Q&A: What’s next for Libya?

On March 30, 2016, members of Libya‘s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) sailed into Tripoli in an effort to unite rival factions and bring stability to the war-torn country.

In order to establish its authority, the GNA sought the support of a handful of militias already active in the city.

The gradual rise of these Tripoli-based armed groups, which kept their autonomy as they began dominating the formal security institutions, including the interior ministry, angered powerful militias outside the capital who felt marginalised and at risk of losing access to state funds.

Last week, fierce clashes broke out between groups from outside the capital and Tripoli-based militias, killing dozens of people and wounding many more.

The renewed fighting did not only lay bare Tripoli’s fragile security situation and GNA’s powerlessness, but also pushed major international powers – already at odds over how to resolve the long-running conflict – to change their tone.

In a speech at the Security Council on Wednesday, Ghassane Salame, the UN envoy to Libya, warned of the threat “predatory” armed groups pose to the country’s transition process.

“Indeed, members of some armed groups nominally acting under the ministry of interior have kidnapped, tortured and murdered employees of sovereign institutions, including the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Investment Authority,” said Salame.

“Our public criticism of the predatory behaviour of armed groups in the capital was warmly welcomed by Libyans, who are fed up with living on the poverty line whilst their national resources are looted by gunmen-turned-millionaires.”

Salame also cautioned against opportunistic politicians in the country’s two rival administrations – the Tripoli-based GNA and the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk – who seek to prolong the country’s chaotic status quo for their own personal gain.

The violence also cast doubt at the prospect of holding nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections by December, agreed by rival Libyan leaders who met in May in Paris at the behest of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Italy has called for the launch of peace talks between rival groups, which it hopes can take place in November as a prelude to the planned December polls.

But Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, acknowledged last month that Rome was in no rush to see elections happen. 

“Italy’s primary interest is to stabilise Libya and to hold the presidential and political elections with appropriate guarantees,” Conte told reporters last month.

Meanwhile, renegade General Khalifa Haftar, whose self-declared Libyan National Army controls much of eastern Libya, denounced Italy’s approach as counterproductive.

Al Jazeera spoke to Jalel Harchaoui, a political analyst and scholar, to get a sense of where Libya stands and what it needs to do to bridge political differences and move the legislative process forward.  

Al Jazeera: Do recent clashes in Tripoli present the international community with a new reality of the situation in Libya? 

Jalel Harchaoui: I think it’s more about the optics rather than a reality that would have been completely novel. A lot of what happened had been almost predicted by many political scientists.

What the international community was engaged in was a very strong and tenacious desire to believe that the equilibrium in Tripoli was tenable, viable and stable – that wasn’t the reality.

People detached from governments and the UN had enough information to conclude that, yes, there was an equilibrium in Tripoli but that it wasn’t tenable.

Foreign states are now forced to see what they were not willing to see: the fact that downtown Tripoli, the centre of the capital where all the embassies are, as well as other vital institutions, cannot be separated from the rest of Libya.

What we have seen over the last 10 days was that armed groups outside Tripoli, in the periphery, were not going to stand by idly while those in the capital take advantage of the opportunities for embezzlement. 

Al Jazeera: Can militia violence and their disproportionate influence over civilian authorities be reined in? 

Harchaoui: No one – neither the Libyans in the Tripolitania region, nor the foreign states nor the UN – has undertaken any real effort to build a state. On the contrary, what we have seen is a temptation, or even an interest, in working with militias.

These militias were smart enough to know that in order to receive support and please some of the actors, they were expected to conduct a political war against groups like the Muslim Brotherhood which they had already expelled from the city.

It is difficult to see how these convenient groups can be dismantled. They are useful to some outside parties with foreign agenda. 

At the same time, one must keep in mind that accepting a militia is not a good start to state-building efforts. A militia will continue torturing people, being opaque and corrupt, regardless of what it says.

In sum, we don’t know whether they can be reined in until we actually try. If you don’t question a militia, it means you are not interested in incorporating it into a structure of the state.

Foreign states are not the only culprits but it is important to highlight their role. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and France, in particular, were all too happy to court the militias.

These three countries happily accepted the militias as legitimate actors to work with. They were deeply interested in coopting them because they thought these militias did not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The militias in Tripoli did improve the security situation but they were also expected to wage a different kind of war, a political battle against Islamists and revolutionary militias in the capital.

The reason why I single out those three is because nobody seems to mention them. They were not denounced by the UN, civil society groups or NGOs. 

Al Jazeera: Do the latest developments give reason to Italy’s approach, as opposed to France’s, to the Libyan crisis which has emphasised national reconciliation before nationwide polls can be held? 

Harchaoui: In terms of Italy and France, no single approach is best.

Italy has a lot to do with the collapse that just happened and engaged in a strategy that it thought would be very productive but which in the end proved futile.

Rome tried to cultivate the status quo by talking to as many actors as possible, both inside and outside Tripoli.

They adopted a horizontal approach and they genuinely thought that they’d be able to control the whole thing and stich everything [militias] together into a functioning state.

France doesn’t know Libya nearly as well as Italy. They have no contacts in the cities of Sabratha or Misrata. They were not even able to invite Misratans to the May 29 summit in Paris.

But the French government’s approach is quite similar to Italy’s in Tripoli, where both celebrated the capital’s newfound stability and the four big militias that upheld it.

The difference has to do with the periphery but the Italians – by virtue of historical circumstances – have a much wider reach.   

The French looked at the developments in eastern Libya, where Haftar restored a semblance of normality, and at how central Tripoli also seemed to have been stabilised, and thought why not organise elections overlooking the simmering tensions in the capital’s outskirts.

Stability for Italy on the other hand is far more important.

It imports some 300,000 barrels of oil per day from Libya and the impact of instability, especially in terms of refugee flows, would be unbearable. 

They didn’t want anybody to rock the boat, as it were, and elections were a risky endeavour.

Al Jazeera: What can the international community do to move the legislative process forward? 

Harchaoui: France doesn’t just want elections. It is interested in creating the role of a president, knowing fully well that Libya has a parliamentary system at the moment. France is therefore extraordinarily ambitious and it’s asking for a lot.

This stands in contrast with the Italian, British and the United States’ approach, which is a lot more prudent and pragmatic: there is talk of parliamentary elections but not before June 2019.

To move the legislative process forward, one step that the UN can take, and the international community more broadly, is to break the taboo about the Emiratis and Saudis bypassing international efforts and interfering by supporting the militias that most suit their agenda.

The international community should be able to ask these two states to back off.

Many people talk about the run-ins and war of words between France and Italy but this isn’t that major of an issue.

It’s good to criticise Qatar and Turkey but the other two are never mentioned simply because they happen to be anti-Muslim Brotherhood which in my view is problematic.

Of course, there are other issues in Libya that have nothing to do with Islamism. They have to do with state construction and can be addressed once foreign meddling stops. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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