Libya’s warring sides might be moving towards a political settlement through upcoming elections but risks for a military conflict remain.
Libya’s unity government has racked up a few victories as the country’s interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah received a warm welcome by his Egyptian counterparts during a visit last week, signing several deals with Cairo related to sectors from infrastructure to agriculture.
In the past, Egypt-backed eastern forces headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, an avowed enemy of the Tripoli-based UN-recognised government, which is now led by Dbeibah after Libya’s warring sides agreed to support the unity government in February.
Egypt’s warming to the unity government may signal that Libya is heading towards a political settlement after a destructive military conflict between Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and Tobruk-based eastern forces led by Haftar.
“Egypt now firmly understands that the dispute now in Libya has moved from a military one to a political one despite the fact that Cairo had supported Haftar,” says Imad Atoui, a political analyst on Libyan politics. During the meeting, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el Sisi also pledged his support for the elections, scheduled for December 24.
Haftar, who has been backed by Russia, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, failed to bring down the Tripoli government backed by Turkey and Qatar despite a long siege of Tripoli last year. As a result, under the pressure of the international community and some of his supporters, he was forced to accept a reconciliation deal, which paved the way for the formation of the unity government.
The recent Turkey-Egypt rapprochement may have also played a crucial role in bringing opposing sides to the table to talk through their differences and reach an agreement.
“The rapprochement and the deals we have seen recently demonstrates that Egypt now is convinced that the Unity Government is the only representative for Libya and all Libyans including Haftar’s wing. Thus, dealing with the Unity Government is the only path to build ties with Libya,” Atoui tells TRT World.
Egypt’s recent reception of the unity government shows Cairo has adjusted its positions regarding Libya, according to Atoui. But the Egyptian government still maintains ties with Haftar and the Tobruk-based parliament’s speaker, Aguila Saleh, through different channels. Sisi, received both men two days before his meeting with Dbebiah.
But Atoui believes that Egypt does not want to look like “a trouble-maker” because “the unity government is backed by the international community and any infringement” could place Cairo in a bad spot globally.
While everyone seems to agree on holding an election before the year ends, it’s not clear that everyone will accept its results, according to Atoui.
“Although there is a convergence upon elections on the surface,” differences over its modalities demonstrate “a flagrant divergence” between western and eastern forces of the country, Atoui says. The Tobruk-based parliament and the Tripoli-based state council are “diverging upon the roadmap of the timing of the elections and what the elections would be about,” he adds.
“Each party knows that once one accepts the political game of the elections, they will also be positioned to accept the possibility of losing it,” Atoui notes. According to some reports, Haftar will also try his chance as a candidate this time around.
While the unity government is not perfect, it has the support of the UN, whose supervision of the election is crucial to bring a stable government in power in Libya.
Atoui also sees some dangers in terms of UN pressure over holding the elections soon. While Haftar’s forces have withdrawn from much of western Libya, the warlord appears to have no regrets about his brutal campaign, he says.
As a result, if the elections were held in a political atmosphere where opposing political blocs have no real intention to accept poll results, then, “this may bring Libya back to a zero point,” according to the political analyst.
Both sides have their own loyalties because each has its own popular base in distinctly different two geographies, referring to the country’s eastern and western regions, Atoui says.
“If the elections took place [without any real power-sharing framework], the result would really open a door to bring back Libya to a military dispute since each wing believes they have a solid political popular ground,” he says.
The post-election period might really pave the way “for uncertainty,” the analyst concludes.