October can be seen from different angles. The timing is in line with the approximate schedule for the comprehensive dialogue in Geneva. Al-Sarraj doesn’t wish for a power vacuum as well. He affirmed this through his support of the upcoming political dialogue that is expected to reformulate the unified authority in Libya, which is an opportunity to accelerate the completion of the current stage and move on to the following. However, the short time span limits the required political achievement and puts the country under pressure. Forming the authority, especially the presidency, government and parliament, in light of Montreux round, requires very rapid measures in Geneva. At the same time, the technical files, regarding the formation of this authority, have not yet been created. In addition, any emergency or change of course will be regarded as an obstacle to the resumption of comprehensive dialogue in Geneva, particularly because there is a chance of a foreign intervention that may want to impede these arrangements. Consequently, Al-Sarraj might be obliged to prolong the status quo.
4- Changing scene
The aforementioned opportunities and constraints are not developing in parallel due to the accelerating shifts on the Libyan stage. The new alliances saw rapprochement between Cairo and Western Libya. Cairo has become a key player in the settlement process with its influential and growing role in the path towards a political solution. This role was evident in Cairo’s initiative for political settlement and announcing that Sirte-Jufra is a red line for the ceasefire, as a prelude to launching the political process. Besides Cairo’s openness to western Libya, there is rapprochement between Cairo and the UN mission. Cairo plays a leading role in mending Libyan rifts, which could push the political process and allow it to overcome its obstacles. At the same time, there are also European and US efforts towards the same end.
In conclusion, Al-Sarraj’s power handover announcement is in line with the path towards a political solution, which is a safe exit from the impasse Libya has been suffering from throughout the past decade. It is important to put into consideration, however, the fragile political state of Libyan politics. Previous experiences have proven it is difficult to get out of consecutive transitional phases. Every political transition deals with recent problems instead of solving chronic dilemmas that weaken the Libyan state further more.
There is a chance to end this loop as long as there is a way to return to talks, bearing in mind that the current transitional phase was not easier than previous ones. On the contrary, it may have been burdened with more problems. One of these is that foreign intervention in Libya is no longer solely run from abroad. The tools foreign powers use, such as mercenaries, are capable of causing more chaos than local militias that can be somehow contained. Thus, Al-Sarraj handover of power may provide an opportunity for another authority, but ultimately it will not help Libya overcome its crisis.