Media reports about an alleged letter of Saif al-Islam, the son of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, to President Putin, asking the Russian authorities for support, raised many questions about the current political scene in Libya and the future of the settlement there.
It is not difficult to recognize three main focal figures in Libya, which are: Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, who dominates the east; Fayez al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council and prime minister of the Government of National Accord, in the west, and Saif al-Islam who has a wide popularity in the south, where the Qadhafah tribe is powerful. The role of the South in Libyan politics has increased with the outbreak of the so-called “Fezzan Anger” movement in early October, calling for improving living conditions and services, and enhancing border security through controlling migratory flows. The movement includes 12 districts and is supported by the major southern tribes including Qadhafah.
But still Saif al-Islam has not been seen in public since his release last year and his residence is undefined. That raises doubts and questions about his ability to run in the presidential elections with his disappearance as such, and the possibility of prosecuting him locally or internationally. Although the UN and the west are looking for a young promising politician to run for the election, they is not likely to support Saif al-Islam. A number of names have been announced but they are far from real competitiveness.
The Libyan political scene is very complicated as well as the national reconciliation. Despite the meeting between Haftar and al-Sarraj at the Paris conference in May and the Palermo summit in November, there are still serious challenges facing conflict resolution in Libya.
The instability and the absence of security arrangements in the west is also an important challenge. There are dozens of armed militias and more than twenty-six million weapons spread over Libya. The bloody events that took place in Tripoli in August and September between the armed militias and the repeated terrorist attacks, including the attack on the Libyan Foreign Ministry support the chaos. In this context, Haitham al-Tagouri, the leader of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, considered by some as the actual ruler of Tripoli, is a major challenge to the settlement that would undermine his influence and gains. This also applies to the Misurata district, a stronghold of many militias and armed groups that are out of control and reject settlement.
Not less serious are the regional challenges. The continued Turkish-Qatari support for many armed groups is really blocking the way for peace in Libya. The withdrawal of Turkish Vice President Yassin Aktay from the Palermo conference was a clear sign of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with the course of the settlement and the continuation of the Turkish approach hindering it.
The French-Italian competition over leading the settlement process and the future of Libya is another dilemma. Since the meeting between French President Emmanuel Macaron and Haftar and al-Sarraj in July 2017, Italy was alarmed by what it considered a French intervention in its own dossier. Both seek dominance of the Libyan energy supplies. Italy announced its opposition to the Paris plan on Libya, and accused France of trying to take over the leadership of the Libyan dossier. The escalation between France and Italy plus the US impedes progress towards peace.
Libya is at crossroads. There are real fears of exacerbation of the dispute, especially after key militias in Tripoli, led by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade announced that they had merged into a new group dubbed the Tripoli Protection Force to support al-Sarraj against any possible attack from Haftar. There is a need to move forward on the UN plan of action, including the convening of the National Conference in early 2019, and holding of presidential and parliamentary elections in June. International and regional powers have the responsibility to reach a consensus and pressure their domestic allies to accept the UN roadmap.