Why it’s too soon to celebrate peace in Libya

Why it’s too soon to celebrate peace in Libya

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Libya is yet again enduring an uneasy truce on the heels of the failed 14-month assault on Tripoli by the Libyan National Army (LNA) against the internationally recognized but weak Government of National Accord (GNA).

Friday’s cease-fire agreement in Geneva points to a single important conclusion — there is no plausible military option to ending the conflict. Neither side has the resources to launch an offensive to forcefully unify the country. If anything, resorting again to arms would more jeopardize their interests than serve them, and would just galvanize opposing factions into uniting against a “new” common enemy.

The trouble with prolonged internal conflict, marked by bitter rivalries between well armed groups, is that each passing day widens an already massive rift, preventing warring factions from seeking, let alone reaching, a permanent settlement. Within that rift lies a tiered system of disparate interests, groups and individuals, further complicated in Libya's case by rival regional powers and the usual co-option of conflict into geopolitical designs of powers even farther off.

Any momentum toward peace must tread a tightrope, weighing contradictory claims, myriad interests and the ambivalence of international players to eke out a tangible result. Going too far in one direction risks a violent unraveling, sparking yet another deadly civil war. Doing too little simply perpetuates the existing climate.

Fortunately, this time, Libyans have opted for dialogue instead of arms in order to resolve differences and build on mutual interests. So far, the biggest factors to ending this conflict remain the control of Libya’s national security, access to state finances and the survival as well as international legitimization of elements within the rival camps. There is some risk of violence escalating within those camps even as the leadership or senior figures break bread in summits far from home.

Tensions between Tobruk and Tripoli may lull with a rush of pledges, agreements, declarations and displays of uncharacteristic cordiality, but militias and other armed groups see these developments merely as an incentive to fight for the spoils of reconciliation under their respective umbrellas.

Khalifa Haftar, for example, the principal destabilizing figure in Libya in the past few years, still holds power and influence in the east and has shown no signs of backing down even as his external support wanes. His presence casts a long shadow over the conciliatory overtures made by Aguila Saleh, who has foreign backing but lacks substantial domestic support even within the Tobruk House of Representatives.

To add yet another complication to the quagmire, most peace-building efforts focus on the east-west divide, but that is only half the picture. Each new development means new alliances, while talks descend into itemized grievances or interests of the various stakeholders. Their conclusions mean little to most Libyans who remain locked out from political processes. Even on the peace-building front, the UN special mission in Libya has opted for working with as few figures as possible. Focus has turned to those with some national recognition in crafting what will probably be a power-sharing agreement, not a peace agreement.

Tensions between Tobruk and Tripoli may lull with a rush of pledges, agreements, declarations and displays of uncharacteristic cordiality, but militias and other armed groups see these developments merely as an incentive to fight for the spoils of reconciliation under their respective umbrellas.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Unfortunately, even if some form of political agreement is reached, it will still lack legitimacy because it was not crafted via an inclusive process that draws on input from as many voices as possible, including those without weapons. Power sharing works only where there is significant grassroots mobilization for it, involving the crippled yet still effective municipalities and what remains of an impartial civil society at risk of being weaponized to drive specific political agendas. Diktats from the top have little influence on the ground, and only set the stage for spoilers and detractors to dig in, expand their reach and, ultimately, intensify resistance to any negotiated settlements, as we have seen before in Libya.

In short, moving toward a settlement is certainly welcome and the cease-fire agreements, high-level talks, auditing of the central banks and even lifting of the oil blockade are a good start. However, it is far too premature to celebrate a peaceful transition that has yet to materialize.

A gap has opened up between the interests at the top seeking a settlement to secure international legitimacy, kleptocrats in the middle seeking a perpetuation of the standoff, and a citizenry fed up by corruption, lawlessness and endless conflict. Let us not forget, this all happening during a pandemic. Already crippled municipalities are under even more pressure while the government institutions that still exist suffer from a serious lack of legitimacy — not helped by Libya’s highly war economy, which breeds corruption and invites surges in illicit activities.

Indeed, there is an economic dimension to Libya’s conflict, which peace brokers have ignored in favor of focusing on the military and the political. The inevitable chaos from a divided governing legitimacy between east and west means critical economic and structural failures, which contribute to Libya's destabilization, are largely ignored.

Optimism for political settlements and a successful merger of national security structures are fine, but without simultaneous major reforms to the opaque, unaccountable and dysfunctional economic institutions in Libya, any resolutions will not last.

There have been similar diplomatic efforts to get Libyans to the negotiating table and engineer a road map to ending this nine-year conflict. Unfortunately, in a repeat of previous failures, the same heavily armed belligerents on both sides dismiss these latest developments as merely the start of a round of posturing and positioning squabbles in order to dominate the next phase of Libya’s transitional politics. External powers have remained largely ambivalent to these developments, nor have they slowed the proliferation of arms in contravention of a UN  embargo. It does not bode well for any hopes of their retreat from Libya, but rather signals an intent to remain entrenched there for the foreseeable future.

To sum it all up, the only prudent position is to cultivate a sense of cautious optimism for the choreography of regional and international talks. The true barometer of their efficacy is at the local level but the landscape there is still as divided as ever.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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