If you have a gun to your head when you sign a very bad deal, does it matter that the onerous agreement is with the party who disarmed and defeated the guy with his gun to your head?
The internationally-recognized government of Libya was rescued from the brink of military defeat in 2019 by Turkey, which sent in military supplies, some Turkish troops and thousands more Syrian mercenaries diverted from the war in their country. The Turkish intervention changed everything, stopped rebel commander Khalifa Haftar’s advance on Tripoli and started a cascade of defeats that left the rebel movement, Haftar and the alternative parliament he fought for, whipped and acquiescent as a new, undivided national government was being put together. So far, so good.
There is a so-far widely supported interim government in place. It has two all-but-universally supported assignments: improving living conditions for the people and holding free and fair elections on December 24. A shaky peace has fallen on Libya.
Which brings us back to that gun to the head deal between Libya and Turkey.
Here’s what we know about it. It has two elements: Libya’s security and Turkey’s maritime boundaries. And according to a top Libyan legal scholar, the contract is ironclad. All the details remain secret. But whatever they are, the interim Libyan Prime Minister has publicly sworn allegiance to them.
But there is a problem. When the “new government for Libya” project was launched, there was an agreement that all foreign troops would be out of Libya by the end of January. It is now May and almost all of the foreign fighters are still in-country. Getting them to go away is essential to those two government tasks — improving living conditions and getting to elections.
The security part of the deal apparently commits Libya to accept a long-term presence of troops under Turkish command. When outsiders from the U.S. or E.U. or the U.A.E. say Turkish troops (and their mercenary accessories) must leave, the Turks reply, unlike all other foreign forces in Libya, ours are here at the invitation of the government. So, they’re not leaving.
If Turkey keeps its military presence, the fear is, Russia will, too. When Vladimir Putin is asked about the Russians who fought on the losing Haftar side, he notes they are private contractors, mercenaries hired by the Wagner Group, over whom he claims to have no control.
After a decade defined, our guest Mustafa Fetouri has written, by “many wars, a political impasse, economic hardships, deteriorating government services, corruption and a collapsing healthcare system at the time of a pandemic,” the Libyan people are focused on one goal — free and fair elections in December. Probably the biggest threat to electoral freedom is the presence of tens of thousands of armed foreigners and it’s a threat totally beyond Libyan control.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize and writes regularly for Middle East Monitor and Al-Monitor.