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Libya’s Legitimacy Crisis: Hostage to the Skhirat Agreement

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On 17 December 2015, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) joined Libyan delegations in celebrating the signing of the Skhirat agreement, or Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Skhirat established the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and was supposed to end the institutional and political split that emerged following the disputed 2014 elections. Instead of unifying the country, the Skhirat agreement has further deepened Libya’s legitimacy crisis, gradually becoming an obstacle to peace. Despite the signing of the agreement by most of the delegates, the procedural and legal aspects of the LPA did not go as intended, creating further institutional and political fragmentation and derailing the country’s transition instead of salvaging it.

The 2014 elections, which established the House of Representatives (HoR) as Libya’s new legislator, were rejected by the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, created following the previous 2012 elections. A few months later, the Supreme Court in Tripoli ruled to nullify the HoR’s establishment following a petition filed by a number of Islamist-leaning and Misratan politicians. The HoR rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling saying it was made under the threat of guns, heralding the institutional split between western and eastern Libya.

In December 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) recognised the GNA as Libya’s sole executive authority, but remnants of the GNC in Tripoli and its National Salvation Government led by Khalifa al-Ghwell refused to hand over power to the GNA. At that moment, Libya had three different governments, none of which was able to govern, but each was capable of blocking initiatives by the other two. The Interim Libyan Government in Bayda, headed by Abdullah al-Thinni, refused to hand over power until the GNA was ratified by the HoR, and the necessary constitutional requirements to adopt the agreement into the Interim Constitutional Declaration (ICD) were met.

The ICD is the country’s political roadmap governing the post-Gaddafi transition. On his part, the commander of the eastern-based Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, reluctantly agreed to send his own representative for the Presidential Council of the GNA, Ali al-Qatrani. But Haftar never recognised the Skhirat agreement and considered it a threat to his own ambitions to rule Libya. On two occasions in 2017 and 2020, he declared the Skhirat agreement void. In his latest attempt last month, Haftar also unilaterally declared himself Libya’s ruler by popular mandate.

It is time to move beyond the Skhirat agreement, developing a new mechanism for reconciliation and the formation of a domestically and internationally legitimate government in Libya. Going forward, the international community must avoid hasty conferment of international legitimacy. In the future, legal and binding domestic legitimacy must precede the conferment of international legitimacy. This can be done by ensuring that legal and procedural requirements to ratify any agreement are met before the conferment of international recognition through UNSC resolution to any of the bodies that emanate from a future political agreement.

Additionally, this should entail conditioning international recognition of the rump GNA Tripoli government, in the same way that the international recognition of the HoR in Tobruk back in 2014-2015 was limited to pressure the two sides to the negotiation table, ultimately achieving the LPA in Skhirat. This could be achieved by issuing a UNSC resolution to that effect.

The GNA, although recognised by the UN via UNSC Resolution 2259, which legitimised the LPA, has been a rump institution since early 2017 and now represents only one side of the ongoing conflict. In a similar fashion, the HoR which was also legitimised by the same UNSC Resolution, is also a rump parliament which today suffers from similar legal and institutional shortcomings for legitimacy, notwithstanding its election in 2014.

With regards to the rump Tripoli government, for instance, two of the GNA’s Presidential Council deputies, Ali al-Qatrani and Fathi al-Majbri, have boycotted the Tripoli-based GNA and declared their support for Haftar, and another, Musa al-Koni, resigned in January 2017. Out of the nine members of the Presidential Council of the GNA, only five are currently active. Additionally, Article 1, paragraph 3 of the LPA stipulates that decisions made by the GNA’s Presidential Council are to be issued unanimously by the President and his deputies. A legal quorum that has not been met since January 2017.

With these developments in mind, it is imperative that the United Nations and international actors stop conferring automatic legitimacy and international recognition to the rump GNA in Tripoli while ignoring or sidelining the similarly rump HoR parliament in Tobruk. In this regard, it is important to note that the HoR in Tobruk is also recognized by the same UNSC resolution as the country’s sole legislator. It is the legislator that was supposed to ratify the Skhirat agreement and legitimise the GNA, but this never happened due to its internal divisions and disagreements as well as pressure from Haftar and his allies. The HoR is handicapped. Its 200 members are at the mercy of its Speaker, Agilah Saleh, and has been unable to hold its meetings to ratify the LPA and enact the required legal and constitutional amendments to activate it. The HoR splintered between supporters and opponents of the LPA.

The GNA has exploited and abused its international recognition to make requests for military and counterterrorism assistance and cooperation. Examples include the GNA’s invitation to set-up an Italian military presence in Misrata in the form of a military hospital in 2016, counterterrorism coordination efforts with the US against the so-called Islamic State in Sirte and, most recently, the direct Turkish military intervention to support the GNA against Haftar’s military campaign.

Any such assistance to the GNA should have been conditioned with a clear commitment to a political reconciliation process to end the country’s legitimacy crisis, and stop the coercion and domination of government institutions in Tripoli by the cartel of militias aligned with the GNA. Similarly, recognition of the HoR should be conditioned on the correct and independent performance of its legislative role, free from outside pressure or military threats, including by the LNA.

Interference or undue influence over political institutions, from Haftar or other armed actors in Tripoli or Misrata must be rejected and warrant meaningful action including sanctions by the UNSC, the United States and the European Union. A clear UNSC sanctions mechanism should be put in place to serve that purpose.

For any attempt at political reconciliation to succeed in Libya, the international community should demand and enforce a ban on outside interference in Libya’s conflict and stop the flow of arms in violation of the UN-embargo. Equally important, the United Nations should introduce mechanisms of oversight and auditing over the assets of Libya’s Central Bank (LCB) and National Oil Corporation (NOC) to bring greater financial pressure on both sides to come to the table and form a truly inclusive, unified government.

The UN’s continued recognition of the GNA despite its limited control over the country is problematic because the GNA lacks any form of domestic recognition in Libya, given that it was never ratified by the country’s sole legislator, the HoR. Moreover, according to the Skhirat agreement, the length of the GNA’s mandate is limited to two years, ending in December 2017. The continuation of such recognition without limits and controls will impede any progress for reconciliation efforts in Libya.

Moreover, the GNA used its UN recognition to formally invite Turkey into the Libyan conflict, taking foreign interference in Libya to a whole new level compared to previous interventions, in clear violation of the UNSC’s own resolutions. The implementation of the security cooperation agreement signed between Turkey and the GNA in November 2019 violates resolution 1970 and has opened the door for further systematic violations of UN sanctions imposed by the 2011 resolution.

This development will invite further escalation from Haftar’s foreign backers, especially the UAE and Egypt, and will likely open the door for greater Russian influence in eastern Libya. Turkey’s overt intervention in support of the GNA with the deployment of Arab-Syrian mercenaries, Turkish military experts, advanced air defence systems and combat drones, mirrored similar interventions by Haftar’s foreign backers in Egypt, the UAE and Russia, but it did not deal a decisive blow to Haftar’s forces, which are presently being resupplied with more mercenaries, advanced air defence systems and fighter jets in a bid to reverse the GNA’s recent advances in western Libya.

The United States and others in Europe should drop the belief that the Turkish intervention in Libya will create balance on the ground, eventually pressuring Haftar and his patrons to accept a return to the negotiating table. In fact, the opposite happened. On 30 April, the GNA emboldened by recent military successes against the LNA rejected a unilateral truce offered by Haftar, presumably out of a belief that it could move forward and capitalise on its territorial advances, further weakening Haftar in western and southern Libya.The GNA made a huge mistake for the country and the entrapped citizens of Tripoli, and thus must accept responsibility for that decision.

Since then, the GNA has made significant advances against Haftar’s LNA in western Libya, signaling further escalations and conflict. Meanwhile, Haftar and his foreign backers are feeling the heat from the Turkish intervention and are stepping up their own war efforts, including the indiscriminate bombing of Tripoli. Escalation has only invited more escalation in Libya.

The GNA has interpreted international recognition as a signal that they can monopolize national political authority and control over the country’s wealth, while at the same time diminishing its propensity for compromise or negotiations given its veneer of international legitimacy. In that sense, blanket expressions of international support for the GNA are counterproductive.

For its part, the eastern camp spearheaded by Haftar and Agilah Saleh, the president of the rump HoR in Tobruk, have similar deficiencies. The eastern camp has been embroiled in its own internal crisis since Haftar’s military advance slowed and his declaration to rule by popular mandate sparked an unprecedent crisis between him and his allies in eastern Libya. Although enjoying a level of international recognition as per UNSC resolution 2259, the HoR in Tobruk is divided and lacks legal quorum for meetings, and tens of its members have defected and set up a parallel body in Tripoli allied with the GNA.

However, the eastern camp has led a successful campaign to prevent the GNA from gaining formal domestic legitimacy or recognition through a legal vote in the HoR. The April 2019 Tripoli offensive by Haftar was designed to complete the LNA’s streak of territorial gains that started in 2015, in a clear attempt to take control of the CBL, NOC and other key governing institutions headquartered in Tripoli.

The April Tripoli offensive was launched by Haftar ten days before a national conference planned by the UN was supposed to take place, demonstrating that Haftar had little or no regard for the UN-led political process in Libya. He launched his offensive exactly when UN Secretary-General António Guterres was in Tripoli seeking to unite the country, launch a reconciliation process, agree on a constitution and hold democratic elections.

Calls by the international community for a humanitarian truce during the month of Ramadan and due to the COVID-19 pandemic have not been heeded by conflict parties and their external patrons. The Berlin process failed to reverse the downward spiral and the massive escalations on both sides despite the commitment by all countries intervening in Libya. The United States is the only actor able to exert pressure on Turkey and the UAE and influence their behaviour but has so far been unable or unwilling to use that influence to stop the escalation in Libya.

External support and access to Libya’s financial resources fuel the crisis in Libya and enable both sides to continue with their violent escalation and access to advanced weaponry. The international community and especially the US should take urgent steps to enforce the arms embargo in Libya and stop the delivery of weapons by sea, air and land. Support for the EU’s Mediterranean naval operation ‘Irini’, which aims to enforce the UN arms embargo, is a good start.

International actors should further consider means of limiting the access of Libya’s conflict parties to financial resources from Libya’s oil revenues and foreign currency reserves to cover salaries, subsidies and the needs of critical sectors, but only with some form of international oversight and audit mechanisms.

Ultimately, international actors invested in Libya must stop falling into the legitimacy trap that has been exploited by Libya’s conflict parties and their external backers. They should also question the almost automatic support for the never fully implemented Skhirat agreement and begin devising new mechanisms able to place equal pressure on both sides, increasing the propensity of actors across Libya to resume a true and legitimate negotiation process.

From our partner RIAC

Independent Libyan affairs analyst and researcher, co-founder of Libya Outlook for Research and Consulting, Foreign Policy Magazine's Libya contributor (2014–2017)

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Iraq: Three Years of Drastic Changes (2019-2022)

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When the wave of the protests broke out at the beginning of October 2019 in Iraq, the Iraqi politicians did not realize the size of the gap between the demands of the protesters which were accumulated more than seventeen years, and the isolation of the politicians from the needs of the people. The waves of the protests began in a small range of different areas in Iraq. Rapidly, it expanded as if it were a rolling snowball in many regions of Iraqi governorates. Moreover, the platforms of social media and the influencers had a great impact on unifying the people against the government and enhancing the protest movement.

Al Tarir Square was the region where most protesters and demonstrators were based there. At that time, they stayed all day in this region and set up their tents to protest and demonstrate against the public situation of their life.

The protesters demanded their looted rights and asked for making economic reforms, finding job opportunities, changing the authority, and toppling the government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. The protest stayed between ebb and tide, pressuring the political authority in Iraq.

A new period began in the history of Iraq where clashes between the protesters and the riot forces broke out in Al Tahrir Square and many governorates in the south of Iraq. Tear gas and ductile bullets were used against the protesters to compel them to retreat and disperse them. But the protesters insisted on continuing their demands. Many protesters were killed and wounded due to the intensive violence against them. The strong pressure with falling many martyrs gave its fruit when the Iraqi representatives of the Parliament endeavored to achieve the protesters’ demands by changing the election law into a new one. On 24 December 2019, the Iraqi Parliament approved of changing the unfair Saint Leigo election law into the open districts. The new law divided Iraq into 83 electoral districts.

Moreover, this violent protest led to the collapse of the Iraqi government presided by Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi. He was compelled to resign by the end of 2019. Many political names were nominated by the Iraqi politicians but the protesters refused them all because they were connected with different political parties.

Finally, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who worked in the Iraqi Intelligence Service and had no party, was nominated by the politicians to be the new Prime Minister. He was well-known for ambiguity and far from the lights of media.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has become the Prime Minister in March 2020. The protests were over at the beginning of April 2020. With the taking of responsibility of helping Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised the protesters, who were called “Octoberians”, to hold a premature election, and the election was fixed on 10 June 2020.

Many politicians tried to postpone or cancel the premature election. Under their pressure, the premature election was postponed and fixed on 10 October 2020. During Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s period as a Prime Minister, he opened new channels with the Arab states to enhance the cooperation and held many summits to support Iraq in the next stage.

Attempts to postpone the premature election by the Iraqi politicians were on equal foot, but all these attempts failed and the election occurred on the due time.

Before the election, many Octoberians and influencers encouraged the people not to participate in the election. On the day of the election, it witnessed low participation, and people were convinced of not happening any change. These calls gave their fruits in the process of elections in Iraq where the election witnessed very low participation, and most Iraqis refused to participate and vote to the nominees even though there was a new election law. When the elections were over, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq announced that the results would be within two days. After announcing the results of the election partially and defeating many political factions in the Iraqi arena, many convictions were directed to the commission, and it was convicted by fraud and manipulation with the results. This aspect affected the activity of the Commission and led to put great pressure on it. After two weeks of pressure and convictions, the final results of the elections were announced and many political elite Iraqi leaders were defeated gravely.

The results of the election gave a new start through new leaders who were supporting the October revolution that happened in 2019. And most names of these winning movements and alliances were inspired by the October Movement. Those, who represented October Revolution, were also convicted by other Octoberians that Octoberian winners in the election deviated from the aims of the October Revolution.

A new struggle has begun between the losers in the election and the new winners who will have the right to be in the next term of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Representatives. Moreover, many independent individuals won in the election, and the conflict would deepen the scope of dissidence between the losers and winners. Finally, all raised claims of election fraud have not changed the political situation.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.  The Shiite Sadrist movement, which represents 73 seats, has wiped out its competitors. This aspect has compelled the losing Shiite competitors to establish an alliance called “Coordination Framework” to face the Sadrist movement, represented by the cleric Sayyed Muqtada al-Sader. On the other hand, Al-Takadum Movement (Progress Party), represented by the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, has taken the second rank with 37 seats.

The final results of the election had been announced, and the date of holding the first session of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives was fixed to nominate and elect the spokesman of the Iraqi Parliament of Representatives.

Finally, the first session of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council was held. Mohamed Al-Halbousi has been elected as the spokesman of the Iraqi Council Parliament of Council. During the next fifteen days, the president of the republic will be elected.

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China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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