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ANALYSIS: Libya divisions grow despite UN mediation efforts

Recent Supreme Court ruling, deeming June’s elections invalid has deepened divisions, triggering an upsurge in fighting
Militias on both sides remain fiercely divided and heavily armed (AFP)

The car bombs which exploded on Wednesday in eastern Libya have highlighted the problems confronting UN Envoy, Bernadino Leon, as he embarks on a new round of shuttle diplomacy in this war-torn country.

More than 20 people were wounded when the first bomb tore through a busy street in Tobruk, seat of the House of Representatives - Libya’s internationally recognised parliament. Three soldiers were also killed by a second explosion near al-Beida, headquarters of HoR Prime Minister, Abdullah al-Thinni.

The bombings came three days after twin car bombs exploded in the eastern town of Shahat near a meeting Leon was holding with Thinni. It was not immediately clear if the meet was the primary target, but these incidents, and the likelihood of further bombings, nonetheless, underscores the difficulty in sewing the country back together.

Libya is into the fourth month of a civil war that followed the June elections for a new parliament. Islamists and allied groups from Northwest Libya did poorly at the polls, subsequently withdrawing MPs from the assembly. Their allied militias, Libya Dawn, then took control of Tripoli in a four-week battle with militias from Zintan.

Since then, Libya has had two governments: Libya Dawn controls Tripoli and its environs, while the elected House of Representatives has fled to the eastern town of Tobruk.

While the Tripoli-based parliament and its Misratan supporters are often described by the media as being Islamism-inspired, while Haftar and the HoR are portrayed as being more nationalist dominated, the two labels fail to convey the complexity on the ground.

Fighting has continued to rage across much of the country as the two sides battle for supremacy.

The impetus for a new round of diplomacy is the decision of the Supreme Court earlier this month that the June elections were invalid.

This judgement is complex, but boils down to a ruling that the law that created the elections was not passed by the required two-thirds majority in the former General National Congress, deeming the elections, as well the House of Representatives illegal, according to the Supreme Court.

The result was applauded by Libya Dawn, which said it underlined claims that the parliament in Tobruk is not legitimate. Tobruk, meanwhile, has denounced the decision, saying the judges were pressured by the militias who control Tripoli and that several were illegally replaced, rendering the judgment invalid.

In theory, the Supreme Court judgement - if proved valid - has a simple solution. The former congress can meet and decide the way forward, with a new election approved by a two-thirds majority. In reality, this will prove impossible. The former congress was split with no faction able to muster a two thirds majority, and it is unlikely that MPs from the warring factions would agree to meet again.

Instead, the Supreme Court ruling has deepened divisions, triggering an upsurge in fighting.

In western Libya, Libya Dawn forces moved to occupy the Sharara oil field, the country’s most productive, after fighting there saw production cut.

Fighting continues around the town of Kikla, where Libya Dawn forces are battling pro-government militias from Zintan, with both sides accusing the other of atrocities.

Meanwhile, government forces upped their offensive against groups like Ansar al-Sharia and linked brigades in the eastern city of Benghazi, capital of the province of Cyrenaica. The city has been the scene of fighting since May, when militias of former general, Khalifa Hiftar, allied with regular army and air force units, began an offensive against Islamist militias.

Six months on, and following see-saw battles, Haftar’s forces have gained the upper hand, partly thanks to having a monopoly on air power. Several days of heavy air strikes have pounded positions of Ansar al-Sharia, blamed by Washington for the death of its ambassador, Chris Stevens in the city two years ago.

With government forces gaining ascendancy in the east, and Libya Dawn in the west, diplomats fear that Libya may be heading for breakup - unless a peace deal can be agreed first.

Diplomats say a solution is at hand. In February, Libya elected the constitutional assembly, now well advanced in designing a constitution. Once this is ready, and approved by referendum, Libya can forget all that went before and hold fresh elections.

For some diplomats, the task is to persuade all sides to stop fighting until the new constitution gives Libya the chance to press the “reset” button.

Libya's House of Representatives (parliament) said Wednesday that it was committed to a UN initiative aimed at solving Libya's current crisis through dialogue and a cessation of violence.

"The UN's initiative, which aims to stop the shedding of Libyan blood, is the only dialogue initiative currently recognized by parliament," the assembly said.

"A political solution is the only way out of the crisis," the parliament, which convenes in Libya's northeastern city of Tobruk, added in a statement.

Leon began a round of shuttle diplomacy with Sunday’s meeting with al-Thinni, going on to Tripoli to meet the former congress speaker, Nuri Abu Sahmain, to get the views of Libya Dawn. Next he will visit Tobruk, hoping from the meetings to find enough common ground to make a ceasefire possible.

In theory, all sides might agree to cobble together both a ceasefire and a unity government to provide minimal administration until the new constitution is ready.

One problem for any such a deal is the fragmentary nature of the two warring coalitions. 

Tripoli’s government is made up of Libya Dawn, along with a self-proclaimed Revolutionaries Council and the rump of the former congress, which has appointed a “prime minister,” Omar-al Hasi, a former revolutionary fighter.  All three factions would need to be convinced to agree any ceasefire plan.

While Tobruk’s parliament is at least united within a single entity, it is equally split, containing members from the east, the south and parts of the west, together with Cyrenaica federalists and supporters of the nationalist National Forces Alliance.

As with Tripoli, it may be hard to convince a majority in Tobruk to back a peace plan.

Leon has said that the bombing in Shahat has only strengthened his “determination” to find a peace formula, and he insists this round of visits is about “listening” rather than trying to impose a plan.

Not the least of his problems will be the growing conviction, across the political spectrum, that more can be achieved through the gun than the ballot box.  There is also the bitterness engendered by months of fighting and destruction, with quarter of a million people displaced and a level of hatred not seen since the end of the 2011 revolution.

Yet for all the problems and contradictions engendered, Leon’s mission has one thing going for it, which is the lack of any alternative apart from more war. This reality is probably all the motivation the envoy needs to push on with his unenviable task.

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