Opposing Libyan militias are starting to engage in reconciliation talks with each other, bypassing the country’s politicians, who they fear will be unable to deliver a peace deal at this week’s U.N. sponsored talks aimed at securing a political settlement to end a year-long violent power struggle between Libya’s dueling parliaments.
There are serious obstacles ahead for clinching a deal, admit all sides, as the talks resumed Monday in the Moroccan capital of Rabat.
Negotiators from both the Tripoli-run parliament, called the General National Congress, and its internationally recognized rival in Tobruk, the House of Representatives (HoR) , say there is an agreement about forming a national unity government but little else, including what to do about the competing legislatures, who both have formed governments.
HoR legislators have told peace facilitators that an agreement is possible but warn there are hardliners on both sides opposed to a compromise. On Saturday GNC officials struggled to contain the storming of a local radio station in the western town of Zawia by an armed militia opposed to the U.N.-mediated peace process. Zawia, like other pro-GNC towns is split between those who want a political settlement and hardliners who see the process as a betrayal and fear too much will be given away to their foes in Tobruk.
But at least two powerful opposing militias, those from Misrata and Zintan, are conducting behind-the-scenes talks with each other, motivated by a fear that the peace talks might collapse.
Sitting in the joint operations of Misrata’s militias three hour’s drive west of the Libyan capital, Abdul Mustafa Fortia, a brigade commander, said the militias - the town can muster 50,000 fighters - are supportive of the peace process. But he fears hardliners in Tripoli and Tobruk could derail the talks.
“There is a disconnect between us and the politicians,” he said. “The politicians are the ones who caused the problems in the first place. There are grassroots efforts underway to establish our own peace deals and the militias here and in Zintan are in talks,” he said.
In Tripoli, though, GNC members say they are cautiously optimistic about the talks, but say the militias are a problem.
“We have high hopes for a deal,” Ibrahim Sahad of the National Front party and a leading GNC member told VOA during the weekend at Tripoli’s Haroon Hotel, one of the few major hotels operating in the capital since Islamic extremists attacked Tripoli’s landmark Corinthia hotel in January.
But he and Mohammed Maazab, a member of the GNC’s four-man negotiating team, concede there are several sticking points and warned on Saturday night that if the U.N. envoy overseeing the talks, Bernardino Leon, insists on a take-it-or-leave it deal there were will be no settlement.
Last week, Leon warned Libyan leaders the country had reached “a moment of truth,” saying it is on the verge of becoming a failed state. He urged rival leaders to unify quickly to confront the growing threat of an affiliate of Islamic State. The group's fighters, many of them from neighboring foreign countries, have seized the coastal hometown of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the country’s strongman who was deposed four years ago. Last week, fighters from the Islamic State ambushed a people-smugglers’ convoy and seized 86 Eritrean Christians near the town of Oum Walid.
There are now fears Islamic extremists may slaughter the Eritreans. In April IS posted a video showing the execution of 28 Ethiopians, although more are thought to have been murdered. And in February IS fighters beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on the shore near Sirte.
The rise of the Islamic State is driving both the talks between the Misrata and Zintan militias as well as providing a belated impetus to the peace talks generally.
The GNC forces, known as Libya Dawn, and those of the HoR, known as Operation Dignity, clashed less frequently before this round of peace talks. Clashes around the airbase at al-Watiya air base, south-west of Tripoli, have died down.
The GNC is the old parliament that forced its elected replacement to flee last year to Tobruk after a high court ruled the election procedure was flawed. At least one judge involved in that court ruling has told VOA he and his colleagues were pressured into making their decision by the mainly Islamist Libya Dawn militias.
Both parliaments have struggled to meet their quorum requirements and neither allow their sessions to be broadcast, which would reveal how many members are actually active. GNC members claim their body has anything from 97 to 136 participating lawmakers, but the English-language Libya Herald newspaper has claimed there are no more than 19 out of what was once a 200-strong body still involved.
The GNC controls more Libyan territory. Around Tripoli and parts of the west and south it commands de facto legitimacy, but support for the HoR parliament is strong in the east of the country. Implementing an agreement is likely to prove highly challenging, regional, tribal, town and ideological differences are very complex and allegiances and grievances shift quickly.
In the political talks, one of the biggest sticking points rests with which parliament, if either, should be recognized as the elective authority in a political settlement. According to GNC negotiator Mohammed Maazab there are three possibilities: both the GNC and HoR could act as different chambers of one parliament, or they could select members from each to form a single-chamber legislature, or both could disband and allow a Council to be set up as a legislative authority before elections. How that Council would be formed remains unclear.