Local action began in Cairo with meetings that brought together the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Tobruk Aguila Saleh and the Chairman of the High Council of State Khaled Al-Mishri on 5 January. This was followed by a meeting with Saleh and the General Commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, another meeting between Haftar and head of the Libyan Presidential Council Mohamed Al-Manfi, and a meeting between all three.
In the meeting between Saleh and Al-Mishri, discussions focused on the constitutional basis of elections, the process of unifying executive powers and appointing leadership posts, which the two parties have been negotiating for years without progress.
Saleh and Haftar tackled the means to unify political visions regarding the West’s initiative to melt the political iceberg.
The meeting bringing together Saleh, Haftar, and Al-Manfi saw discussions over financial arrangements, the allocation of the budget to different regions, the salaries of LNA figures, and the elections which the West has been pushing the Libyan parties to hold on the dates set in the 2020 roadmap.
Despite high hopes for the Cairo meetings, the Libyan parties seemed to change their positions after returning to Libya. In televised statements to local channels, Saleh said that his agreement with Al-Mishri in Cairo is still “oral” and that no agreements have been reached regarding the political process with the High Council of the State.
Saleh accused the council of procrastination regarding the demands of the House of Representatives. The two figures agreed, however, to refer the points of contention on the constitutional basis of each house to the relevant party. If this doesn’t work, a referendum will be held.
Saleh revealed that during his meeting with Haftar and Al-Manfi in Cairo he brought up the need to form a new government that would supervise the elections, distribute wealth fairly among the three regions of the country, and restore leadership and unify it under the House of Representatives. This would mean monitoring executive power and unifying the armed forces under the banner of the General Command led by Haftar.
He reiterated his willingness to accept amendments to the Constitutional Declaration issued in August 2011, adding articles by way of a constitutional basis for the elections. Local parties felt Saleh was withdrawing what he said in his talks with Al-Mishri in Cairo.
In statements to local channels, Saleh took issue with Al-Mishri announcing the imminent approval of a constitutional basis in agreement with the House of Representatives, pointing out that the High Council of State is an advisory body with no jurisdiction to make such decisions.
Saleh’s statements were in response to criticisms directed by a number of parliament members in Benghazi on 17 January at his meeting with Al-Mishri. The parliamentarians criticised the militias’ control of the High Council of State, and Al-Mishri responded by tweeting that he supports those who seek “harmony and stability” and that “whoever wants otherwise” will reap the results of “his bad intentions”.
Despite the declared differences between the House of Representatives and the state regarding political arrangements, the relationship between the two houses has been close for over a year now due to their political agreement on executive power issues. Local and Western parties, however, insist on the need to hold elections before executive power can be granted, to avoid claims of weak legitimacy.
In tandem with the meetings of Al-Mishri and Saleh in Cairo, more than 50 Libyan political figures, including party heads and active independents, met in Istanbul, Turkey, on 5 January to discuss ways to end the political deadlock and the conditions and criteria for choosing the country’s president and executive head.
They also tackled drafting a national charter that puts the public interest first, and said a subsequent meeting will be held in Libya to set an organisational framework for it.
The Istanbul meeting was an attempt by the participants to confirm that they would take part in any upcoming negotiations to break the political stalemate and affirm their rejection of the two houses’ right to dictate upcoming political arrangements. They also encouraged the United Nations Support Mission in Libya to form a new dialogue authority to formulate arrangements, as was the case with the Skhirat (2015) and Berlin (2020) processes, which resulted in new executive powers in charge but did not address the main causes of the crisis.
Local authorities have agreed on the need to address executive power issues as a precondition for political progress, then hold elections. This contradicts the approach of the West, led by the US, which insists that elections should be held first to avoid appeals against any agreed-on political arrangements. Indications of consensus among the foreign powers concerned with Libya regarding its political process nonetheless remain unclear.
CIA head William Burns flew to Libya on 12 January. He held a meeting with Haftar in Benghazi and the head of the interim Government of National Unity Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli. Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan was also in Tripoli, where he met Dbeibah, Al-Manfi, and Al-Mishri later.
Haftar’s media office did not issue any statements regarding his meeting with Burns, whereas Dbeibah’s media office reported that he discussed with Burns “economic and security cooperation between the US and Libya.” The office added that Burns stressed the need to develop economic and security cooperation between the two countries, and lauded the stability and growth Libya has witnessed recently.
Media reports stated that Burns’ meeting with Dbeibah and Haftar focused on three main topics: oil, the fighters of the Russian Wagner paramilitary group, and security cooperation. The reports added that Burns asked them to coordinate their stances with the US and sever ties with the Russian company designated by the White House as a transnational criminal group and threatened to add more penalties for its ties with the Kremlin.
After Burns, the Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy to Libya Leslie Ordman visited Benghazi on 17 January along with Deputy Commander of the US Air Forces in Europe and Africa Lieutenant General John D Lamontagne, meeting with Saleh, Haftar, and other local players.
Ordman said he discussed with Saleh the importance of building unity and bridging differences to serve the interests of the Libyan people, including enabling choose their leaders, according to the US embassy’s account on Twitter.
Saleh’s media office said the Libyan official assured Ordman of the legitimacy of the House of Representatives and its concern with approving the constitutional and legal arrangements for the elections, and stressed the need to establish a fair distribution mechanism for the wealth of Libyans among all regions.
The US embassy added that the meeting with Haftar also discussed air coordination, including aviation, and the importance of reuniting the Libyan army under democratically elected civilian command. Haftar’s media office did not issue a statement regarding the meeting.
Dbeibah and Al-Manfi did not issue statements following their meeting with Fidan either, but Al-Mishri said he and his Turkish guest discussed the political and security process.
Following the unofficial meeting between Al-Mishri, Fidan, Presidential Council member Abdullah Al-Lafi, and Governor of the Central Bank Al-Siddiq Al-Kabeer, Al-Mishri said they discussed ways to overcome obstacles in the way of the political process and efforts to ensure the elections have sound constitutional and legal foundations.
This meeting carried a message to foreign powers about Turkey’s influence in Tripoli and its ability to unite the active parties in western Libya, pre-empting any arrangements the West may propose in the foreseeable future, which may become clearer after Washington’s meeting of Western special envoys to Libya late next month.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.