Five Reasons to Doubt Libyan Truce Will Hold

Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj agree to stop fighting, but it’s not hard to imagine how their deal might unravel.

Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26
Paolo Gentiloni and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime ministers of Italy and Libya, inspect an honor guard in Rome, July 26 (Palazzo Chigi)

Libya’s two most powerful leaders have agreed to call a ceasefire and hold elections next year after a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

Their deal has the potential to end six years of civil war, but there are at least five reasons to doubt it will hold:

  1. Khalifa Haftar, the generalissimo in charge of eastern Libya, and Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the internationally-recognized unity government in Tripoli, did not agree on a date for elections, so there is no deadline.
  2. The truce exempts counterterrorism, which Haftar and Sarraj could interpret differently. Haftar calls his entire campaign a counterterrorist operation.
  3. Libya’s institutions, including the central bank and National Oil Corporation, have recognized Sarraj’s as the legitimate government, but he has no security force of his own and could struggle to convince the militias that support him to stop fighting.
  4. Haftar, by contrast, has his own army, which occupies two-thirds of Libya, most of its oil ports and the city of Benghazi. But he has to convince a rival parliament in Tobruk to agree to the deal. Given how well the civil war has been going for them lately, they may balk at its terms.
  5. While Western countries and the United Nations back Sarraj, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates support Haftar in his war against Islamists.

Haftar’s role

Another criticism: the Paris agreement legitimizes Haftar.

“The likely outcome will be Haftar’s international legitimization without him actually having to give up anything,” Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the Financial Times. “In this sense, it will make Italy’s goal of stabilizing Libya even harder.”

How and why Haftar returned to Libya during the civil war remains a mystery.

Once a colonel in Muammar Gaddafi’s army, Haftar fell out with the eccentric strongman after his 1987 defeat in a war against Chad. He moved to the United States, where it is believed he was recruited by the CIA.

Collapse of the state

Libya has been without a stable, central government since Gaddafi was ousted and killed in a 2011 Western-backed uprising.

During his forty-year dictatorship, Gaddafi dismantled Libya’s institutions and ruled through personal and tribal relations.

When he was defeated, law and order collapsed. Many of the militias that were formed to fight Gaddafi’s troops refused to disband. Old regional and tribal cleavages reemerged.

Eastern Libya, where Haftar now rules, was the seat of the Libyan monarchy before Gaddafi, a westerner, toppled the king in 1969.

Before independence, it was a separate colony of Italy called Cyrenaica.

Gaddafi concentrated economic development in and around the new capital, Tripoli, and largely neglected the east, even though it had 60 percent of Libya’s oil production and its two biggest petroleum export sites: Ra’s Lanuf and Zuwetina.