from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Libya: Disconnect and Fragmentation

Supporters of the unity government shout slogans during a demonstration at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli (Hani Amara/Reuters).

Despite the fact that a diplomatic effort to bring the chaos that has engulfed Libya since 2011 seems to have gained momentum, Libya is in for a long fight.

April 11, 2016

Supporters of the unity government shout slogans during a demonstration at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli (Hani Amara/Reuters).
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Over the last few years, I have been quietly following events in Libya. I must admit, I don’t feel the country “in my bones” the way I do other places in the Middle East, but the more I dig into Libyan politics, the more it fascinates me. I have great guides, though: folks like my dear friend Karim Mezran, who is a wise tutor; Fred Wehrey, who has had the courage to go to Libya when the rest of us wouldn’t dare; and Dirk Vandewalle, whom I have long admired from afar. What has struck me about Libya and Libyan politics is how at first blush it can seem weirdly different from other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, but upon closer inspection, there are compelling similarities. When, on the day that long-standing leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was driven from Tripoli in August 2011, I pointed out that, at a level of abstraction, Libya and Iraq were not all that different, and that Libya may not end up a democracy, I was pilloried. That is Twitter for you…

In any event, I have been thinking a lot about Libya recently if only because, since late last year, a diplomatic effort to bring the chaos that has engulfed Libya since almost the start of the February 17 revolution seems to have gained momentum. That would be excellent news for Libyans most of all, but also Tunisians, Egyptians, Europeans, and, to a lesser extent, Americans. The problem is that almost everything happening on the diplomatic front is disconnected from realities on the ground. For example, in late 2015, Martin Kobler, the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, was able to strike an agreement between the General National Congress (GNC; also known as the National Salvation Government), which claimed to be the legitimate government based in Tripoli, and the Chamber of Deputies (known commonly as the House of Representatives, or HoR) that also claims to be the legitimate government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The parties apparently agreed to establish a Government of National Accord (GNA) that would take parts of both bodies and makes them a bicameral legislature, and also create a nine-member presidential council. Everyone agreed and no one agreed all at the same time so that, for Kobler’s labors, Libya went from two governments to three (four if you count the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which is reportedly dominant in Sirte and Derna). Then everyone agreed again until members of the GNA tried to enter Tripoli, but were blocked. After some furious diplomacy, they were permitted to enter the city. When that happened, the GNC announced that it was done and Libya’s problems were now the responsibility of the new unity government. That was actually good news because it promised to reduce the number of governments from four (if you count the Islamic State) to three. As things would have it, however, the GNC decided that it actually wanted to stay in business, its leader reneging on the announcement to cede power and calling on other GNC ministers to follow him.

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It’s all rather confusing and dysfunctional, made worse by the fact that whatever actually happens with the GNC, the GNA, and the HoR, it will likely matter very little. A variety of political actors including a long list of extremist groups such as Islamic State affiliates and al-Qaeda-linked groups, along with a variety of militias, Qaddafists, and the anti-extremist, anti-Islamist, one-time-Qaddafi loyalist, and Sisi wannabe General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the national army—whatever that means in the current context—are not terribly interested in whatever negotiations are being conducted over national unity in Tripoli or elsewhere. They are all continuing to fight on. This is not new. From the very start of the post-Qaddafi period, Libyan politics has existed along two parallel tracks. On one of them was what was universally regarded as Libya’s legitimate authority, but it almost never had any control over what was happening on the other. The guys with the guns made up the second track and they either paid little head to the people on the first or took advantage of them. For example, in early December 2011, all militias in and around Tripoli were ordered to transfer responsibility for security to government authorities by the end of the month, and on Christmas Day, in an additional effort to stem the bloodletting, then Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib announced that the armed forces would absorb fifty thousand militiamen. Neither initiative altered the dynamics on the ground, however. The practical effect of the plan to integrate the militias into the military was merely to put militiamen on the government payroll, which attracted more people to militias. Whatever pronouncement or plan that Libya’s interim leaders announced with the intention of bringing stability to the country, militias leaders clearly had their own interests in mind.

My favorite example of the parallel tracks in Libyan politics was the late January 2012 electoral law that ensured gender balance on all party lists and reserved 120 (of two hundred) seats in the parliament-in-waiting, the General National Congress, for independents. There was much for democrats to like in the electoral law, but it seemed rather beside the point. That is because it was hard to grasp how the political process and coming elections would arrest the fighting and Libya’s fragmentation. Indeed, on March 6 of that year, tribal leaders and militia commanders in Libya’s east demanded autonomy from Tripoli, declaring their intention to form their own parliament and security forces. The National Transitional Council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, threatened force to prevent the breakup of the country, but he had few military resources to make good on his promise.

More recently, in late fall 2015, a committee that had been working on a new constitution for Libya over the course of a year and a half approved a new document. It was like the electoral law of 2012 in that it was something that reflected the best efforts of Libyans who wanted a decent, dignified future for their country. Yet for all of its positive attributes, the new constitution felt out of place in a country that seemed destined for more violence and fragmentation. The Libyans who worked on the draft no doubt believed that they had no choice but to try to continue working in the hope that the constitution would contribute to ending the bloodshed. That is admirable, but there is little reason to believe that if the Government of National Accord—assuming it is able to assert a measure of authority—adopts the new constitution that it would matter.

On the night of February 20, 2011, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (Muammar al-Qaddafi’s son and presumed heir) appeared on Libyan television. Almost everyone remembers that Saif threatened to fight “to the last man, woman, and bullet” to put down the uprising that had begun in Benghazi five days earlier. This was the moment when the younger Qaddafi went from a reformer (which he never was) to a bloodthirsty thug. Yet Saif said something else that night during the same rambling address that seemed much more important. He warned Libyans that unless they settle their differences, they would fight for “the next forty years.” It has only been five years, but the gap between politics and diplomacy and what is actually happening on the ground in Libya suggests that Saif may have had a better grasp of what the post-Qaddafi dynamics would look like than most. Maybe it won’t be forty years, but as long as that disconnect between Libyan politics and what is actually happening on the ground persists, Libyans are in for a long fight.

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