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Hopes for UN dialogue
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 12 - 2014

Libya crossed the threshold into 2015 with hope for a new dialogue between rival political factions and success of mediating efforts by the UN envoy to Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Bernardino Leon, even though some militias remain determined to settle the fighting on the ground before engaging in dialogue and/or to exclude their adversaries from taking part.
Last week, Leon updated the UN Security Council on the situation in Libya in a closed session. The current president of this session, Chad's permanent UN representative Sherif Mohamed Zene, reported that Leon informed council members that the Libyan factions had agreed “in principle” to a new round of dialogue on 5 January.
Leon had come after a round of intensive shuttling between Tripoli and Tobruk in order to persuade rival factions of the need for dialogue. Members of the General National Congress (GNC) reported that they discussed with Leon the conditions of the dialogue, the venue and participating parties. In a statement to the press following the meeting with Leon on 22 December, GNC spokesman Omar Hamdan said that GNC members proposed the central southern city of Hun as a venue for the dialogue. They insisted that the dialogue should take place in the framework of the principle that the GNC is the only legitimate legislative institution, following the Supreme Court's ruling on 5 November to dissolve the parliament that is currently sitting in Tobruk. Members of the Tobruk camp, of course, oppose this position and insist that the Tobruk parliament sponsor the dialogue, which they suggest should be held in Awjila in eastern Libya.
On the other hand, Tobruk MP Tarek Saqr Al-Jaroushi, who is son of a commander in Operation Dignity led by retired General Khalifa Haftar and himself an airforce commander in this operation, said that Leon, in his meeting with MPs in Tobruk, proposed moving the dialogue to a venue outside Libya.
Leon had told the Security Council that he had identified three basic issues as key to exiting the crisis in Libya: the creation of a national unity government, the restoration of stability starting with a ceasefire between the warring militias, and the drafting of a new constitution.
Still, according to UNSMIL sources contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly, nothing has been finalised, including the date, as the factions are still at odds over everything from the frame of reference to the venue. The UN envoy is still struggling to convince them of the need to halt hostilities and engage in dialogue in order to resolve the crisis, they said. The sources, which spoke on condition of anonymity, said that UNSMIL has come under attack from each side for being biased in favour of the other side, which in turn has hampered the efforts of the UN envoy.
In all events, it appears that the warring parties, themselves, are unwilling to engage in dialogue because they still believe in their ability to resolve the conflict in their favour militarily, in spite of the fact that neither side has succeeded in gaining the upper hand on the ground since hostilities erupted in May. Both sides also accuse each other of receiving military and financial support from various quarters outside the country, which has aggravated tensions between them and further frustrated Western appeals for dialogue.
Libyan parliamentary member in Tobruk Abdul Salam Nasiya revealed that Leon proposed Tunisia as a possible venue for dialogue if it proved impossible to hold it in Libya. On his Facebook page Saturday, Nasiya also reported that Leon, in his meeting with Tobruk MPs, cited the names of the parties and participants in the dialogue to be held in the first week of the New Year. They included four members of parliament (Mohamed Shoeib, Saleh Homah, Al-Sadeq Idris and Abu Bakr Baira), four representatives of the newly resurrected GNC (Saleh Makhzoum, Omar Hamdan, Mohammed Imazab and Mohammed Al-Imari), two representatives from the so-called Group of 94 (Al-Sherif Al-Wafi and Tawfiq Al-Shoheibi), as well as a number of political figures (such as Nouri Al-Abbar, Al-Fadil Al-Amin and Nahed Muetig), and some municipal chiefs, like the mayors of Tobrok, Misrata, Al-Zintan and Sebha.
According to Nasiya, Leon underlined that the members of the GNC, whose term officially ended with the election of a new parliament, would attend in their personal capacity and that the UN would provide a letter of guarantee to this effect to the members of the elected parliament. He also said that Leon had pledged that the dialogue would be based on the principle that the parliament sitting in Tobruk is the legitimate one and that it would address the questions of a ceasefire, the withdrawal of militias from the cities, and the creation of a national unity government.
As the UN envoy persisted in his peace-making efforts, fighting continued to rage in Benghazi in the east and Tripoli in the west. Moreover, in a qualitatively new development, it has spread to what is known as the “oil crescent” in the northern centre part of the country.
As of 13 December, this area has become the scene of fierce clashes between the forces of the central zone petroleum facilities guards, which have declared their allegiance to the general chiefs of staff appointed by the parliament in Tobruk, and the forces of Operation Sunrise, which was recently launched by the GNC in Tripoli with the stated purpose of “liberating” and taking control over the oil exporting ports.
Militias affiliated with the petroleum facilities guards and the advocates of a federal system in Libya have controlled these ports since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. In the wake of a dispute with former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, these forces closed off oil ports and shut down their activities. Since fighting erupted in this area two week ago, more than 800,000 barrels of crude that had been prepared for export were destroyed when a storage tank was struck on 25 December.
The army affiliated with the parliament and government in Tobruk has sent in additional reinforcements to help repel the assault led by the forces affiliated with the rival parliament in Tripoli.
The battle in the oil crescent marks a critical turning point in the relations between the disputants in Libya, as this area is the key to the Libyan economy that is almost entirely dependent on oil exports.
In another significant development in the fighting, on 28 December, Misrata was subjected to aerial assaults for the first time. The northwest coastal city has long been known as a commercial and military capital in the country that is now torn by regional, tribal and ideological divisions. The strikes by fighter planes under the command of the army in the east targeted the iron and steel factory, the airforce academy that is located near the civil airport, and the port. Misrata officials have not reported any casualties.
The air strikes followed repeated cautions announced by the spokesman for the operations room of the petroleum facilities guards warning that Misrata would be targeted if it did not call off the assault against the oil crescent area.
In an initial response to the strikes, Misrata MP Fathy Bashagha announced that he had decided to cease all efforts to promote national reconciliation and dialogue. Commenting on the strikes, he wrote on his Facebook page: “That act has shut off all options and paths before us, the advocates of dialogue and concord, through which we could move forward to creating the appropriate climates and conditions for realising a national consensus government.”
He warned of further escalation in the hostilities “which would devour more victims and deprive Libyans of their means of sustenance”. “Libya, today, has turned down a new road that will be difficult to surpass easily. Those who contributed to this will bear the consequences of what they reaped,” he wrote. He went on to blame “regional forces of conspiracy” for the anarchy and bloodshed in his country.
In Benghazi, General Haftar has failed to fulfil his pledge, reiterated several times, most recently at the beginning of December, to liberate the city from terrorist groups so that parliament could return to its main headquarters. The parliament had moved its sessions to Tobruk temporarily due to the fighting in Benghazi, which still continues between the forces of Operation Dignity and the forces of the Islamist oriented Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Hostilities in Libya's largest eastern city have intensified since 15 October when Haftar's forces succeeded in entering some parts of the city but without gaining full control over them.
As for the fighting in western Libya, the forces of the Libya Dawn operation that are affiliated with urban areas in the west have gained control over most of this region apart from some pockets that are still controlled by Bedouin tribal forces led by the city of Al-Zintan.

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