International community must not ignore Libya crisis
Libya’s Groundhog Day has struck again. The North African state is back to two prime ministers and a failing political process. This was the case between 2014 and 2021, leading to further resumptions of war and crisis. Hostilities and a rupture of the October 2020 ceasefire may not be imminent, but they cannot be ruled out if responsible actors do not right the Libyan ship. The Ukraine war hardly bodes well for international attention and focus for crisis-hit states such as Libya.
Libyans are getting sick of the elites that have failed the country in the post-Qaddafi era. Corruption is off the charts. This is a country blessed with the ninth-largest oil reserves in the world and a small population. Libya should be thriving, but instead its people still wait for a credible strategy to rebuild the country 11 years after their revolution. Where is the investment in public services, for example? State institutions remain weak at best.
The politics clearly need to be sorted. Do Libyans want more interim or transitional governments? Both presidential and parliamentary elections were meant to have been held in December. Nearly 3 million Libyans registered to vote. Unsurprisingly, they want a strong and effective executive. Their challenge is to bring about a government free from all those who have thus far been so disastrous. These elites must not be allowed to monopolize the political discourse in the country.
However, not holding the elections in December was possibly the best outcome at the time because, put simply, it was not clear that any result would have been respected by the various parties. Libyan politicians obstructed any attempt to consensually create electoral laws or a basis for the vote and what came afterward. The judiciary is also not independent and barely fit for purpose. That needs to be addressed urgently given its key electoral role.
The polls were viewed as a zero-sum game, encouraging maximalist positions. A winner means there are losers. It was clear that the potential losers were incapable of accepting a rival’s victory. The problem was that those actors in charge of delivering the elections and the political road map were also the ones that brought the country to war. These factions all have their own armed wings and militias. Violence and crime were being rewarded.
The state does not have a monopoly on the use of force. The security sector is a nightmare, with little prospect of things being resolved, let alone achieving a unified military structure. Militias have not been disarmed but actually given salaries. The lack of civilian oversight of security structures compounds the challenge. What have passed at attempts at security sector reform have barely got off the ground. This matters, given the massive quantities of arms and even foreign fighters in Libya since 2011. It also matters in terms of ensuring elections can happen on a secure basis, free from intimidation from armed groups.
Elections are required. Libyans are desperate to have a say about their future. Yet the rules of the game have to be established and accepted. At the back end of 2021, 98 Libyans were standing for president, yet it was not clear who was legally able to do so. Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi was even running when he was under indictment by the International Criminal Court.
All parties must work to end this schism, not least the European actors, who have so much to lose.
European powers should focus less on the who and more on the how. Libya needs a credible and legitimate apparatus of state. External actors have the option of promoting and helping legitimate Libyan civil society groups and grassroots organizations. This would help to bring more Libyans into the debate and the decision-making process regarding the future of their country, which they are currently largely excluded from.
The chances of a further convulsive round of violence are significant. This would be in nobody’s interests except the spoilers. European powers have nothing to gain from this and, of course, neither do Libyan civilians. Fatigue with bloodshed and a diminished appetite from external powers to fuel a renewed conflict could be the one thing that prevents this, yet complacency would be dangerous.
With the Russia crisis, Europe and other actors will be wanting to see Libya exporting as much oil and gas as possible, and returning to being a consistent, stable supplier. But if they want to achieve this, they have to be involved. Perhaps more importantly, they have to deploy their emerging unity on the Ukraine front on the Libyan front as well. For too long, the Italian-French rivalry over Libya, with both states backing rival sides, undermined the European role. Italy was annoyed at French involvement in what it sees as its area of influence. Germany, by hosting the Berlin process, did bring European actors together, but it more than most will be looking east.
The Russian role will also be key. Will it be too distracted with Ukraine? Will it play a positive role, act as the prime spoiler or leave the scene, withdrawing some of its Wagner mercenaries? Russia is unlikely to be able to play a constructive role, but it can certainly be a spoiler. Many fear it will decide to use countries such as Libya and Syria to show how difficult and dangerous it is to isolate Moscow. It is also aware that Libya is on NATO’s southern front. This is why it will want to maintain a presence in Libya in Sirte. Ideally, it would like permanent land and naval bases.
One actor that remains absent is the US. Libya is simply not on its priority list, like many regional issues in the Middle East. This is a misjudgment. It is also why European powers will have to be more engaged.
Ukraine must not be an excuse to ignore Libya. All parties must work to end this schism, not least the European actors, who have so much to lose. Those that choose to exacerbate Libya’s problems for their own short-term political gain should be called out. Only a path that brings parties together in a comprehensive process to build a national consensus has a chance. International powers must work together to unify Libya, eject foreign forces and establish the political structures to enable free and fair elections this summer. This should lead to a legitimate Libyan government that is able to drive an agenda that can take Libya forward.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech