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Fighting rages as talks continue
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 03 - 2015

An expanding civil war in the Libyan south threatens to undermine UN peace-making efforts. Libyan delegations were expected to return to the talks in Morocco after consulting with factional leaders in Tobruk and Tripoli.
Libyan factions met again last week in the Moroccan seaside resort town of Al-Skhirat, south of Rabat. The dialogue, under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), had been scheduled to convene the previous week.
It was delayed after the House of Representatives in Tobruk said it wouldn't attend, unhappy with some of the proposals tabled and UNSMIL's leadership. The Tobruk faction eventually changed its mind and agreed to participate.
However, in the intervening week it appointed General Khalifa Haftar, the initiator of Operation Dignity, as general commander of the Libyan army. He was charged with the task of rebuilding the army.
Analysts believe that this step will further complicate matters, in light of tensions surfacing within the Tobruk camp that may hamper progress in the dialogue.
The participants at Al-Skhirat, who met from Thursday through Friday last week, discussed three major points: forming a national unity government, security arrangements and drafting a Libyan constitution.
An UNSMIL press release Saturday said that participants focused on “key elements” of the first two points. No mention was made of the third point, which concerns the work of the constituent committee charged with drafting the constitution.
The Libyan army in the east had announced, in response to an UNSMIL appeal, that it would cease hostilities on all fronts in support of the talks. In reality, however, the opposite occurred.
It appears that the army and its allies among Bedouin tribal forces have decided to escalate in tandem with the dialogue, perhaps out of the belief that this will strengthen the hand of their representatives at the negotiating table.
In all events, former pro-Gaddafi forces attacked the Barak airbase, held by militia forces affiliated with Misrata. They were tasked by former prime minister Ali Zeidan with taking control of and securing the airbase in February 2013.
Regardless of the motives, this was an extremely dangerous step as it is likely to expand the map of armed conflict in Libya. Tribal violence has spread from the north to the south and into areas that were formerly remote from the conflict that erupted in 2011. The government and parliament in Tobruk may lose control over the new conflicts, in view of their extreme weakness in the face of armed groups.
According to UNSMIL press releases, participants at the Libyan dialogue in Morocco discussed how to form a national unity government, the criteria for selecting its members and its powers and duties. Participants agreed that the members of any national unity government capable of bringing an end to the institutional divisions in Libya had to be moderate technocrats unaffiliated with any political faction.
After wrapping up three days of what UNSMIL described as “positive and constructive” discussions in Morocco, the participants agreed to take a two-day break, on Monday and Tuesday, to consult with their constituencies and assess the progress achieved at the talks.
While participants agreed that progress had been made, some members of the Tobruk constituency appeared dissatisfied. There was talk that elements of the House of Representatives had called for a withdrawal from the talks. This put in question the resumption of talks, due Wednesday.
It appears that the House of Representatives negotiating team was strongly influenced by rumours circulating on social media sites and that this impacted negatively on the MPs in Tobruk, some of whom aired strong criticisms of the dialogue session in Al-Skhirat. Perhaps, too, they sensed that the Tripoli team had scored progress in that round.
UNSMIL has repeatedly denied rumours circulating on social media over the three days of talks. According to some Twitter posts, specific names were mentioned for certain government posts, which prompted House of Representatives members to object to the dialogue.
The major source of dispute will concern which parliamentary body will grant confidence to that government, in the event that the factions agree on its composition. While the House of Representatives currently sitting in Tobruk believes that it should have the power to grant confidence, representatives of the General National Congress (GNC) aired a proposal calling for a bicameral legislature and a presidential council.
This proposal would retain both the House of Representatives, which were invalidated by a Supreme Court ruling that annulled the third interim phase. This, effectively, also cancelled the popular polls that elected that house, and the resurrected GNC, the previous legislature whose term was due to end in February and was to be superseded by the House of Representatives.
Both these houses would have exclusively legislative functions, according to the proposal, while a six-member presidential council, consisting of three representatives from each house, would have sovereign and executive powers, one of which would be to supervise the work of the national unity government. Under the bicameral system, legislation would require the approval of both houses.
Nevertheless, the House of Representatives stresses that it alone is the internationally recognised legislature and refuses GNC participation. This could hamper UN efforts to bridge the gap between the factions and end the crisis, which is on the verge of a new wave of escalation in view of tribal actions in the south.
At the same time, the Tobruk camp is at odds with itself. There are mounting tensions against representatives from the west, especially from among proponents of the federalist drive, and from the Bedouin tribes, most notably the Zintan and Warshafana. The Bedouin are keen to exact revenge for earlier defeats at the hands of militias affiliated with Misrata in Tripoli and surrounding areas.
Reports from Tobruk suggest that combat will worsen in the coming days. The Islamic State (IS) group has become increasingly active in the petroleum crescent area. The terrorist organisation launched another assault against oil fields in central Libya, setting fire to a number of them, compelling the National Petroleum Authority to declare a state of emergency at 11 severely damaged fields.
IS-Libya has opted for a hit-and-run approach: its members attack oil fields from unknown staging points and then flee to unknown destinations. The recent attack against the Al-Ghani oil field, in the vicinity of the town of Marada in south-central Libya, killed 11, some of whom were foreigners. It is IS's fifth attack in the oil region.


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