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What does 2018 hold for Libya? Open in fullscreen

Guma El-Gamaty

What does 2018 hold for Libya?

Civilians on different sides of the political divide feel exhausted by political violence [AFP]

Date of publication: 11 January, 2018

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Comment: Increased oil production and the prospect of elections mean many are hoping 2018 will be the year conflict finally comes to an end in Libya, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
Libyans look back on 2017 as a year of political stagnation, with no significant success in clearing the political impasse and deadlock between the factions embroiled in the Libyan conflict. 

For ordinary Libyans, their socio-economic suffering has deepened further as prices spiralled up and access to cash from the banks became a real challenge.

Violence and military fighting did, however, reduce considerably, as Haftar declared his victory in the three year war that has been raging in Benghazi. The victory against the IS stronghold of Sirte meant that the presence of the terrorist group in Libya has, to a large degree, been eradicated.

Tripoli was relatively speaking more stable, and safer than in previous years, as some embassies and international companies returned to set office.

The year 2017 also saw the appointment of the sixth UN special envoy to Libya in as many years.

The Lebanese academic and diplomat Ghassan Salame took over from the previous envoy Martin Kobler in August and seemed to strike a good rapport with the various Libyan factions very quickly.

Salame articulated a fresh narrative talking about reconciliation, social peace, moving from temporary political institutions to permanent ones and holding fresh elections.

The attitude and role of Egypt in 2018 will be crucial in terms of regional geopolitical shifts

As the year 2017 drew to a close, it was clear that a change in the mood and psyche of Libyans was taking place with the debates - especially in social media - shifting to themes such as the constitution, elections, national reconciliation and the need for unity to fulfil the potential of a promising prosperous future for Libya.

Many are now genuinely expecting 2018 to be the year when conflict hopefully comes to an end, and a new era begins. Major shifts in the dynamics of power are also taking place, including clear signs that Haftar has abandoned his military plans of taking over political power by force, especially in the vital capital, Tripoli.

Few military loyalists to Haftar, who scattered across in pockets south and west of Tripoli, were totally expelled or arrested by forces loyal to the government of national accord (GNA).

Haftar received clear messages from the UN Security Council and from key countries such as the USA, Italy, France and Egypt that he has to abandon his military pursuit of power.

Instead he should align himself with the political track set by the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) signed in Morocco in December 2015. Security Council members stressed in a statement in November 2017 that the Agreement was the only valid framework during the transition period recognised and supported by the international community.

To this end, Haftar recently urged his supporters to prepare for elections in a clear indication that he may stand for presidential elections whenever they materialise.

Those security groups that will take part in protecting polling stations have to be totally impartial

The attitude and role of Egypt in 2018 will be crucial in terms of regional geopolitical shifts. Egypt is expected to adopt a more balanced approach to the sides involved in the Libyan conflict, fearing that by solely gambling on Haftar, it may end up backing a losing side and antagonising other political forces taking power in Libya through elections.

A national conference for reconciliation, and new elections both seem likely to take place in 2018. However, exact details and timing of both potentially important milestones are still vague.

Salame envisages a National Conference that "will give Libyans from all across the country the opportunity to come together in one place, renew their common national narrative, and agree on the tangible steps required to end the transition".

This ideally should come before any election takes place in order to get a national commitment that the election process and outcomes will be respected by all.

Possible elections in 2018 could be through one of two options: The first is that elections take place following the approval, through a direct referendum, on a new permanent constitution providing the social contract that Libyans need for sharing power and wealth peacefully.

Read more: Who is really responsible for Libya's slave trade?

This is what the majority of Libyan public opinion is asking for as they express a desire to see the end of a very turbulent and painful transition period that lasted seven years so far.

The other option will be elections for yet another (fourth) transitional period, opting for new temporary political bodies which will result in more of the same divisions, stagnations and suffering endured to date.

Another transitional period is not likely to be welcomed, and the UN envoy is unlikely to support this as he has reiterated many times that he wants to help Libyans to move forward to permanent institutions.

However, the expected elections most likely starting with a referendum on a new constitution followed within six months by presidential and parliamentary elections, will require certain security and economic preconditions.

Elections will need to be organised in a safe environment free of any interference and harassment. In the absence of well-established army and police institutions, those security groups that will take part in protecting polling stations have to be totally impartial. This was largely achieved in the 2012 and 2014 elections.

But in order for Libyans to take to elections with enthusiasm and in large numbers, their current dire socio-economic conditions need to improve markedly throughout 2018.

The central bank of Libya (CBL) needs to address the severe liquidity shortages in banks so that people can easily access their salaries and savings. The big gap between the official and actual exchange rate of the Libyan dinar against major currencies will have to be addressed so that prices of imported goods can fall from their inflated current levels.

In order for Libyans to take to elections with enthusiasm, their current dire socio-economic conditions need to improve markedly

The steady rise in oil exports over the last six months, which has now exceeded one million barrels per day (bpd), is expected to be maintained and even improved, edging towards the desired target of 1.5 million bpd.

This is expected to boost a Libyan economy that has been in recession for the last three years. This outlook is supported by the Economist Intelligence Unit which states that "the re-opening of a number of key oilfields in 2017, has pushed economic growth back into positive territory, a trend we expect to continue in 2018".

Oil reserves in Libya have been estimated around 49 billion barrels (highest in Africa) and recent data on shale oil reserves ranks Libya fifth in the world with estimated extra reserves of 26 billion barrels, which gives a total reserves of 75 billion barrels.

Libya's fantastically rich natural resources will be an advantage in persuading Libyans, in 2018 and beyond, to reach a lasting accord and get on with the challenge of state building as the economic and development rewards will be very high.

The positive economic outlook in 2018 will however largely depend on achieving political unity and significant improvements in security.

It will also depend on the ability to attract external resources and investment, especially in the oil and gas sector, in order to achieve and sustain higher level of oil production, possibly even above 1.5 million bpd.  

2018 is likely to be a watershed year for Libya. Civilians on different sides of the political divide feel exhausted by the violence and suffering that conflict brings, and they are likely to accept that the ballot box is a far better and civilised way of managing their differences and their country.

Looking even further ahead, 2019 could potentially be the year in which Libya leaves its painful, rocky transition behind, and the mammoth challenge of state building, economic diversification and comprehensive development takes off in earnest. 

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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