After the recent round of Libya’s 6+6 Committee, which was held in Bouznika, Morocco, on 24 May, to settle controversial parts of the Libyan election law, the situation in Libya quickly changed to one of security tension, with debate over the military operation carried out by the Government of National Unity (GNU) in the Zawiya region against hideouts of organized crime, according to the GNU and the Chief of Staff of Libya’s Western Region, along with the armed clashes between the 444 Brigade of the Libyan Army and the Deterrence Apparatus for Fighting Terrorism and Organized Crime (DAFTOC) that occurred in multiple locations in Tripoli.
This alternation between the security and political spheres does not appear to be novel to the Libyan circumstance. This is, arguably, the typical cycle of the dynamics in the Libyan scene, but the new norm is that politicians have mastered how to present these scenes differently than in the past. Previously, political and security interests of the Libyan parties collided as a result of their disagreements.
Much Ado about Nothing
Regarding the most recent round of talks, the 6+6 Committee released a statement claiming that it had been decided to remove the two contentious articles concerning the presidential candidacies of members of the armed forces and dual nationals, without specifying what was agreed upon. However, participants’ comments on these articles do not reflect this consensus; rather, it was agreed on the previous arrangements for districting and the creation of a two-chamber legislative body (the House of Representatives and the Senate). Indeed, the Committee’s statement suggested more discussion is required to resolve some of the issues in this file, indicating that the committee’s work may run longer than the June deadline.
The security situation is no better. The security operation in Tripoli has been mired in controversy due to a number of factors, including the unilateral action of the Ministry of Defense of the GNU, without coordination with the Presidential Council, and the use of Turkish drones. However, a meeting between the Presidential Council and the head of the GNU (the Minister of Defense) was held on 30 May, days after this controversy. In the meantime, the Turkish ambassador to Libya made it clear that his country does not participate in the operation, which means the Unity Government operated the drones independently of external interference.
The same is true of the clashes between the DAFTOC and the 444 Brigade that occurred in various Tripoli neighborhoods and resulted in one fatality, numerous injuries, and the disruption of study and institutional work. Following a round of escalation, the conflict between the two parties was subdued thanks to the mediation efforts of representatives from the faction leaders and the Ministry of Interior of the GNU, and the latter issued a statement claiming that “a dispute between two official forces had been contained”, as if nothing had happened and the situation had returned to normal.
The outcome of these recurrent events in Libya reveals the capacity to adjust to the brittle security and chaotic political environment. There is no transparent political system in place. This also holds true for the security procedure, as can be illustrated by the following:
I- Security Vulnerability
After roughly two and a half years of work by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), there has been no tangible progress in the security file, as evidenced by the details of the Zawiya and Tripoli scenes. While it is true that the 5+5 JMC is not in charge of resolving conflicts between armed factions that fall under the purview of the GNU or leading military operations against the hideouts of organized crime, these security issues were not supposed to exist until now based on the authority granted to the committee in the cease-fire agreement (of October 2020). It is intended to address the issues that contributed to the country’s civil war’s earlier outbreak, such as working to resolve the conflict within the military establishment rather than simply managing it. Additionally, it has the power to put an end to the phenomenon of foreign mercenaries operating within the country, while there are signs that some of these elements are being incorporated into the security apparatus.
In addition to the aforementioned, it is perhaps also remarkable that there was an effort by outside forces, specifically the United States, to reorient the JMC’s role in a direction that circumvent its primary responsibilities and is outside the scope of its authority. Washington is pressuring the JMC to create a joint force between the two parties (east and west Libya) while pretending to work on security stability in some areas to set the stage for the elections. In reality, Washington wants to undermine the role of the Russian Wagner group in Libya. In April 2023, Ambassador Richard Norland, the Special Envoy of the United States for Libya, spoke with President Mohamed Idriss Deby of Chad about this situation and hinted that the main deployment theater for the JMC that is currently being formed will be in southern Libya.
Regarding security and the military operation in Zawiya, it is impossible to ignore local reports detailing the expansion of organized crime, as well as the violations broadcast by activists in Zawiya on social media, which were committed by mercenaries and criminal gangs against the local population. This provides justification for government action to resolve the issue. However, a number of indicators regarding how the military is handling these dens must be taken into consideration, such as what was revealed by local video reports that a gunboat was targeted, which resulted in the death of two members of the Libyan coast guard, as an indication of insufficient experience and the degree of randomness in handling a situation of this nature.
Additionally, the GNU’s Defense Ministry statement praised the military’s performance and the precise targeting of organized crime hideouts in Zawiya, at a time when the capital is being shelled by two armed factions that are associated with the government. This raises some questions, such as how the government can tighten security and impose order in Zawiya outside the capital while there is a battle taking place inside the capital.
II- Political Exploitation
Security chaos pushed the political scene in the same rotational direction. The security operation in Zawiya once again brought to light the extent of the political rift between the East and the West. The House of Representatives’ (HOR) proceedings on 30 May were largely derailed by the unfolding situation in Zawiya. In a statement, the HOR stated that it believed the operation to be a settling of accounts, as shown by the targeting of Ali Abu Zariba’s home, a member of parliament for the Zawiya district. It also addressed the Turkish Parliament about the use of Turkish drones in the operation, despite the fact that the Turkish ambassador to Libya confirmed that his country did not intervene in the operation. Furthermore, the Turkish Parliament lacks authority in this regard. Its role is limited to deciding whether or not to extend Turkish forces in Libya based on a government memorandum. In contrast to the HOR, the head of the State Council, Khaled Al-Mishri, defended Turkey while criticizing the Dbeibeh government for using drones to bomb Zawiya. He also demanded that Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the head of the GNU, be stripped of his authority to use them.
The retraction of recent talk about the scenario of merging the East and West governments by amending the GNU and the resurgence of talk about forming a third unified government for elections are perhaps the two most significant developments from the aforementioned political exploitation scene. During a meeting between Saleh and notables of the city of Zintan at the headquarters of the government of eastern Libya, Saleh revealed that the 6+6 Committee is close to reaching a consensus and that the parliament seeks to hold elections under the supervision of a single Libyan government.
This setting sheds light on the political spiral in Libya. The parameters of the détente between the State Council and the HOR regarding contentious election-related articles are still unclear. There may be suggested scenarios, but none have been revealed. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the 6+6 Committee’s statement recommended a unified government for the elections, which is a recommendation beyond the scope of the Committee’s work. Nonetheless, this recommendation confirms the connection between the committee’s work, in the event of reaching an agreement on the controversial articles, and the aspirations of the two councils to form a new government as a direct next step.
Nevertheless, the nature of the relationship and the accumulated experience in the relationship between the two chambers reveal the difficulty of building consensus on a third government, even if there is a desire or agreement on the principle, to say nothing of the visible competition between the Speakers of the HOR and the State Council and the head of the GNU.
Given the specifics of the two parties’ agreement on the prime minister’s identity, the number of ministries, the distribution of their portfolios, their powers, and the duration of their work, as well as the objective challenges related to the position of the GNU that will refuse to cede power and will remain in office until elections are held, it will be very challenging for the GNU to build this consensus when the time comes to form the third or unified government. As a result, the formation of a third government could reignite the security situation, and the security forces and armed factions in Tripoli will realign against this direction as it poses a threat to their interests.
Political instability and security fragility often go hand in hand, with one exacerbating the other. In Libya, despite the ability of political and security forces to manage and adapt to these challenges, it is crucial to ensure that any political and security mechanisms put in place are equitable and responsive to the needs of all Libyans. The formation of such mechanisms can be an important step towards achieving stability and security in the country. The 5+5 Committee continues to represent the perspectives of two teams, one from the East and the other from the West, who occasionally concur and occasionally disagree, without registering a concrete advancement in the key goals. This was repeated in the 6+6 Committee, which represents a different level of management of the connection between the HOR and the State Council. When it comes to the JMC’s performance, there are no clear distinctions between the political and military aspects.
The same holds true for the Parliamentary Committee, where politics and legislation mingle. Given this circumstance, it is challenging to make a qualitative advancement that might change the Libyan scene. And even if a breakthrough is made in just one step, the next step will not likely go as planned. With the arrival of the final station, i.e. the elections, there will be no guarantees that security will support politics, and as time passes, these complications on the Libyan scene become increasingly difficult to resolve.
Can the Rules of the Game Be Changed?
To escape the dark tunnel scenario, it may be necessary to alter the game’s rules, which were established by a series of agreements beginning with the Skhirat Agreement, which established a bilateral balance of regional powers between East and West, followed by the Berlin Process, which introduced a political quota system. The quota system increased the game’s complexity, and as a result, mechanisms were developed to manage the crisis rather than resolve it. It also changed the regional balance into a system of centers of power from which networks of interests grew. Any real change to these networks will endanger its members’ interests, which revolve around the factor of power, whether it be the power of money or the power of weapons and, consequently, influence. To break the rules, power and wealth must be transferred from clientelism and networks of interests to the state, which must then have monopoly over the sources of power and sovereignty.