Though the talks are set to continue inside Libya itself, the reluctance of one of the major players in the struggle for control of the country to go the Geneva has caused unease among observers. However, it and its chief rival have agreed to a ceasefire while the talks go on, keeping hopes for the formation of a national unity government alive for now.
The two most prominent groups are, of course, Libya’s two rival governments, each claiming to be the right and legitimate ruler of the oil-rich country. The House of Representatives, the only one of the two to be recognized abroad, has sent representatives to Geneva and has been the most outwardly enthusiastic about the UN-sponsored negotiations. Its rival, the General National Congress (GNC), has been more suspicious, issuing official denials that it is even taking taking part, though representatives of areas under its control have traveled to Geneva.
The House of Representatives took power in August of 2014, two months after the official dissolution of the original Islamist-dominated GNC and the subsequent elections to replace it. The Islamist militia Libyan Dawn and other militias from Misrata then attempted to reinstate the GNC and take over the capital Tripoli, leading the newly elected House of Representatives to move to the eastern coastal city of Tobruk. Complicating the situation further, an armed conflict between Islamist militias and forces allied to retired Libyan army general Khalifa Haftar had already broken out in the city of Benghazi, something which continues today, with Haftar allying himself with the Tobruk government.
Since then conflict has raged throughout the country with militias in control of the capital Tripoli and the country’s once-thriving oil industry in disarray with militias seizing, and sometimes even destroying, oil facilities.
However, despite the ongoing strife, some Libyans claim to still be optimistic about the future. Mohamed Shuaib, the first deputy speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament, is one of them. He spoke on the telephone with Asharq Al-Awsat earlier this week about the ongoing meetings in Geneva, his government’s ill-defined relationship with Haftar, and why he is now more optimistic about the country’s future.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Can you comment on reports that parallel talks to the Geneva meetings involving members of the Libyan parliament are currently taking place in Tunis?
Mohamed Shuaib: This is not true. These meetings [in Tunis] are between civil society activists who have gathered together from different parts of Libya in order to support the Geneva meetings. They do not constitute a parallel set of meetings to the original one [in Geneva].
Q: So, then, will there be more Geneva talks taking place or not?
Members of parliament and some of our brothers from Misrata as well as civil society activists invited by international organizations met there already, and we agreed to lay down a timetable for the talks and a number of procedures. We said all this in a press release which was carried by all the global news agencies. In it we said we will return to Geneva once again for a second round of talks. As for the location of these talks, we will decide on this on Monday during the next meeting in Geneva. It is there that we will decide on the location, while bearing in mind we have said in parliament several times that the talks must be held in Libya . . . Unless of course there is some security issue inside Libya . . . in addition to the international community, which has its own views on the security issue, though in principle they have no objection to holding the talks in Libya. We hope to be in Libya, of course, but if there is any sort of security issue we will pick up in Geneva again to implement what we decided on there last week.
Q: Are you confirming then that a meeting will take place in Geneva on Monday?
Yes, and we will be heading to Geneva on Sunday. This is what we agreed on with the international [UN] envoy [Bernardino León]. We will discuss a number of issues during the meeting.
Q: Is all this going to happen without the participation of Libya’s previous, dissolved parliament, the General National Congress (GNC)?
In any set of talks, you never get the full roster of participants there at the beginning. Usually at first it is the moderates and the pragmatists who take up the mantle of dialogue, and inevitably you will then get the rest of the participants—who are right now no doubt voicing their rejection of the talks—eventually joining the dialogue. We will accept the participation of anyone who is serious about dialogue, and I hope in the end it will be harder to make war than to make peace.
Q: Do you really believe the other side truly wants peace, or is it the losses it has suffered in battles with forces aligned with your government that are now bringing it to the table?
The important thing here is the result—whether this itself is a result of losses or of conviction is irrelevant; what is important here is that they [the GNC] attend the meetings. The country is now going through an extremely difficult period and experiencing many tough economic, social and humanitarian problems. I call on every individual [from the GNC] who has love for their country and its people to attend the meetings, because the Libyan people now have no alternative to dialogue.
Q: But there are some who say the delegates in Geneva really have no power over the militias on the ground . . .
No, anyone who knows the truth will tell you that the opposite side [the GNC] has political weight, especially over them [the militias] in their areas, both militarily and socially.
Q: Are you saying then that if you were to reach an agreement with the GNC they will be able to convince the leaders of these militias to stop the violence?
Exactly. In fact, I believe we are moving in this direction. So while right now it would be far too early for something like this to happen, we do have positive indicators that suggest it will happen [eventually].
Q: Are you optimistic about the outcomes of the Geneva meetings?
For the first time since I have been a member of Libya’s parliament and since the current crisis began I am beginning to see the glass as being half full.
Q: Some say that Ageila Saleh, the speaker of the Tobruk parliament, requested in an official letter to the Libyan Foreign Ministry that the country’s ambassador to Cairo be changed. Is this true?
It seems there are reports to that effect. If they are true then I believe Mr. Saleh himself would agree that any decisions made [by any ministry] should be based on sound advice or studies undertaken by the minister in question.
Q: There have been reports that the US sent a message to Libya recently criticizing Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who leads the military operation launched against the militias. Is there any truth to these reports?
To be perfectly honest with you, I have no information regarding this.
Q: It was widely expected that the Libyan parliament promote Gen. Haftar to the rank of Lieutenant General. Why has this been delayed, or will it now not take place at all?
The parliament is yet to discuss this matter.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.