The past three years has raised a mountain of conferences, workshops and other events with officials and international experts analysing the situation in Libya ad infinitum or offering advice on what is needed to rebuild the country.
The number of such events, usually next door in Tunisia, has not been particularly well received by ordinary Libyans, who see this as one giant, expensive talking shop, producing nothing that will change their lives for the better. A recent conference in Tunis — on local and national reconciliation in Libya — however, could not have been more timely.
Shortly afterward, municipal, military and other officials from Misrata and Zintan called for national and “inclusive” reconciliation, for a united Libyan police force and military under civilian control and for all sides to fight together against terrorism “in all its forms in Libya.” They agreed there must be no return to tyranny and that Libya must not be allowed to split apart.
Since October 2011, when the country’s new revolutionary leaders declared it liberated, Libya has been full of worthy declarations about the need to fight terrorism and unite the army and police — all to no avail. The existence of well-armed local militias pursuing their own interests has prevented Libya from moving on.
This is what makes the Misrata-Zintan announcement such a major development. Having led and won the revolution in the west of the country, the leaders of what became the region’s two most powerful rivals have been battling each other for control of the crown jewel in post-revolutionary Libya: the capital, Tripoli.
This came to a head in 2014, when Misratan-led forces, calling themselves Libya Dawn, evicted the Zintanis from their base at Tripoli International Airport, destroying it and several billions of dollars worth of aircraft and equipment and grabbing power in the capital.
Earlier that year, General (now Field-Marshal) Khalifa Haftar launched Dignity Operation to rid Benghazi of militants and Islamists seen as responsible for a wave of assassinations and attacks on officials. In 2014, there were nearly 250 such attacks.
Between the takeover of Tripoli and Operation Dignity in Benghazi, a de facto division of the country came about. There were two governments, two parliaments, indeed, almost two of everything. In the east were the government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR) and Haftar’s Libyan National Army.
In Tripoli were the Libya Dawn regime, a handful of members of the former General National Congress who decided they were still a functioning parliament and the Misratan-led forces. It was not a neat division.
In the west, Zintan and other places rejected the so-called Libya Dawn regime and pledged their allegiance to the HoR and Thinni, while Sirte veered into uncharted, dangerous waters as an Islamic State (ISIS) fiefdom.
In the east, it took more than three years for the LNA to take Benghazi and Derna remains out of its control.
As for the south, it was largely ignored, left to fend for itself.
It was not surprising then that, from late 2014, fears of Libya’s disintegration were voiced. Fear of separation, possibly based on a realisation that it might happen, accounts for the widespread opposition in Libya to federalism.
The Misrata-Zintan agreement with its demand for unity and that Libya must not be allowed to split apart is the result of changes in western Libya over the past year.
While a long way from exercising full political power, the head of the internationally recognised Presidency Council, Fayez al-Sarraj, has strengthened his own position within the council and united most of western Libya in at least acknowledging its authority. He has done this through mainly the judicious use of appointments or the provision of funding to the municipalities, which neither Haftar nor the Thinni administration can do.
In the case of Zintan, which less than a year ago was seen as firmly in the Haftar camp, the appointment of Usama al-Juwaili, the town’s top military commander, as head of the forces in the area west of Tripoli made all the difference. It has not only brought the town into the Presidency Council’s camp, Juwaili has enforced council authority in the other main Haftar area, that of the Wirshefana tribe immediately west of Tripoli.
Further west, Sabratha, previously a quasi-Islamist and a law unto itself, has also moved into the council’s orbit.
Libya, though, remains polarised, split firmly between its east and west, although the south is increasingly being courted by both. With threats from the revolutionary remnants of Libya Dawn to recapture Tripoli crushed by the city’s militias, the chaotic patchwork that was western Libya is fast vanishing. There are still problems, notably Zawia.
The abduction of Central Tripoli Mayor Abdularouf Beitelmal (released a few days later) shows how shallow stability is in the capital. However, in deciding to put past differences aside, Misrata and Zintan have accepted the reality that western Libya is being consolidated into a single operating unit.
Sarraj and Haftar are being credited with the realisation that neither is strong enough to take control of the country without the support of the other and that they must work together.
Replicating the Misrata-Zintan deal at the national level may take a lot more time.