Libyan High Council President Khalid al-Mishri warns that a fragile ceasefire in the war-ravaged North African country could fall apart if elections are not held near the end of the year as planned.
“Unless we hold elections near the December 24 date, I fear the conflict will return,” al-Mishri told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
Libya fell in the civil war after a 2012 NATO intervention that overthrew then-oil-rich dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The nation was divided between the UN-recognized Tripartite Government (GNA) in the west, based in Tripoli, and the eastern militias led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Speaking about the risks that could derail the election, al-Mishri said: “Security remains the biggest challenge and Haftar is the obstacle. We must see sincere efforts by Western countries to convince Haftar to stay away from threatening democracy. “
In 2019, Haftar launched an assault with Eastern forces against the GNA. The conflict took the form of an international war for power, as external powers competed for influence. Haftar received support from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia and France, while Turkey supported the GNA.
Haftar’s assault on Tripoli and the military campaign stalled after Ankara provided the Tripoli government with military equipment, Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries.
A ceasefire in October 2020 led to the formation of a caretaker government, and in March it was tasked with leading the country towards the December 2021 elections.
The issue of foreign fighters has become a major point of contention as the country works to reunite and arrives when UN special envoy to Libya Jan Kubis recently said they have begun. efforts to reopen Libya’s main coastal road, linking the east and west of the country. stopped.
Al-Mishri said the presence of foreign fighters prevents the reopening. “We can not afford to open the highway with the presence of these forces.
“From our side there is no presence of foreign soldiers 200 km [90 miles] west of the road and when we talk about foreign troops we mean Turkish soldiers. They are not there, “he said.
Complicating matters, al-Mishri claimed that Haftar has limited control over the integrated foreign fighters around him. the key city of Sirte and the western part of the road, particularly Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group.
“Haftar and his forces have no control over the Wagner group. They can’t do anything about it, “he said.
The new government in Libya says it is more appropriate to speak directly with Moscow. “We have addressed this issue with the Russians. I can’t say that we have made much progress, but the issue is on the table, “he added.
According to UN estimates in December, at least 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries remain in the country, including Syrians, Russians, Sudanese and Chadians.
Libya’s new Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush has recently been attacked by pro-Ankara camps in Libya for demanding the withdrawal of Turkish soldiers from the country along with other foreign fighters.
The High Council of State, headed by al-Mishri, is considered close to Turkey. He said the council supports Turkish troops leaving the country, but only when the elections are held does stability return and Haftar’s threat has disappeared.
Asked by the foreign minister’s comments, al-Mishri said: “[She] he came to this position based on an agreement to assign certain positions to people just to appease everyone. He did not know the position well and Libya. He doesn’t know much about the complications that occur on the ground. “
“Loose foreign forces”
In December 2019, the UN-recognized government of Libya formally requested Turkish military aid in the face of the Haftar assault.
Turkish troops remain stationed across the country, including al-Watiya Air Base to train helicopters and a naval base in the Mediterranean coastal city of Misrata.
Al-Mishri said the Turkish presence in Libya is not comparable to other foreign forces, as “it is legal and clear. On the opposite side, we have loose foreign forces that no one controls, not even Haftar.”
The state of Turkish troops in Libya comes as ties between Ankara and the country’s new National Unity Government have been concentrated following Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s visit to Ankara in April.
Ankara is eager to see that infrastructure projects that were awarded to companies before the outbreak of the civil war remain in Turkish hands, a position in which Dbeibeh is committed.
In addition to old initiatives, Turkish companies signed a number of new agreements for construction projects, including the construction of power plants, a shopping center and an airport terminal during the Dbeibeh visit.
The Libyan leader also expressed his commitment to a controversial 2019 maritime agreement signed by the GNA and Ankara that Greece claims violates its sovereign rights.
“This agreement is for the benefit of the Libyan people,” al-Mishri said when asked about the agreement, which Athens says violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Lots of projects
While Turkey may have stronger ties to the interim government, it is not the only country seeking to play a role in rebuilding the oil-rich state.
Companies from the former colonial power in Libya, Italy, will work on widening a coastal road to Tunisia. France, an early sponsor of Haftar, has reopened its embassy in Tripoli as it seeks a more important role in reconstruction.
“Turkey will have a preferable position,” al-Mishri said, “but the country is big and economic projects are plentiful. With the right government we can satisfy everyone.”
Libya’s largest neighbor, Egypt, is also looking to benefit. Before the conflict, Libya was an important destination for Egyptian expatriate workers. Cairo also has security interests with its neighbor.
Egypt was an early sponsor of Haftar and in June 2020, when its offensive against Tripoli collapsed, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi threatened military intervention in Libya if the GNA pushed westward towards the strategic city of Sirte.
Al-Mishri said since the formation of new government relations has improved.
“Egypt was on the wrong side. They were looking for a strong ally to ensure security on the western border and had the impression that Haftar was that ally, “he reflected.” Recent communications have broken the ice and we now understand each other in a better way. “
“Create a new dictator”
He stressed the importance of thawing tensions between Ankara and Cairo for the political process. “We realize once we have good Egyptian-Turkish relations, that they will reflect positively on Libya,” al-Mishri said.
Although fighting has almost ceased and progress is being made in unifying state institutions, Libya is still in an extremely fragile position. Weapons continue to move in the country and politicians are accused of delaying the government transition in order to preserve their power.
The High Council of State is calling for a referendum on a constitution ahead of the December elections.
Some parties accuse the council and its eastern counterpart in the House of Representatives of using the referendum as a means to delay voting.
Al-Mishri said holding the referendum is crucial. “If we hold elections without the referendum on the constitution and incorporate a new president, it would be similar to the creation of a new dictator.”
If a referendum is not held in time, one possibility he suggested is to implement a draft constitution – approved by the High Council of State and the House of Representatives – which could be adapted for five years.
This summer it will test whether Libya can move forward with a political solution to its nearly ten-year conflict. The continued presence of foreign fighters and arms transfers mean that the external powers involved in Libya are covering their bets.