Libya’s transition is going nowhere fast — by design
This week is the 12th anniversary of the outbreak of the first Libyan civil war but there will be no fanfare or grand speeches commemorating what was the beginning of the end for Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.
Instead, the occasion will be marked only by disheartening commentaries and revisiting the growing corpus of informed discourse seeking to demystify the country’s puzzling post-2011 trajectory and its stalled transition.
Unlike an impatient-turned-indifferent global community that appears content with the managed chaos within the North African country’s borders, for average Libyans the situation is getting worse.
The divisions are as varied as they are plentiful, from the political and societal to sectarian and even geographical, fueled by grievances — both real and imagined. As tensions ebb and flow in a land awash with small arms and people who are aggrieved, the risk of renewed open warfare remains high, a situation that is easily exploitable by malign interference from beyond Libya’s borders.
Meanwhile, the absence of the rule of law means that even when there is irrefutable evidence of flagrant human rights violations, the perpetrators will never see justice, which in turn convinces the victims not to even bother seeking it.
The catalog of woes is endless, and the scuttled aspirations of yesteryear have festered into the permanent helplessness of today, leaving little hope that a stable, fully functioning state can still be cobbled together from the ashes and debris of the Arab Spring tumult.
A woeful reality has settled on a land that has been frozen in place for the equivalent of about a quarter of Qaddafi’s 42-year rule. It is a reality that is unlikely to change, given the caliber, ambitions and excesses of a political elite that is much too preoccupied with seizing and maintaining power than exercising it to further any interests other than its own.
Twelve years on, it is clear that Libya is going nowhere fast — and what lies at the end of all this is anyone’s guess.
Prior to the ceasefire just over two years ago, it was easy to simply point to episodic violence as a primary impediment to Libya’s democratization, or some semblance of it. However, the cessation of all-out war has not convinced a political elite, divided between the west and east of the country, to seek reunification, the disarmament of non-state actors, the restoration of state institutions, democratic elections and, eventually, stability.
Rather, the feuding parties only go so far as to hold discussions with ambitious stated objectives such as the integration of Libya’s numerous armed groups into a single police and military force, in an effort to restore to the state its monopoly over the use of force.
Twelve years after Muammar Qaddafi’s removal, it is clear that Libya is going nowhere fast — and what lies at the end of all this is anyone’s guess.
Despite the glaringly obvious impracticalities of pursuing such objectives, however, these open-ended talks are still highly regarded and lavished with effusive praise as a sign that there is still some momentum in Libya’s transition.
Unfortunately, it is all deceptive — and even malicious, to an extent. Discussions about, say, integrating the armed forces resonate well with outside actors who have a vested interest in the country’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts.
Yet to Libya’s political elite, this recent warming up to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration is just another attempt to replace the feuding parallel governments with another interim authority, pending elections, supposedly featuring officials from both sides. Of course, any move to disarm or in some way disadvantage either side will just heighten the risk of renewed conflict and further entrench the divisions in Libya, which means this discussion, like many others before it, is already a non-starter.
The same applies to an announcement last month about brokered talks between the two parallel governments to produce an agreement on a constitutional basis for elections. It is nothing Libyans have not heard before, nor is it a clever gambit never before tried. It is merely the latest outlandish proposal designed to gauge the public’s reception and/or draw reactions from abroad before mobilizing either in support of it or to protest against it.
Furthermore, this sudden openness to reconciliation has all the hallmarks of a ploy to sideline the UN, which seems intent on reviving the electoral track that is touted as the only credible, potent challenge to the elites who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
This development underscores just how much Libya’s future is now undermined by a cabal of the self-interested few who are well-insulated from a crumbling state and beholden to influences, obstructionist, malign or otherwise.
On paper, the attempts at reconciliation present new possibilities, once again re-energizing the discourse about a possible end to Libya’s bifurcation and the beginning of, well, something other than the status quo.
However, when these attempts coincide with a sharp rise in corruption and shady deals with shadowy entities across Libya’s oil sector, they should be treated as distractions designed to conceal the theft of precious state resources by elites on both sides, reassured of their tacit bargain to monopolize power.
So sure of themselves are these elites that they easily misappropriate some $6 billion with little pushback or alarm from within Libya or abroad, especially considering a part of those funds went to the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group that has its fighters stationed around major oil facilities and key military bases in Libya.
In short, for all their posturing, the Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh-led Government of National Unity in the west and the eastern coalition — comprising Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army that draws legitimacy from the House of Representatives and Fathi Bashagha’s Government of National Stability — have one thing in common. Their shared tactic is infuriating commitments to performative gatherings where nothing of substance materializes, other than further delays to anticipated elections and the entrenchment of politicians with only one preoccupation: Holding onto power at all costs.
The only realistic projection for Libya, moving forward, is that the North African country will remain torn between its east and west, an informal partition that is slowly consolidating its permanence.
Fortunately, there is still a moment of opportunity for genuine progress, even if it also constitutes a risk for the spoilers and detractors who are threatened by it. Should the latter continue to dominate the narrative, and what goes on in the few corridors of power that remain in Libya, then the country will just recede into conflict to find in blood what could not be settled in ink.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and a former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell