This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan further fueled the controversy over the bilateral agreements signed with the Government of National Unity (GNU) last week. Speaking after a cabinet meeting on 10 October, he declared that Ankara would soon begin hydrocarbon exploration in Libya’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Erdogan noted that with the “agreement we’ve signed with Libya, we’ve created a new area of cooperation in the extraction of oil and derivatives from the continental shelf of this country.”
His remarks followed a week of outrage from both domestic actors in Libya – mostly opponents or critics of the GNU – and several countries wary of Turkish strong-arm tactics in the eastern Mediterranean, including Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France. The controversial hydrocarbons-related MoUs were among several signed by a high-level Turkish delegation that visited Tripoli on 3 October. Few details of the MoUs have been made public but it is understood that two relate to cooperation in the oil and gas sector.
The Turkish delegation included the ministers of energy and defense. They met with GNU Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dabaiba and his foreign and economy ministers, along with controversial Central Bank of Libya Governor Sadiq al-Kabir and Mohammed Haddad, chief of staff of the Tripoli-affiliated military forces. Two key figures were missing, though: newly appointed National Oil Corporation (NOC) Chairman Ferhat Bengdara, who is close to Khalifa Haftar, and GNU Oil Minister Mohammed Aoun. Their absence raised eyebrows and prompted speculation that only a tight circle close to Dabaiba was privy to the discussions that led to the Turkish agreements. Horizon contacts suggest that Aoun, in particular, was angry at being kept out of the loop and may attempt to undermine the agreements’ implementation.
The MoUs build on the 2019 agreements that Ankara reached with the GNU’s predecessor as Libya’s internationally recognized government; they further consolidate Turkey’s presence in and engagement with Libya. Those 2019 accords delineated maritime boundaries between the claimed Turkish and Libyan EEZs; they also significantly expanded security and military cooperation at a time when the Tripoli government was trying to stave off Haftar’s offensive to capture the capital.
Among last week’s agreements, an MoU was signed on government media communications, ostensibly to counter disinformation. This clearly showed the hand of Dabaiba confidant Walid al-Lafi (see our Personality of the Week).
Reactions in Libya have reflected current political fault lines. Dabaiba’s rival, Government of National Stability (GNS) Prime Minister Fathi Bashaga, denounced the hydrocarbons-related EEZ agreements as “threatening security and peace in Libya and the region.” The House of Representatives (HoR) Energy Committee issued a statement rejecting the MoUs and insisting that the GNU does not have the legitimacy to sign such deals.
Indeed, many of our diplomatic contacts acknowledge that the MoUs have not been made on solid legal grounds. Under the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) that birthed the GNU, the latter does not have the authority to seal such agreements.
More than 70 High State Council (HSC) members signed a statement condemning the MoUs as “vague” and an “attempt to impose a fait accompli.” A number of federalist/separatist-oriented political movements also denounced the MoUs and used the opportunity to call for a federal system to govern eastern Libya and the Fezzan region. There have been mixed signals from the Presidential Council (PC); its head Mohammed Mnefi is reportedly cautious, while others have welcomed the agreements. On 11 October, following a meeting with the Turkish ambassador, PC member Abdullah al-Lafi issued a statement through the PC media office affirming the body’s “keenness to support Libyan-Turkish relations by implementing memoranda of understanding that serve the interests of the two countries in many fields.” It also praised Turkey for its “efforts aimed at achieving stability in Libya.”
Abroad, the EU issued a statement saying that further clarification on the precise content of the MoUs was needed but repeating its position that the 2019 MoU infringes on “the sovereign rights of third States and does not comply with the Law of the Sea.” Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France all publicly either denounced the deal or raised concerns about its consequences.
The debacle comes amid wider concerns over Dabaiba’s recent attempts to shore up his own position, despite many critics asserting that his government has expired. His reactivation of the Higher Council of Energy – with himself at the helm – and other measures to consolidate control within various spheres increase the risk of a backlash. In particular, this could take the form of oil sector blockades and closures in eastern Libya. The MoUs suggest that Ankara, which had courted a range of Libyan players this year after the UN process collapsed, has decided to back Dabaiba in the absence of any credible projection by his rivals in the Bashaga camp. One of Dabaiba’s recent deals with Haftar’s circle is understood to have led to Bengdara’s appointment at the NOC. These deals may have further convinced Ankara that Dabaiba has a better chance of forging alliances that are better suited to Turkish interests than Bashaga, who is increasingly considered a lost cause.
For now, Dabaiba and his government appear determined to ignore the domestic and overseas uproar over last week’s still-opaque agreements with Turkey. It is worth bearing in mind that these are MoUs and it may be some time before any implementation happens, despite Erdogan trying to give the impression otherwise.
personality of the week
GNU Minister of State for Communications and Political Affairs Lafi, a Tripolitanian in his late 40s, was already a controversial figure before Dabaiba appointed him GNU minister of state for communications and political affairs. That appointment raised eyebrows, as Lafi is widely considered a ruthless operator and was facing allegations of corruption and arms smuggling by the Libyan public prosecutor.
He has a background in marketing, and in 2012 oversaw the publicity campaign for the Watan party of Abdelhakim Belhaj, a former jihadist who was once leader of the now- defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Lafi went on to be a director of the Belhaj-linked Nabaa TV channel, which had a strong anti-Haftar editorial line and was accused by Haftar’s camp of supporting terrorism.
After the closure of Nabaa, Lafi went on to found the Istanbul-based February channel, which also has an anti-Haftar editorial line. The bullish Lafi oversees the GNU’s slick communications strategy, but the blurred lines of his “political affairs” role raise many questions. He is close to Dabaiba and considered a key interlocutor with Turkey. As such, he played a leading role in discussions that led to last week’s controversial MoUs.
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