During a visit to France, Tunisian President Kais Saied raised the issue of legitimacy in Libya at a time when other countries began to review their stance regarding the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA).
Experts on Libya’s policy say the ongoing military showdown in the North African country has proven the GNA to be essentially acting as a front for Islamists ever since they lost the 2014 legislative elections.
Saied’s views provoked angry reactions from Libyan Islamists as illustrated by the statements of Mohamed Sawan, head of the Libyan Justice and Development Party, who described the Tunisian president’s position as misguided.
At a joint press conference on Monday evening with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace, President Saied said that “the existing authority in Libya is based on international legitimacy, and it is a temporary legitimacy that cannot continue and should be replaced with a new legitimacy stemming from the will of the Libyan people.”
Later on, Mr. Saied added: “We must search for a new legitimacy in Libya that rises from within Libya, and is based on electoral legitimacy.”
Islamists in Libya and their regional and international backers continue to refuse to hold presidential and legislative elections, for fear of repeating the 2014 debacle; so they have sought to prolong the current situation.
Through his new position, the Tunisian president seems to join France, which, according to previous statements by diplomatic sources, is moving to withdraw legitimacy from the GNA, and also joins Egypt, whose foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, hinted on Saturday that the mandate of Fayez al-Sarraj’s government had expired.
Tripoli’s Islamists worry that the presence of Tunisia as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council could lend support to French moves for the withdrawal of international legitimacy from the GNA’s Islamist dominated rule, whose monopoly on power in Tripoli and alliance with businessmen and money interests in the cities of Misrata and Tripoli led only to more violence and chaos in the country, especially after the armed intervention of Libya Islamist militia against the legislative elections in 2014.
Many see the Skhirat agreement as a formula that supported the coup by the Islamists and their militias and brought them back to power against the will of the Libyan people, having voted a parliament free of the control of Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan militia.
An informed Arab diplomatic source confirmed earlier this month, that the French had already made up their mind about the GNA and that they would be seeking a Security Council resolution that would withdraw its so-called “international legitimacy” cover from the Tripoli-based government. France views the mission of the newly appointed UN Envoy in Libya as essentially finding a comprehensive formula to replace the expired Skhirat Agreement (since December 2017), which would be binding for all parties involved in the Libyan conflict.
The United States, and especially the US State Department’s influence, is blocking the appointment of a new international envoy, who could undermine Washington’s hold on this topic through its current envoy, US diplomat Stephanie Williams.
The source, which spoke on condition of anonymity, added that the intransigence shown by France is directed primarily at the GNA, because it is the side that had publicly and formally invited Turkey’s military intervention.
On Saturday, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry pointed out that the mandate given to the GNA had run out a couple of years ago. Shoukry’s statements represented an indirect challenge by Egypt to the GNA’s legitimacy, even though the Tripoli government still enjoys international support.
Commenting the Islamists’ rejection of the Egyptian warning of a possible military intervention, Shoukry told the media that the GNA in Tripoli failed to correctly interpret President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s stance, and expressed his hope that the GNA “abides by the limits of its term as stipulated in the Skhirat Agreement.”
According to the provisions of the Skhirat Agreement, the mandate of the government led by Fayez al-Sarraj would have ended on December 17, 2017, including a one year-extension that had not been announced. Still, the international community continues to maintain its support for the Islamists-dominated government until today, that is three years after the end of its mandate.
The Skhirat Agreement, signed in December 2015, stipulates that the agreement’s constitutional impact and validity would run out one year from its signing, and that it can be extended for another year, but by agreement between the parties concerned.
Since its formation, the GNA has not enjoyed the consensus of all parties involved, and most importantly it was never legitimized by the Libyan Parliament, which also refused to include the Skhirat Agreement in the constitutional declaration.
During his election campaign, Tunisian President Kais Saied had publicly declared his support for international legitimacy in Libya. But now, he seems to have adjusted his stance, especially in view of the Islamists’ abuse of international recognition to open the way for Turkish intervention which brought thousands of Syrian militants and mercenaries, including ISIS and Al-Nusra Front elements, only a couple of hundred kilometres away from Tunisia’s borders.
Saied’s new stance runs counter that of the Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament and head of the Islamist Ennahdha Movement party, Rached Ghannouchi. The latter had responded to the outcry in Tunisia caused by his phone call to Fayez al-Sarrajto, congratulating him on recapturing the Al-Watiya military base by arguing that the GNA had international recognition.
As expected, Libya’s Islamists attacked the Tunisian president. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated head of the Justice and Development Party, Mohamed Sawan, said that “Kais Saied lacks minimum knowledge about the political crisis in Libya and the makeup of its people.”
Sawan defended the current constitution, which was drafted by an elected body but which many consider as full of loopholes, meant to exclude most of the opponents of the Islamists from running for presidential elections. President Saied, however, had said that that constitution should be replaced with one drafted by the Libyan tribes.
“His talk about a constitution written by tribal leaders and his comparing the situation in Libya to the one in Afghanistan is ridiculous,” Sawan added, “and let’s not talk about his condescending school master attitude and logic which lacks in diplomacy towards the legitimate authority in Libya that was established based on an agreement between Libyans under the auspices of the United Nations and according to the constitutional declaration that still organizes political life.”