With the Libyan National Army poised to focus on Tripoli, delicate manoeuvres are in play to sound out the position of Islamist militias and their backers, writes Reda Shaaban
UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame’s meeting last week with former speaker of the Tripoli-based High Council of State (HCS) Abdel-Rahman Al-Sweihli raises numerous questions concerning the role of the former and the status of the latter who is still being cast as a player despite the existence of a successor as head of the HCS. That successor, Khaled Al-Mishri, flew off to Qatar following the agreement that Salame brokered in the UAE two weeks ago between Libyan National Army (LNA) Commander Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and Chairman of the Presidency Council Fayez Al-Sarraj. The Salame-Sweihli meeting is all the more curious given Sweihli’s repute as the godfather of the Islamist militias in western Libya. Analysts observed that the meeting also coincided with a large exodus of militia members with their families from Tripoli’s Mitiga airport to Turkey during the past two weeks against the backdrop of the LNA’s success in securing the south and its looming advance towards Tripoli in response to mounting popular calls for the army to free the capital from the tyranny of the militias.
Analysts believe that the meeting between the UN special representative and Sweihli, who is close to Qatar, was meant to reassure the fleeing militia members that Sweihli and other leaders of militant Islamism are still present, strong and influential. Last year, Sweihli threatened to split Libya into two after Haftar announced a decision to place the petroleum fields and oil terminals under the supervision of the government in Cyrenaica in order to keep the terrorist militias from using oil proceeds to fund terrorism.
The political analyst Gamal Shalof was surprised by the meeting between Salame and Sweihli. “Is it a bid to force us to accept a new reality on the ground in advance of the National Conference?” Pictures of the meeting also featured Salah Al-Bakoush, Sweihli’s former aide in the Union for the Homeland Party and a well-known media figure who is hostile to the LNA.
“Salame insists on giving Sweihli a role despite the fact that he has no official capacity, planting him and his aide in the forthcoming process,” Shalof said, adding that Salame has met with other political figures in Tripoli during the absence of the current HCS chairman.
Observers believe that the meeting that Salame arranged between Haftar and Al-Sarraj in the UAE two weeks ago gave the latter a kiss of life at a time when his government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), had one foot in the grave. By extension, it was also a kiss of life to the militant Islamist movement whose representatives control the Tripoli-based based HCS, just as the LNA prevailed over terrorist militias and foreign intervention in the Fezzan region to the south. The national army has now asserted its control over 75 per cent of Libyan territory and is poised to march on the capital to rescue its inhabitants from the grip of the militias.
Some observers have noted that the LNA general command, in its weekly meetings, has made no reference to the Sarraj-Haftar meeting or to any agreement announced by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which Salame heads. They maintain that this confirms that the meeting, which barely lasted 10 minutes, was informal, even though UNSMIL and Al-Sarraj have marketed it as a means to prop up Al-Sarraj.
Many in Libya criticised the meeting on the grounds that one of its potential consequences would be to side line a number of parties, such as the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, the HCS and affiliates of the former regime from future arrangements.
While Salame proceeded to use the meeting to promote the other side — Al-Sarraj, the Islamists brigades and other anti-Haftar and anti-LNA hardliners — aid came to him from an unexpected quarter in an unexpected way. As though to spare Salame from the suspicion of supporting extremists, the former mufti Al-Sadik Al-Ghariani called on Libyans to stage protest rallies against Salame. This was the first time he urged demonstrators to remain “peaceful”. In the past, after he was appointed mufti following the revolution, he kindled doctrinal strife between Libyans and sanctioned extremists’ attacks against their political adversaries in the name of Shariah and the revolution.
AL-MISHRI IN QATAR: HCS President Khaled Al-Mishri’s meeting with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, in Doha on Monday 4 March was another event that conveyed messages at a time when the LNA is readying for operations to secure control over the rest of Libyan territory, including the capital. Its main message was that Qatar is still in the picture and ready to lend a hand to radical Islamist groups and their militias in western Libya
Al-Mishri’s visit took place as Libyan Islamist forces scramble to draw up plans for the coming phase and secure outside backing. According to Libyan press reports, the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood held a meeting in Qatar attended by the former mufti Al-Ghariani, Ali Al-Salabi and other Islamist leaders in order to discuss the situation back home and to finalise a proposal to be put to the National Conference. The proposal, recently announced by the Halbous Brigade in the western city of Misrata, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, contains 10 points, the most important of which provides that the resolutions adopted by the National Conference must override decisions made by the currently existing authorities. This implicitly means that the conference will supersede and disregard parliament.
Analysts hold that the proposal is consistent with the views and methods of the Islamist movement which will use whatever means come to hand when elections fail to bring it to power. It also conforms with a recent US stance that called for the withdrawal of recognition from all existing political bodies, such as parliament and the Presidency Council. Washington is keen to pave the way for greater US involvement in Libya towards which end it hopes to engineer at least some of the outcomes of the National Conference.
THE SECURITY OF LIBYA’S NEIGHBOURS: Meanwhile, Libya’s neighbours are continuing their efforts to promote the restoration of stability and security in Libya. Cairo last week hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia in order to discuss the repercussions of the Libyan crisis on the stability of neighbouring countries that are jeopardised by attempts to legitimise militia organisations operating outside the official organs of the state.
In a joint press conference following their meeting, the three foreign ministers reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to supporting Libya at this precarious phase in its history, to helping the Libyan people in their quest to build an independent state with unified national institutions, and to promoting national reconciliation so as to revive security and stability throughout the country. The ministers also reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to work together to safeguard Libyan territorial integrity, unity, independence and sovereignty, and they appealed to all parties to summon a spirit of responsibly, to show a degree of flexibility commensurate with the demands of the UN-sponsored political process, and to place higher Libyan national interests above all other considerations. The ministers voiced their opposition to all forms of foreign intervention in Libya which only serves to complicate the crisis and obstruct the political process.