Just as Libyans were hoping for a breakthrough, General Khalifa Haftar has destroyed the best chance of solving Libya’s problems. The national conference that was due to start work on Sunday has been postponed, throwing the country back into division, deadlock and doubt.
For 18 months, Ghassan Salamé, the special representative of the UN secretary-general has been preparing the ground for this conference. One-hundred-and-fifty of Libya’s major stakeholders were being invited to Ghadames, a town on the Algerian border to decide on a national charter.
The aim was to get a majority of the participants to agree on a new political pathway to elections in 2019. There were also plans for a programme of economic reform. Security sector reform was on the agenda too, in particular to try to reduce the damaging influence of the militias.
The conference would thereby resolve the divisions in the country and unify the political, military and economic institutions.
This was an attempt to learn the lessons of the process that led to the Libya Political Agreement signed in Skhirat, Morocco in December 2015. That agreement created the Presidency Council and Government of National Accord. But its authority has never been accepted by the rival government in the east of the country.
It was, therefore, time to break the logjam and try something new and different. First, participation in the conference was going to be broader: Skhirat was negotiated and signed by only 25 Libyans; Ghadames would include political, tribal, economic and security sector stakeholders. Second, the substance would be broader: Skhirat was primarily political; Ghadames would integrate politics, economics and security.
Mr Salamé had painstakingly laid the foundation by holding a series of consultations around Libya and talking to all the main players. He helped to orchestrate a meeting in Abu Dhabi last month between Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister, and Gen Haftar where a deal was supposedly reached.
Alongside these moves, there was a small amount of good news on Libya’s economy. Oil production reached 1.2m barrels a day in November. Revenue was flowing into the central bank, allowing a surplus budget to be agreed for the first time in recent years.
Liquidity problems were being tackled and the imposition of a foreign exchange supplement brought down the black market exchange rate. Growth was forecast at 4 per cent this year. There was a scent of optimism in the air.
Then Gen Haftar launched his attack on Tripoli. At first, it seemed that this operation was designed to bolster his position prior to the national conference. That now seems unlikely. He has thumbed his nose at the UN, launching his attack as António Guterres, the secretary-general, arrived in Tripoli and ignoring the latter’s pleas to stop his campaign when they met in Benghazi.
The UN has condemned the attack on the civilian airport in Tripoli as a possible war crime. That makes it harder to bring Gen Haftar back to the negotiating table.
The simple act of attacking Tripoli has removed the opportunity for a breakthrough — for now. But the concept of bringing so many stakeholders together remains the best option for resolving the country’s political, tribal and economic divisions.
What is likely to happen? Gen Haftar cannot win. While he has quite a lot of tacit support in Tripoli from citizens who loathe the militias and want security, there is enough armed opposition to cause a bloodbath.
If he is defeated, that would not solve the problem: he still controls the east, much of the south and most of the oil ports. A truce might be an option, but it is hard to see how that would create the environment to return to a political process. There is too much hatred and mistrust. And if Gen Haftar tries to use his control of the oil installations to secure concessions, he risks undermining the only good news story in Libya at present.
To prevent a prolonged civil war, his backers and friends need to persuade him to pull back and return to the negotiating table. But that will not be easy.
In the meantime, the losers are the Libyan people. The saddest sights in Libyan cities and towns are the long queues at banks to get cash, the piles of rubbish in the streets, the frequent power cuts and armed thugs in the streets. Libyans deserve better. And the rest of the world cannot afford to have a failed state on Europe’s borders.