By Patrick Haimzadeh
Foreign interference favouring one faction or another is stopping Libyans from creating their own political destiny.
The death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after eight months of war led to the collapse of the Libyan state and left its society profoundly divided.
The fault lines are many and varied; regional, local, tribal – former Gaddafists, or those viewed as such, battling both old opponents and more recent revolutionaries.
Foreign powers lending their support to one faction or another further muddy the waters. A United Nations mission was launched to help reconstruct the state, in a country in which real legitimacy belongs only to the armed groups that emerged during and after the 2011 war.
No accord on the ‘government of national accord’
In 2014, Khalifa Haftar, one of Gaddafi’s former generals who had spent 30 years in the United States, returned to Libya with political ambitions. He launched an offensive from the east of the country aimed at eliminating his opponents, the political Islamists, laying claim to ‘revolutionary’ and military legitimacy.
He was initially successful, notably in the capital, Tripoli. But since then, the country has been divided. In the east, the majority support Haftar. The west remains extremely fragmented, but most here oppose him. Each region has its own government and parliament.
Against this backdrop of social division and militarisation, the UN, under pressure from western powers, began marathon negotiations to build a “government of national accord” (GNA). This was installed in Tripoli in March 2016.
Despite the legitimacy accorded by its international recognition, the government is barely able to impose itself outside the capital. It is paying the price of a hasty, externally imposed solution that failed to involve all parties.
Divisions between the two regions have widened, and new ruptures are appearing within each, between partisans and opponents of the Government of National Accord.
Foreign involvement, both direct and indirect, though lesser in scale than that in Syria or Yemen, is the main reason behind the current impasse.
Khalifa Haftar enjoys the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. Cairo and Abu Dhabi are direct participants in the conflict through bombing campaigns and the provision of weaponry to Haftar’s troops.
The war against political Islam declared by Haftar aligns with the objective of all three countries – eliminating political Islam from the region.
France, on the pretext of its fight against “terrorism”, is also a long-term supporter of Haftar. The backing of these key players feeds Haftar’s desire to further his political aims through war. It is detrimental to the search for compromise – the only real hope for a political solution to the crisis.
Factions in the west of the country, for their part, have counted for some time on the support of Qatar and Turkey, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Local groups faced with crisis
It is difficult to see a solution to the crisis or even to put a timescale on the stabilisation of the country. In a context in which the pragmatism of local groups takes precedence over ideology, shifting allegiances are par for the course.
The level of violence fortunately remains relatively controlled, thanks to a social fabric that has managed to survive the Gaddafi years, the collapse of the regime and the six years that followed.
One positive sign is the fact that many state institutions have been preserved, allowing for a basic level of public service provision – although their capacity is reducing all the time.
Authorities in local areas compensate for the gaps in state provision by turning to traditional organisational forms, such as councils of elders, or by inventing new ones to fit their new political environment.
Some of these groups have been able to gain a rapid education in the arts of negotiation and compromise. As a result, some regions have regained a level of security and stability.
It might not be far-fetched to suggest that Libyans are in the middle of inventing a political system to suit them. If these difficult internal rearrangements are not to be marred by outbursts of violence, they must be allowed to develop without foreign interference.
Patrick Haimzadeh is an author and a former French diplomat in Libya.