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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Libya deal is a step forward but challenges remain

Key to the new deal is the promise that Libya’s militias will be dissolved and replaced with regular police and an army. But those in Tripoli are unlikely to give up their power willingly

The Libya peace agreement announced in Paris on Tuesday is a breakthrough, committing all the country’s many factions to a ceasefire, united government and fresh elections to end a three year civil war. However, serious challenges remain and its implementation is still some way off.

Signed by both the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord, prime minister Fayez Al Sarraj, and the commander of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, it sets out a comprehensive path to peace.

The Libyan National Army is aligned with the elected parliament in Libya's east, an administration that rivals the Government of National Accord based in the capital, Tripoli.

Step one of the peace agreement is an end to battles that have raged across the country, principally between the Libyan National Army and assorted militias aligned with Mr Al Sarraj’s government.

That step is to be followed by a commitment from all sides to the Libya Political Agreement, a proposed constitution that underpin’s Mr Al Sarraj’s administration, and lays out a complicated governing formula designed to involve all of the country’s tribal factions.

The Paris deal says the Libya Political Agreement will itself be a stepping stone to yet another constitution. That will be drafted by the independent Constitutional Assembly - elected in 2014 and currently moribund - which will lay the groundwork for new elections as soon as possible.

Key to the new deal is the promise that Libya’s militias, which were mostly formed during the 2011 uprising that deposed and killed former leader Muammar Qaddafi, will be dissolved and replaced with regular police and an army likely controlled by Field Marshal Haftar.

French diplomats who crafted the deal have certainly sent a bold message about the commitment of the country’s new and energetic president, Emmanuel Macron, to resolving Libya’s chaos.

Paris has also shown willingness to work within a wider process. The French-crafted agreement notes that it is only a new stage in a pre-existing peace initiative begun by the UAE in Abu Dhabi on May 3, when diplomats first managed to bring Mr Al Sarraj and Field Marshal Haftar together.

The agreement also suggests a role for the UN, expressing hope that the details of the deal can be fleshed out by Ghassan Salame, the highly rated Lebanese academic and former culture minister who has recently taken over as the United Nations Support Mission for Libya envoy.

Many Libyans will desperately hope Mr Macron can succeed in his peace-building efforts. Civil war in Libya has left 400,000 people displaced, ruined the economy and created a chaos that militant groups, including ISIL, have taken advantage of to set up bases.

Earlier this month, Field Marshal Haftar’s forces crushed the final enclaves of militant militias in the eastern city of Benghazi. Residents celebrated this victory with street parties though the operation has turned much of the city to rubble. If Mr Macron’s bold initiative can bring peace, the French president can expect to see Libyan streets named after him in gratitude.

There are grave doubts that the peace deal can succeed in the present environment, however, with the key sticking point being the requirement that militias dissolve.

Tripoli militias have become political players in their own right. Militia leaders know that if they voluntarily dissolve then they will lose this political power, and, despite a promise of amnesty in the Paris declaration, some will no doubt fear facing retribution, or investigation, for their actions since capturing the capital in the summer of 2014.

A second problem confronting the Paris deal is that Field Marshal Haftar speaks for the army, but not for the House of Representatives parliament in Tobruk, which supervises the army and has not yet signed the peace deal.

The parliament knows it is in a strong position, because Field Marshal’s forces now control two-thirds of the country including key oil ports it captured from militias last September.

Many Tobruk parliamentarians will be happy if the Tripoli militias dissolve, bringing law and security to the country’s troubled capital. But if the militias remain in place, the parliament is likely to continue backing Field Marshal Haftar who declared in June his intention to move the army to Tripoli and rid it of militias — albeit by peaceful means if possible.

All eyes will now be on Mr Al Sarraj to see if he can deliver on his part of the bargain. His government, installed in the capital in March last year, relies on some Tripoli militias for security, while other city militias back a third rival government, the so-called National Salvation Government. Mr Al Sarraj must use all his diplomatic skills to persuade both sets of militias to lay down their arms, or risk seeing the Paris agreement stall — or even collapse altogether.