By Sami Zaptia.
London, 19 September 2020:
Just when you think Libya is complicated – it gets even more complicated. Khalifa Hafter and his international allies have on the issue of the oil blockade seemingly outmanoeuvred Faiez Serraj and his allies in western Libya. The Hafter camp has noted the splits in western Libya and especially the split within the Serraj-led Presidency Council and has taken full advantage of it.
The statement issued by Hafter’s Libyan National Army (LNA) detailing their meeting and negotiations with Maetig and their planned meeting in Sirte promotes Maetig as the new interlocuter for the Hafter camp in western Libya. As Serraj would not talk to Hafter – Hafter found a replacement for him. But the LNA statement says that the oil will only be reopened for one month while negotiations led by Maetig take place.
A stab in the back of Serraj by Maetig – an attempted palace coup?
Serraj’s Deputy, Misratan Ahmed Maetig, has gained some revenge over Serraj for the former’s plethora of unilaterally-made decisions over the last 4 and-a-half years. He seems to have outmanoeuvred him and embarrassed him on the reopening of the oilfields issue. It will put Serraj and his camp on the spot. Serraj cannot sack Maetig. The 2015 Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) enshrines Maetig unless he is removed jointly by the House of Representatives (HoR) and High State Council (HSC). The baying Libyan public led by the protesters will welcome the resumption of exports and the resultant revenues it will bring, hoping they will trickle down to them and improve their miserable lot.
Serraj, however, had taken a position on principle. He would never sit down and negotiate with the ‘‘war criminal’’ Hafter. Serraj had also insisted on Hafter withdrawing his local and foreign forces from the oilfields. If Hafter refuses to order the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to resume production and exports he is likely to face increased protests. Serraj will suddenly be seen as the deal wrecker. The move will increase the split in western Libya, and depending on how the anti-Hafter hardliners react, could fatally wound the LPA-created Tripoli government.
Has Maetig shot himself in the foot?
But the move could also backfire on Maetig. If most western-based militias oppose talking to the man with ‘‘blood on his hands’’, Hafter, Maetig could be marooned. It could backfire and Maetig would have made himself an irrelevant political actor in western Libya, Tripoli and Misrata.
However, it could be argued that Maetig could be doing what Serraj would like to do – but cannot. Maetig, being Misratan, enjoys some protection by militias from his city. He can afford to make an unpopular political initiative without literally risking his life. Serraj does not enjoy such protection.
Post Hafter: Western disunity reappears
The crisis highlights the underlining lack of unity in Tripoli between its politicians and militias. It is further proof that all the Presidency Council members are tribes pulling in different directions. It was only the temporary unity provided by a common enemy, Hafter, between April 2019 and June 2020 that artificially bound them together. Once the common enemy had disappeared, as was the case with Qaddafi, the previously papered-over cracks reappeared and maneuverers for power, position and wealth rose to the surface again.
Side-lining of Hafter
Maetig has thrown a lifeline to Hafter. The U.S. has been trying very hard to totally side-line Hafter since his forces were pushed out of Tripoli in June this year all the way to the Sirte-Jufra ceasefire line. Hafter was side-lined for his closeness with the Russians and what the U.S. regards as Russia’s proxy, the Wagner ‘‘private’’ mercenary group. Hafter was not invited and was not central to the recent Rabat, Montreux, or Cairo discussions. There was a huge effort to make him irrelevant.
However, on the ground, he was still in control of Libya’s eastern oilfields which make up three-quarters of Libya’s oil revenues. He would not budge and with quiet background support from his international allies Russia and the UAE, he waited and watched as talks were being conducted all around him. Talks that discussed the unblocking the oilfields – but that did not involve the very person blocking them.
But Hafter has also made Maetig politically relevant at least in the short term. Serraj had been increasingly acting as a one-man show for years, relegating Maetig and the rest of the Presidency Council to a support act. Serraj’s threat to resign by October has meant the top job could be up for grabs. Maetig saw a chance of solidifying his position as a front runner. If oil production and exports do indeed resume and its revenues start to reach the average Libyan, Maetig will look a hero to the general public. This would contrast his success starkly with the failure of Serraj to negotiate a settlement with Hafter. Serraj had talked himself into a corner by, on numerous occasions, vowing never to sit down and negotiate with Hafter. The deaths to militias and civilians, including by booby-traps, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and civilian areas, and the destruction to southern Tripoli, made it difficult to negotiate with Hafter.
It is likely that there will be an all mighty ‘‘domestic’’ back in Tripoli and Misrata. The move has split the Presidency Council – but to what extent? It may also split the Tripoli and Misrata political strata and militias. It is a bold but dangerous move by Maetig. Most of the Serraj-aligned militias who fought against Hafter are bitterly opposed to dealing with Hafter. Indeed, it is believed that Serraj will no longer deal with Hafter mainly because most of Tripoli’s militias would not permit him to do so. Maetig must have secured some coercive forces (militias) behind him before acting, otherwise he would find it difficult to survive. There is also a danger that former western Libya militia allies that fought Hafter side-by-side on the southern Tripoli fronts could end up facing off against one another.
Hafter v Saleh
The initiative is also a come-back for Hafter in his tug-of-war with House of Representative head, Ageela Saleh, for leadership of the east. Cairo had thrust Saleh forward after Hafter’s military failure as a way of Egypt continuing to have a say in Libyan affairs and influencing a favourable outcome. Hafter has now pulled this so-called offer out of the hat to force himself back on the negotiating table. Saleh will need to react, but without coming across as a deal breaker.
To add a further layer of complexity, it is technically the National Oil Corporation (NOC) that has the technical authority to restart production and oil exports by announcing the lifting of force majeure. The NOC has been very clear in its statement that it does not consider Maetig’s unilateral deal with Hafter an acceptable proposal. The deal is very one sided, giving no guarantees to Tripoli or the NOC.
The NOC considers the presence of Hafter’s domestic Libyan National Army and foreign mercenary forces a danger to its infrastructure, staff and operations. It is very unlikely that it will send a complete compliment of staff back to its oilfields, including foreign staff representing foreign partners to what it regards as a warzone.
Hence again, it is one thing for Hafter to announce that he is lifting the blockade without taking the necessary steps to allow for the actual production and exports to resume. The initiative is a countermove to the NOC initiative to freeze revenues in one of its accounts with international guarantees. That deal side-lined Hafter. This Maetig-Hafter counter proposal returns Hafter to centre stage. The proposal is movement in the political gridlock – but it is to be seen if it is progress or further muddying of Libya’s political waters.