Why Libya may be doomed to another lost decade

Why Libya may be doomed to another lost decade

Why Libya may be doomed to another lost decade
Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah delivers a speech via video link during a meeting of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). (File/AFP)
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The next few weeks will be pivotal for Libya as the 75-member Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) continues increasingly futile deliberations on establishing a constitutional basis for elections in December — a process that is only one part of the complex jigsaw puzzle of Libya’s quest for a permanent end to a decade of violent conflict in a bitterly divided nation.

Where dialogue and diplomacy have laid the groundwork for progress, the actions of the wide cast of actors involved in Libya have done the opposite. Meanwhile, time is running out. Any further failures threaten to doom Libya to yet another lost decade.

The country’s fate hinges on rare intersections of disparate interests, and the temperament of few key actors, such as the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Failure to settle the constitutionality of the December elections, for instance, would preserve an existing dynamic in which “progress” is determined by out-of-touch political elites.

Additionally, a security vacuum has made it easier for other actors to forcefully interject themselves into the discussions. Their ability to rapidly mobilize and use violence to further their agenda will only unravel a tenuous power balance, further complicating peace efforts.

Inclusive bodies that enjoy some measure of legitimacy or public support, such as the LPDF and its offshoot, the Government of National Unity (GNU), are outliers, but even they will not be impervious to malign influence. Eventually their efficacy will diminish in the face of intransigence, competing interests and the actions of parties not keen on seeing their influence eroded or their access to power denied.

The breakdown in the LPDF’s attempts to establish a legal framework for elections is the first crack in what was supposed to be an invulnerable pillar of UN-led efforts. Continued obstruction will raise doubts about the LPDF’s ability to bridge the divide and pave the way to elections without risking a delay until 2022 to hold a constitutional referendum, which nearly two thirds of Libyans reject.

The Libyan conflict has moved away from the arid desert scrub, and now takes place at conference tables in air-conditioned rooms behind closed doors.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

There should be no illusions that this is mere conjecture, given what is happening within the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC). The JMC was created to secure a permanent ceasefire, enforce a UN arms embargo, repatriate foreign forces, combat terrorism, and disarm, demobilize and reintegrate domestic nonstate armed actors. Its ambitious agenda assumed that both sides shared the vision of a unified Libyan military and national security apparatus, but it is consistently waylaid by clashing interests in Tripoli and Tobruk, which also negate political and economic gains.

The importance of a unified military to Libya’s future cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, progress is next to impossible. One side lacks a coherent domestic agenda and remains a proxy for competing external actors with their own agendas for post-conflict Libya. The other is torn between bowing to demands from an impatient international community, respecting the will of exhausted Libyans, and repaying Turkey for its support in ending Haftar’s ambitions in western Libya.

Granted, both sides agree on the need for a more stable, less conflict-prone Libya, but the means to achieving it are hotly contested. Worse yet, the rush to achieve as much as possible in the little time left has created a situation in which forums with broad domestic and international support become vehicles for one side to extort benefits by threatening to cease participation in peacebuilding and reunification efforts.

For instance, the GNU has agreed to pay up 3 billion Libyan dinars ($664.2 million) to settle debts accrued by Haftar’s militias and mercenaries. In exchange, the GNU will be able to establish its authority in the east and the Tobruk House of Representatives will approve a national budget. Essentially, the GNU has agreed to pay for no more than the compliance of the biggest spoiler in its mandate to prepare Libya for elections, instead of using those funds as leverage to secure more concessions. It could have demanded that eastern forces make credible efforts to integrate into a unified Libyan military to improve the security environment before the elections. An unrepentant Haftar has so far resisted integration into a western-based unified force.

Each side’s ties to external supporters are also complicating integration, since a unified Libyan military would make the withdrawal of foreign fighters inevitable. No country wants to be first to withdraw its forces, and efforts at securing a matched withdrawal of Turkish and Russian-affiliated groups have yet to bear fruit. At the same time, no country wants to be branded as a destabilizing force when there is broad domestic and international support for the withdrawal of all foreign forces. However, given the current gridlock, it is far more likely that Libya will continue to host foreign militaries in some form. Their presence could become more formalized, which could help balance rival interests without sidelining the national will or shattering prospects of Libya regaining its sovereignty. Unfortunately, this would doom a fragile peacebuilding and reunification process to frequent obstructions and one-sided interventions.

The Libyan conflict has moved away from the arid desert scrub, and now takes place at conference tables in air-conditioned rooms behind closed doors. The belligerents don tailored suits and crisp military uniforms for battles fought on paper, from reclining chairs. But the lull in violence should not be mistaken for progress, since many of the divisions that buried the previous government are still there.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of AdvancedInternational Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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