By Bryant Harris September 12, 2018
As the international community pushes a Hail Mary bid to unite Libya’s two competing governments with elections in December, skeptics on the ground are taking their case straight to Washington.
President Donald Trump has shown little interest to date in the reconciliation process, stating that he “does not see a role in Libya” for the United States beyond combating the Islamic State. But that hasn’t deterred Libyan actors from launching conflicting campaigns to influence US policymakers.
Most recently, Mustafa Eteer, a Libyan poultry mogul and Michigan resident, hired the law firm Mayer Brown in July via his Tri Star International Trading Co. for a three-month, $50,000 contract to lobby Congress and the Trump administration “regarding the formation of a democratic government in Libya.” Toby Moffett, a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, is representing Eteer.
“Holding an election so soon, without the necessary security in place, without militias being disarmed and incorporated into the country, without a workable elections infrastructure, could be a disaster waiting to happen,” Moffett told Al-Monitor. “We are urging the UN special envoy on Libya to simply fully implement the plan that he and his team developed, beginning with … the naming of three people to a presidential council and the naming by that council of an interim prime minister.”
Eteer’s contract with Mayer Brown notes that the firm is working in conjunction with Grey Matter LLC, a firm owned by Salah Brahimi, the son of former UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. It's unclear which of the rival Libyan parties, if any, Eteer is associated with as he did not respond to a request for comment.
Libya is split between a UN-backed government in Tripoli and the eastern-based Tobruk House of Representatives, with a constellation of smaller actors and militias also vying for power. The House of Representatives in turn is allied with the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army headed by strongman Khalifa Hifter.
Last year, Libyan officials including Tobruk House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh Issa and self-proclaimed eastern Libya Gov. Abdelrazek al-Nadhouri paid former Israeli arms dealer Ari Ben-Menashe and his Canada-based firm Dickens and Madson $100,000 to represent their interests in Washington. Ben-Menashe parted ways with Hifter as part of that contract in June, but told Al-Monitor he recently resumed contacts with the general.
Like Moffett, Ben-Menashe called the elections “premature.”
“First we need a government that will create a structure and then you do the election,” he told Al-Monitor.
The comments mirror concerns from UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame, who warned in July that “it would be difficult to advance the political process without action and without the right conditions, it would be unwise to conduct elections.”
Salame however singled out Ben-Menashe’s clients in his remarks.
“It has been evident that many members of the House of Representatives, who last month completed their fourth year in office, have not exhibited any enthusiasm for attendance nor for passing viable electoral legislation,” Salame said.
As of earlier this month, the Tobruk House of Representatives had yet to vote on the legislation despite initially pledging to do so by the end of July.
Nadhouri also briefly lobbied Congress on his own. In November he inked a $450,000, yearlong contract with Keystone Strategic Advisers overseen by Vladimir Petrovic, a former Serbian ambassador to the United States. The firm’s founder, Aryeh Mittleman, who briefly worked on the Nadhouri portfolio, donated $25,000 to Trump’s inauguration last year.
The lobbying shop was paid up front but was terminated in February, nine months ahead of schedule. The short-lived contract only resulted in meetings with right-wing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and one of his staffers as well as with the chief of staff for Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas.
Hifter also continues to vie for the ear of lawmakers and administration officials ahead of the elections. His son, Khaled Hifter, a self-proclaimed captain in his father’s Libyan National Army (LNA), hired Grassroots Political Consulting in November 2017 for $20,000 per month.
The firm’s director, Daniel Faraci, stressed the need for US lawmakers to “recognize the legitimacy of all parties in Libya” ahead of the elections. But he told Al-Monitor he was “cautiously optimistic” they could still be held this year.
“There’s complete confusion with regards to Libya on the part of lawmakers,” Faraci said. “They know about the slave trade and the migrant issues, but they have very little understanding of who the players are.”
In the meantime, Faraci said the Hifters would like to see congressional “support for lifting the weapon ban on the LNA and full-fledged support for counterterrorism operations.”
The Hifters’ professed anti-Islamist agenda has earned the LNA support from both Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which adamantly oppose Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups. Faraci, a former intelligence and counterterrorism specialist at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, also represents the interests of a UAE-backed separatist group in southern Yemen.
Lobbying by political factions is dwarfed by energy firms such as US-based Hess, which has shelled out $820,000 since last year in part to lobby Congress on Libya amid instability in the oil-rich east. After seizing control of Libya’s oil ports from a warlord earlier this year, Hifter only returned the oil facilities to Tripoli’s control in June after weeks of international pressure.
Neither Trump nor Congress have paid much attention to Libya’s quagmire, with the post of US envoy to Libya vacant since President Barack Obama’s envoy Jonathan Winer stepped down in January 2017. Still, the State Department has requested $34.5 million in bilateral assistance for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 despite Trump’s determination to slash foreign aid across the board. Senate appropriators have been more generous, designating $38.5 million in Libyan aid for fiscal year 2019 on top of an additional $50 million in relief and recovery funding.
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