Foreign meddlers can’t keep their noses out of Libya
Libya is the perfect demonstration of the inevitable repercussions of failing to plan for the aftermath of a misguided foreign intervention in support of regime change. What was supposed to be a highlight of the so-called “Arab Spring,” when the great democracies of the West came to the aid and defense of an anti-Qaddafi coalition, soon collapsed in true Hobbesian fashion.
There was no great awakening in the aftermath of a short civil war that unceremoniously ended an eccentric 42-year dictatorship. Instead, vicious fighting over oil and gas revenues heralded the implosion of a subsidy regime designed to vest power in as few as possible by pauperizing the rest.
It was unsurprising that after the toppling of the regime there was little appetite left to develop much-needed institutional and structural capacity necessary for Libya’s democratic experiment. Coupled with the unmitigated proliferation of arms, and the unrelenting pursuit of mercenary interests, a Libyan state hobbled by decades of failed leadership was never going to survive — much less as a nascent democracy.
The previous regime, fearing a challenge to its grip on power. had made sure there was no functional civilian political arena where disparate interests and parties could negotiate compromises. It is also partly why several elections have consistently failed to bring about the national unity and social cohesion necessary to build these sorts of spaces, as well as empower them with mandates to safeguard Libya’s transition.
Longstanding structural weaknesses and institutional inadequacies have not only worsened Libya's myriad conflicts, they have also crippled any chances for the state to recover, and fully assume its role as a guarantor of a peaceful transition. Extreme factionalization and regional and tribal grievances continue to fester, complicating the Government of National Unity’s mandate to unify state institutions to deal with decades of internal fragility, bureaucratic incompetency, horrific levels of corruption, and systemic vulnerabilities. As a result, in the 10 years since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, the toll has been devastating.
According to international estimates, a fifth of Libya's population, or roughly 1.4 million people, is in need of humanitarian assistance, while a quarter million are forced to live in sub-standard or damaged housing, too poor to rebuild or afford better alternatives. Another quarter million remain internally displaced by conflict, unable to return to their destroyed homes or impoverished communities. For those able to return, unexploded ordnance remains a serious risk with more than 300 fatalities since May last year. More than a million Libyans have acute health needs, but chronic underfunding, corruption and mismanagement have decimated the state’s ability to intervene.
These challenges are even more dire when accounting for the pandemic’s impact, and 10 years of persistent instability. Additionally, international assistance is failing to keep pace with the growing humanitarian needs on the ground, even as the GNU touts the little progress it has made in restoring state institutional capacities.
Meanwhile, the wider international community consistently failed to step up when necessary, fearful of the significant political costs of urging yet another intervention when the first one was such a catastrophic failure. Instead, the tenor of most Libya policy in capitals across much of the West was merely to maintain reckless ambivalence, insulated by lending perfunctory support to the UN-recognized, Tripoli-based government.
For the sponsors of regime change in Libya, such a position defied logic, especially when the country was spiraling further downward into protracted chaos and violence as warring factions preferred to settle with arms what they could not agree on in sponsored talks. This decision to not meaningfully intervene in Libya is emblematic of a Western perception that democracy lies at the end of a virtuous pursuit for liberty by an oppressed people. However, the reality in the Middle East and North Africa is that the “democracy” envisioned by the West is merely a means to an end — a typically less liberal, more exclusionary, and potentially extremist one.
In Libya’s case, with state power disintegrated, two rival power centers emerged, dooming any prospects of a unified Libya as the the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk became further entrenched, influenced by a rising tide of competing external interests. Some foreign players looked further afield, hoping to coopt Libya’s strategic location at the heart of the Mediterranean as well as its vast oil and gas resources, while others sought narrower priorities to deal with more immediate challenges.
Egypt, for instance, lent its support to the eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar in hopes of targeting Islamist forces taking advantage of the chaos in Libya to establish bases next to its western border. To Brussels, Libya remains useful for not just preventing migrants and refugees from crossing the Mediterranean, but also for its energy security given the proximity of its vast hydrocarbon reserves.
In France’s view, beyond migrants and oil, Libya’s non-existent security infrastructure and porous borders allow for the trafficking of arms, drugs and people, benefiting extremist elements that France is currently battling in the Sahel. Thus, it became imperative to make inroads with eastern-based forces while also maintaining diplomatic ties with the Tripoli government.
Russia, on the other hand , used Haftar and his eastern militias as a Trojan horse to enter Libya, but few believe Haftar now has any control over the Russian paramilitary Wagner group. Russia sees Libya as a base for its larger ambitions in Africa, a front-row seat on the Mediterranean and a thorn in the side of Europe and NATO.
Such duplicitous maneuvering and the pursuit of narrow objectives by external actors have created a situation where foreign self-interest supersedes the will and voice of Libyans, themselves caught in the crossfire of maximalist ambitions and cyclic retribution. Over the years, it has transformed Libya into a battleground for competing interests, emanating from far-off conflicts and rivalries, making it more challenging for the ever-growing cast of actors to acquiesce in Libya’s transition when it nets them little benefit.
By maintaining a foothold through the 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries, military bases, and arming non-state Libyan actors, external actors are able to protect their influence in the trajectory of Libya’s affairs. None of that would be possible should Libyans succeed in electing their first democratic government, forcing some external players to reset their relationship with Libya as equal sovereignties.
Thus, despite pronouncements in support of elections, foreign actors have so far resisted pulling out of Libya even at the urging of numerous UN resolutions. It is unlikely the elections in December will reverse this, and even if candidates were to campaign on promises of expelling foreign forces when elected, doing so would only risk more conflict.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell