By Hafed Al-Ghwell
President Emmanuel Macron of France assembled representatives of the international community and some of the warring Libyan parties in Paris last week in an attempt to find a solution to the Libyan crisis.
The question is, can the declaration that set a December 10, 2018, deadline for legislative and presidential elections be the basis for a solution in Libya?
There are no longer any simple answers when it comes to Libya; with each passing week, month and year, it grows more complex. “Solutions” devised in closed meetings among flower arrangements, water glasses, manila folders, microphones and, occasionally, clicking cameras present the illusion that progress is being made. However, the average Libyan wakes to an ever-present tension between rival armed groups that number in the hundreds.
To these average Libyans trying to scrape together a living amid water, food and electricity shortages, the Paris Declaration is just one of many pronouncements with much promise but little substance.
Neither President Macron’s efforts nor support for Fayez Al-Sarraj’s national accord government, neither the divided parliament in the east nor the State Council in Tripoli — not even Khalifa Haftar, the military leader in the Eastern provinces — will justify seven years of intransigence or deliver a free, united Libya.
Short of drastic measures, extremes and perhaps even another civil war, Libya will remain fractured long after the Paris Declaration’s signatories have left power, like those before them.
This pessimism is not unjustified, given the successive UN missions, international conferences and press releases that have promised much over the past seven years of civil war but failed to achieve even the simple consensus necessary for a successful transition to the installation of a permanently united government.
The Libyan factions participating in Paris did not sign the resulting eight-point declaration; they merely endorsed it. Thus, despite its aims, the result is still subject to Libya’s loose coalitions and interest groups that may or may not decide to fully commit to these points.
There are three key issues to consider concerning Libya and this new agreement, as well as all the previous conferences, meetings and agreements.
To average Libyans trying to scrape together a living amid water, food and electricity shortages, the Paris Declaration is just one of many pronouncements with much promise but little substance.
First, there is the most fundamental issue of all, which led to the fragmentation of Libyan society, based on the tribes and regions we see today.
This issue is the non-recognition that the Libya crisis started as — and still is, to a great extent — a civil war between different sides of Libya itself, when Libyans who supported Qaddafi and those opposed to him started warring, using violence from the protest’s first day.
The international community and the Libyans themselves did not admit this failure because it would cast much doubt on the decisive role Western countries and NATO have played in the Libyan crisis since 2011.
Indeed, this failure is key to understanding the Libyan issue.
Recognizing a civil war’s reality isn’t just semantics; rather, it’s a realistic, pragmatic foundation that will determine the correct approach to solve the problem.
All experts agree that, once a civil war starts and is recognized as such, very specific steps will be triggered toward reconciliation, restorative justice, disarmament and the demobilization of warring parties.
The Libyan conflict, sadly, was never recognized as such and was cast through public statements and the media as a “revolution and liberation” for purely domestic political and legal reasons within Western countries themselves.
Second, the real issue is that all current Libyan political institutions — the parliament in the east; the Army led by Mr. Hafter, which serves as both its byproduct and protector; the State Council in Tripoli, basically the remainder of the National Conference (the previous parliament); and the Government of National Accord, headed by Al-Sarraj, both protected by armed militias — all are now expired legally because the Sekherat agreement, which gave them birth, expired at the end of 2017.
Therefore, they have no real legitimacy with the Libyan people.
Third, there is a lack of a legal or constitutional basis, including election laws, and the glaring reality is that the country is fragmented. The UN and others estimate Libya is dominated by hundreds of armed militias.
The facts are that there are far more centers of real power than the four who gathered in Paris, the country has not experienced real reconciliation and, still inexplicably, the vast segments of Libyan society who still support Col. Qaddafi’s previous regime are excluded from any political process.
Such issues make the arbitrary date of December 10, 2018, quite puzzling and, indeed, difficult to imagine.
Libya has a long road ahead to return to some resemblance of normality, irrespective of any and all “agreements” declared.
In the words of Tarek Megerisi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations: “It’s very easy to get Libyans to agree on something, but when it comes down to hashing out the details, that’s when the squabbles tend to start…”
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of Strategic Advisory Solutions International in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.