UN backed Libya's government hires Mercury for lobby jobs,Talks about cease-fire treasonous says Sarraj

MERCURY WILL LOBBY FOR LIBYAN GOVERNMENT: The United Nations-backed government of Libya hired Mercury to lobby on its behalf in Washington just days after President Donald Trump unexpectedly endorsed the militia leader who’s trying to overthrow the government. 
Mercury will lobby Congress and the Trump administration on behalf of the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, according to a Justice Department filing. 

Mercury lobbyists will also work to identify interest groups allied with the government and handle media relations and unspecified international affairs work.

UN-backed Libyan government of l-Sarraj signed a $2 million deal with Mercury Public Affairs to lobby Congress and the Donald Trump administration .
The Government of National Accord (GNA) signed the year-long contract on April 25, after reports that Trump had indicated support for Hifter’s march on Tripoli in a phone call with the eastern-based strongman. The contract calls for Mercury to be paid $500,000 per quarter in fees and expenses, with the first installment paid up front.
Neither Mercury nor the Libyan government answered requests for comment. But experts say the expensive contract is a sign the GNA is deeply concerned about a possible US shift away from the UN-backed peace process in favour of Hifter, a former CIA asset who leads the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army.
“This is a dramatic reversal of how the international landscape has changed around the GNA,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. “They are basically seeing the writing on the wall.”

More than a dozen Mercury staffers based in the firm’s London, New York and Washington offices have registered to work on Libya’s behalf, including former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Bryan Lanza, who worked on the Trump campaign and transition. The one-year contract is worth $150,000 a month, with $500,000 due upfront. The contract includes an additional $200,000 a year for expenses. Morris Reid, a Mercury partner leading the work, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

— Mercury isn’t the first Washington lobbying firm to get involved in the conflict in Libya, in which various factions have been competing for power since the American-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. An aide to Khalifa Haftar, the militia leader whom Trump endorsed last month, hired Ari Mittleman, a former aide to Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), in 2017 to help win friends in Washington and paid his firm, Keystone Strategic Advisers, a $450,000 fee upfront, according to disclosure filings.

— But it’s unclear how much good the contract did for Hafter. Mittleman and his partner, Vladimir Petrovic, secured only three meetings on Haftar’s behalf, according to a Justice Department filing: one with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who later lost reelection; one with an aide to Rohrabacher; and one with an aide to Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who didn’t run for reelection last year. Keystone stopped working for Haftar two months into the yearlong contract.

The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, two of Hifter’s top backers, spoke with Trump shortly before his call with Hifter. Top US officials, including Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, had previously demanded that the Libyan strongman halt his advance, which the UN says has already killed at least 345 people and displaced thousands.

The GNA is likely to get a receptive ear on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers of both parties have raised concerns about Hifter’s advance. Shortly after Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke to Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj by phone on Tuesday, the Trump ally urged the administration to recommit to the peace process.

“We need to reinforce the message that we’re not picking one group over the others and we reject military force as the solution to the problems in Libya,” Graham told Politico on Tuesday.

In an interview with Al-Monitor on Monday, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state under President Barack Obama, called the US shift in favour of Hifter “batshit crazy.”

“I’m hoping that in the Libya case we can pull them back from what I think would be a historically bad decision aligning with a Russian-backed warlord who is hated by the majority of the Libyan people to help him overthrow the legitimate government that the United States and the international community supported," Malinowski said.

Washington lobbying firms have courted the Libyan government since shortly after its formation in 2016. Mercury also lobbies for Qatar and Turkey, both of which support the GNA against Hifter. The GNA hasn’t had a Washington lobbying presence since its Foreign Ministry terminated its contract with the Alexandria Group in October 2016.

A former senior US official involved in Libya told Al-Monitor that Mercury first approached the GNA as a potential client at the time, including Wafa Bughaighis, now the country’s ambassador to Washington. But the nascent Libyan authority rebuffed the firm, citing high costs, as Sarraj mulled appointing a special envoy to the United States.

“The Libyans always wait until they're forced into a panic zone and then they look for alliances,” the former official said. “Mercury was on their radar, and when this happened they realised they needed some avenues to get to people.”

At recent preparatory talks in the UAE, Hifter was offered a “very generous” deal to join forces with the GNA, the former official added. “Sarraj would be hands off in terms of military operations in Hifter's role in command of the armed forces. [The goal] was to get Hifter to agree to acknowledge having civilian oversight of some sort.”

Former US envoy to Libya Jonathan Winer told Al-Monitor last month that Hifter had rejected a similar deal for military control in 2016.

The GNA’s entry into the Washington lobbying scene comes just after Libyan oil tycoon Hassan Tatanaki, who has links to both the Gadhafi family and Hifter, signed a $30,000 monthly contract with Yorktown Solutions in an effort to get the Trump administration on board with a push for fresh elections. Tatanaki has called for Libya, one of Africa’s largest oil producers, to shut off the pipelines as the conflict rages. Two former US officials said Tatanaki has made a similar push in the past.

“Oil should be stopped, that is my emotional opinion,” Tatanaki told Al-Monitor last month. “It is the thing that seems to be the one that hits the alarms. The human factor has not hit the alarms. It is a wake-up call.”

Talks about cease-fire

The prime minister Al-Sarraj declared during a speech he delivered at the meeting of the cabinet in Tripoli, on Thursday that the conditions for any cease fire will be that the aggressor force withdraw and return to its eastern base.

Mere mention of a cease-fire is seen as treasonous in the capital. “It was a stab in the back,” Sarraj says.

“All abroad and local parties agreed that any talks about a ceasefire are conditioned upon the withdrawal of the aggressor force and its return from where it came. Ignoring this condition means that the talk becomes a bit absurd,” Al-Sarraj insisted.

“As for resuming the political process, the situation before 4 April is completely different from the situation after, for there are variables,” he added.

Al-Sarraj clarified: “We did not call for blowing up the political process, as we were one party to it and we are working to sustain it as well as consultation. However, some others hindered this process and caused great damage to society, in addition to material and moral damage.”

“Our young people are strongly defending their capital, and the project of the civil state,” and “the conditions on the ground are good,” said Al-Sarraj.

Attempts by European leaders to force a peaceful resolution have been toothless so far, since many have supported Haftar as the leader most likely to restore the rule of law. 

France balked at singling out the military leader for opprobrium, while Russia opposed language in the UN Security Council blaming Haftar for the violence.

At the UN Security Council, the U.S. went from supporting a British draft resolution calling for a cease-fire in Tripoli to threatening a veto if it went to a vote, said a diplomat who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. 

U.S. officials said Trump had been influenced by Sisi and bin Zayed. One suggested Trump didn’t like to be on the losing side.

As for Libya  now,  rivals largely have been left to fight it out among themselves. 

Opponents of Sarraj’s government say he’s weak and beholden to powerful militias—some with links to Islamist extremists Haftar fought in the east—and to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and the UAE have sought to extirpate and the Trump administration has moved to designate a foreign terrorist organization. 

Sarraj’s supporters say he’d been slowly and carefully imposing civilian rule over the militias and integrating them into the state’s security services.  They argue that the offensive by the LNA—itself a coalition of militias under Haftar’s command—has upended that effort.

On 4 April, Haftar launched a military operation to take control of the capital, Tripoli claiming that the capital has been perpetually under militants and terrorists.

Until now, the military operation has not made any real progress on the ground and has also suffered setbacks in some areas.

Since 2011, Libya has been caught in the middle of a struggle for legitimacy and authority, which is currently taking place between the Government of National Accord in Tripoli (west) and the retired general Khalifa Haftar, who is leading the army forces in the east.

Sources: Politico / Al-Monitor / Bloomberg / MEM

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