Libyans Should Decide Their Own Future: An Interview with Hani Shennib

Libya’s disparate political factions met in Palermo, Italy, on November 12 to discuss ways to achieve a political settlement that would end their country’s instability. Hosted by Italy and endorsed by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the Palermo conference arrived at a set of decisions that reflected the state of disunity among Libya’s politicians and the divisions between regional and international actors involved in the Libyan crisis.

To further understand developments in Libya, Dr. Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, interviewed Dr. Hani Shennib, Founding President of the National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations. Dr. Shennib had also participated in an ACW panel on Libya on November 1, 2018, titled “Seven Years after Qadhafi’s Death: Is Libya Any Closer to Democratic Transition?” Note: Dr. Shennib’s views do not necessarily reflect those of ACW, which does not take political positions.

Imad Harb: What do you see as the main obstacles for a peace settlement in Libya? Are domestic conditions conducive to such a settlement?

Hani Shennib: I believe that the failure to address the root causes of the Libyan conflict is the main reason why Libya has not arrived at a peaceful resolution to its ongoing troubles. When the revolt against Muammar Qadhafi occurred in early 2011, it was the people of Benghazi, the old twin capital city of Libya, who rose up against him. Within hours of the start of protests, other cities of the historic Cyrenaica province in the east followed suit. The revolt did not start in Tripoli, the capital city whose commerce-savvy citizens have benefited from the regime and international connections. To be sure, Libyans of the east first took to the streets not only to topple a dictator but mainly because they had become fed up with their region’s extreme socioeconomic and geopolitical marginalization.

The east-west divide in Libya has deep historical roots that impact today’s developments. After having a federal structure of three provinces––Cyrenaica, Tripoli, and Fezzan, with Tripoli and Benghazi as twin capital cities––during the rule of the late King Idriss Sanusi, Libya developed into a centralized state following Qadhafi’s takeover in 1969. Qadhafi abolished Benghazi as a parallel capital and transferred the principal Libyan crown corporations, such as the National Oil Company and Libyan Airlines, and foreign embassies to Tripoli. The regions of the east were punished and neglected for the following 42 years. So when the 2011 revolt started in Benghazi, al-Baydah, and other cities in Cyrenaica, it was a revolt to regain an old historical socioeconomic status.

Unfortunately, the people of Cyrenaica harbor mistrust and fear of the potential continuation of a dominant central government in Tripoli, and this is likely to be a serious obstacle to any political resolution in the near future. From my ongoing observations and recent and frequent trips to the east, I am more convinced that the easterners will only accept a federal model of decentralization—as opposed to decentralization with a dominant government structure in Tripoli. Both the east (Cyrenaica) and the south (Fezzan) are demanding broader control of their economic destiny in a federal model. Libya will need to be carefully reengineered to stay unified but with less central authority.

The objections of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), mostly by eastern and southern members, are delaying tactics to refuse to buy into a constitutional proposal that maintains the status quo ante of the dominance of a central government in Tripoli. Such delay tactics are incorrectly perceived by the central government of Tripoli and UNSMIL as the HoR’s “inefficiency.” In fact, UNSMIL should understand the root cause to be a general refusal to accept the centralized model of governance. I think that the current positions by representatives of the east and south in the HoR will continue and will make it difficult to move forward with stabilization efforts. In my opinion, a consideration for bringing back the federal model of governance could promptly resolve this standstill.

IH: What do you think of the recent conference in Palermo? Has it achieved any tangible results?

HS: The Palermo meeting is perceived by Libyans as another start of another frustrating new roadmap by another UN envoy, this time Ghassan Salamé, and as a show of competition between international actors over Libya. They see Palermo as a way to assert a very unpopular UN trusteeship government, which has failed in every aspect. It never obtained approval by the Libyan HoR nor is it accepted today by the High Council of State. General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army controlling the east, originally refused to attend the formal conference and, at the end, stated his willingness to accept temporarily maintaining the status quo of a government under Fayez al-Sarraj [prime minister of the Government of National Accord] until after a presumed coming election next year.

The idea of Palermo is to buy into UN special representative to Libya Salamé’s new roadmap. The meeting called for a national Libyan conference in the third week of January 2019, one that would lead to a “National Agreement” to be followed by elections in the summer. The problem with this is that no one in Libya knows who will be invited to participate and how representative the individuals will be. So far, and even though Salamé claims to have finished wide national consultative rounds, it seems that those who will be cherry-picked are the ones who will likely be molded into his planned vision of a central government in Tripoli that oversees municipalities around the country, including those that reject the model: Fezzan, Cyrenaica, Misrata, and other regions aspiring for more self-governance.

The most important element of the Palermo conference is the determination by Europe and the United States to support a plan to secure the streets of Tripoli and to push forward with economic reforms and the elimination of corruption. We are already seeing enormous efforts by the UN representative’s office to resuscitate the incompetent Sarraj government with much accompanying media fervor. Libyans see this as unpalatable. Indeed, changing the government would go a long way toward building badly needed bridges between Salamé and Libyans before the coming National Conference.

IH: Will the UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) be able to lead a transition toward inclusive government in the future? Will General Haftar and the House of Representatives join it in allowing constitutional ratification and the holding of elections later?

HS: The UN-supported GNA currently controls a sliver of land in Tripoli. While it is recognized by the international community, it has not been ratified by the House of Representatives nor does it have any significant popularity among the Libyan people due to the worsening daily economic conditions. There is a serious legitimacy problem in the decision by the international community and the UN to continue to recognize the Sarraj government or to legitimize its actions and agreements. The GNA renders Libya in a quasi-trusteeship status that cannot realistically continue for long. On November 1, the HoR and the High Council of State created by the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015 agreed to establish a new three-member presidential council (to replace the inept existing nine-member body) and a new national unity government led by a prime minister.

Unfortunately, Libyans do not trust the UN mission or take stock in its plans. They also fear that their country has become a playground for Italian, French, Qatari, Emirati, Egyptian, and Turkish maneuvers, thus leaving very little space for Libyans to decide their own fate. A process that should have started with national dialogue, reconciliation, constitution writing, and then elections has now become twisted and complicated. One thing that all Libyans agree upon is that they do not want to go to another form of military dictatorship. Haftar is considered a hero by most in Cyrenaica because of his ability to defeat terrorist organizations and reestablish some security in the eastern cities. He clearly is not popular in western Libya, and now his popularity in the east is fading rapidly because of his ambitions to extend his power to the west, in the process ignoring and suppressing the federalist movement in the east.

IH: How can regional actors and Arab states help—or hinder—the arrival at this settlement?

HS: Libyans feel that the Arab states have their own complex problems and are not in a position to assist with Libya. In fact, interference by the Arab states has fueled the differences among Libyans and has not helped. In the future, however, Libyans would need assistance by expert Arab bureaucrats to replenish mid-level government managers as well as administrators in the many service sectors such as education, health services, and professional labor.

IH: What major inputs can European governments and the United States offer to further reconciliation between Libya’s competing factions?

HS: Europeans have not been very helpful; in fact, in their competition they have made things more complicated. The United States has kept a distance except for its fight against the Islamic State. Because the United States does not have any colonial history in the region, it would be more suited to oversee a sound international position on the reconstruction of Libya. A bottom-up approach addressing urgent human security needs of the population would go a long way to helping the reconstruction of Libya, a country that has been poorly managed for the last 50 years.