Once again, Libya shows itself as a tough nut to crack because of the ambitions of some of its leaders. A bout of fighting in the capital, Tripoli, has just ended––arguably only precariously, given the many ceasefires broken before––after the intercession of United Nations Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salamé who has been tasked since June 2017 with finding a way out of the country’s chaos. Even with Salamé’s efforts and the international community’s eagerness to end Libya’s seven-year-long troubles, it remains up to Libya’s leaders themselves to agree to a political settlement and begin to restore the authority of a unified state.
To be sure, Salamé has been busy facilitating the popular endorsement of a referendum for a constitutional draft approved in 2017 by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly and upheld by the country’s Supreme Court. What has been lacking is legislation by the Bayda-based House of Representatives (HoR) in the east that could chart how the referendum would be held. The HoR is under the sway of General Khalifa Haftar who commands the Libyan National Army and is vying for power against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Salamé is also preparing the country for parliamentary and presidential elections that are slated to be held on December 10 but are stymied by the fact that Libya has no agreed-upon constitution thus far.
Political Obstacles Galore
The latest fighting in Tripoli appears to have been about controlling power and resources, as several militias and GNA-affiliated army units battled each other. Whatever the reasons and ambitions of the armed groups, GNA-sanctioned or otherwise, the clashes point to a serious lack––throughout the country––of institutional mechanisms to adjudicate differences. Even if these were available, there is an unmistakable tendency to ignore them in pursuit of factional interests. UN envoy Salamé decried this state of affairs recently at the UN Security Council when he described the situation in Libya as “untenable” and criticized the HoR for delaying legislation that would facilitate approving a constitution and holding elections. He also cautioned against the threat from extremists exploiting the chaos and the potential for an all-out war in the country.
Since 2015, the United Nations has nurtured the Libyan Political Agreement between different factions vying for control. This agreement produced a Presidential Council supposedly representing a disparate array of interests as well as a Government of National Accord. The settlement has met with myriad challenges and challengers, most importantly General Haftar, who has declared himself Libya’s anti-Islamist fighter and gained control over political, economic, and military organs that compete with the internationally recognized GNA. While signing on to a French-supported agreement last May in Paris, he and the House of Representatives that convenes in his areas of control have not put in place the legal mechanisms to hold the stipulated elections. In fact, last June, and only a few days after the Paris conference, the general vowed to unseat the GNA after December 2018 if it does not succeed in resolving Libya’s problems—in essence spelling doom for the 2015 UN-brokered agreement.
Libya is also in the throes of militia rule, especially in its western half, since Haftar has succeeded in putting all armed factions in the eastern realm under his control. Sarraj’s government in Tripoli is even beholden to militias and semi-independent army units for its protection. It was reported that Sarraj appealed for American protection, but was turned down, when he visited Washington in December 2017. It may in fact be a race with time before either Haftar launches a military campaign to conquer the western areas and install himself as leader, or the militias seeking the resources available to the weak GNA finally take over the latter’s center of power. In either case, without a concerted international effort to support Salamé’s mission, Libya may be on its way to further conflict and potential dismemberment.
Economic Uncertainties and External Actors
Other problems that complicate the task of stabilizing Libya include the precarious control over the country’s economic riches and the continuous external interference. The GNA wants to assert its authority over Libya’s economy but lacks the necessary tools of state power. Succumbing to European and American pressure, last July General Haftar restored control over oil fields in the east to the Tripoli-based GNA, thus giving the country some assurance that revenue may continue and global markets may have some oil price stability. This, however, does not obviate the possibility that at any opportune time, he may reverse his decision and keep the revenues to himself if future political developments, such as the December presidential and parliamentary elections, do not go his way.
In addition, Libya has become the conduit for African and other migrants to Europe. According to the International Organization of Migration, there are more than 400,000 migrants in Libya who “are exposed to abuse and human rights violations” by unscrupulous smugglers and human traffickers. Thousands of them were trapped in unprotected detention centers during the latest fighting in Tripoli after being picked up by the Libyan coast guard while trying to cross to Europe. Their presence in Libya today only adds to the uncertain security and economic situation. This issue will be resolved only when the country restores its institutional strength first, to prevent the migrants’ illegal entry, and second, to organize their departure in coordination with European countries.
Outside interference in Libya’s affairs has also added to the difficulties Salamé’s mission faces and to the complications of elite competition inside the country. While France and Italy appear to compete to influence the international effort to resolve the Libyan crisis, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have clearly sided with General Haftar. Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta––perhaps reflecting Italy’s newest rightist direction––put at least part of the blame for the latest fighting in Tripoli on France’s original decision in 2011 to help topple Muammar Qadhafi. Rome’s overriding concern has been, and remains, the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean; Italian lawmakers would arguably do what they can to stem it, no matter who takes control of Libya. Perhaps that is why Italy, supported by the US administration and president who has not shied away from backing the European right, has announced that it will organize an international conference on Libya in November.
From his side, French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have waded into Libya’s chaotic waters when, last May, he sponsored a conference for its leaders that led to an agreement on elections. However, France and Italy have a clear difference of opinion when it comes to the migrants fleeing to Europe through Libya, with Macron actually advocating for sanctions against European countries refusing to admit refugees. Macron may also believe that having an active role in Libya would give France the platform and influence necessary for leading a European foreign policy agenda. As a consequence, Libya may be made to wait for the European countries to agree on an effective way forward for the country to deal with its many problems, especially since the United States is reluctant to assume a direct role in Libya.
Finally, Egypt and the UAE have thrown their support behind General Haftar because of his declared commitment to fight Libya’s Islamists. As reports have indicated, the two countries have supplied Haftar with military equipment and international support. Both have assisted him in his turf war with the Islamists since 2014. For Egypt, Libya is a source of security threats from the Islamic State, from Libya’s Islamists (whom Egypt sees as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood), and from a host of other extremists. Libya is also a lucrative economic zone for Egypt, especially as Cairo deals with serious domestic problems. For the UAE, Libya is an arena for asserting an oversize strategic role and influence that Abu Dhabi would like to extend from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
A Way Out Needed
As in civil wars across the globe, beneficiaries of chaos and instability are usually those who exploit the absence of order and state authority to both enrich themselves and thwart a long-term return to normalcy. What was “normal” in Libya during Qadhafi’s rule was a dystopian political existence in the shadow of a dictator; now, Libyans crave a functioning and unified state, an equitable economy, and a civil and respectful social environment. The Libyan people have been denied these fundamental rights as citizens while militias, internal power centers, and interested outside actors have worked their destabilizing magic, effecting disunity, chaos, and socioeconomic problems.
Given the potential for continued instability inside Libya and regionally, the United States and the European Union would do well to increase their declared support to the UN-led mission of Ghassan Salamé. While Haftar and others may not like the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, they have to abide by it since it is the politically sanctioned and internationally supported deal for the future of Libya, and because they signed on to it. Compromises are of the essence and their abiding by the agreement is the sure way to help establish strong and stable state institutions.
Moreover, it may be about time to lift the international embargo on weapons sales to Libya for the very legitimate reason of strengthening the Government of National Accord in its efforts to control its country’s territories. As things are now, the embargo has not stopped the disrupters, the militias, or General Haftar from acquiring whatever they need to maintain themselves. A militarily strong GNA will be able to stand up to the militias and to Haftar. But simultaneously, it should protect human rights and promote democratic development and governance, guided by well-functioning institutions. Supported by international economic institutions of finance and trade, the GNA would also be able to institute needed economic reforms to assure equity and a stable social peace.