By Sophie Shevardnadze
It’s been seven years since Western powers toppled Gaddafi, leaving the country split and in tatters. Can unity in Libya ever be reached again? We talked to Mustafa Abushagur, the former deputy prime minister of Libya.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Mustafa Abushagur, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Libya, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. Lots going on in the country. Two Libya’s rival leaders PM Fayez Seraj and General Khalifa Haftar have agreed to hold elections in December. Mr. Seraj now says that the situation is too unstable to hold the vote. But France’s Emmanuel Macron who mediated the talks says elections should still be held as planned, as they would help to stabilise and unify the country. Which side are you on?
Mustafa Abushagur: I’m on the side of the Libyan people. Clearly there’s a plan to have an election. But, of course, the situation in the country today is not very favourable for that. I mean, there’s a war going in the east, there are a lot of clashes around Tripoli, as it has been for the last two or three weeks.
So this environment is not very suitable for any fair and free election for the Libyan people. The country needs to be stabilised first to allow for any election in the future. Elections are not a magical thing that will solve the problem. Even if we have election I don’t think it will make a big difference today.
SS: Ok, your main idea is to stabilise Libya before holding elections, but how are you going to do that? How can you stabilise Libya? It hasn’t been happening for the past few years…
MA: That’s true. It’s a very challenging situation because of the militias who took over every part of the country. They are in the east, they are in the west, they are in the south, they are everywhere. And these militias are getting support internally and also from the outside. Clearly the foreign intervention has to stop. To stop supporting these militias they should be interested in the stabilisation of the country because it’s in the best interest of everybody.
SS: Speaking of militias, the report from Atlantic Council says that there are at least 20 million weapons to the six million inhabitants – a huge number, – that’s despite the UN ban on arms exports to Libya. The conflicting militia groups seem to operate without paying attention to what the Tripoli government thinks. Does the government in Tripoli have any real power on the ground if they can’t control these things?
MA: I don’t believe thateither of the governments – clearly the government in Tripoli which is the Government of National Accord has no power on the ground or whatsoever to be able to do that. But I think there’s a lot of public pressure today on those militias because people are fed up with them, and also because of what’s been going on in the last couple of weeks. So the government itself doesn’t have much power, it has one power in its hands which is the power of money and wealth.
And they have used it over the last three years to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the government submitted its wealth to the militias. That’s the problem. Well, the number of weapons in the country – I mean, who knows, there can be 20 million, there can be more than that. But most of these weapons were inherited from the former regime.
Clearly before the regime collapsed they opened all the depos for the military, so, of course, they have them. Plus, there are some countries (even though, as you said, there’s an UN embargo) that still bring weapons in. They come from Egypt, The United Arab Emirates and some other places. And, of course, there’s a very dangerous situation.
SS: The GNA has announced the formation of the Joint Force that is supposed to establish some kind of order in the city of Tripoli. What are its chances? Why do you think (if you think) it will succeed?
MA: I think it has a chance of success because if you look at the situation of the last two weeks there’s this brigade that came from outside, which is formally just another militia. But still they have put a lot of pressure on militia inside the city.
And those militia inside the city feel that they are under so much pressure, they are being threatened, and, of course, they might be willing to play a role. And this coalition of forces that Mr. Seraj has ordered to form, if they’re serious about doing their job and if they have the power – that’s the thing… And also I think an important thing is the UN mission.
It’s playing a much better role than they have done over the last 4-5 years. At least now they are calling things by their names, they are talking about the problems and issues the country is facing and showing far more support from the international community to overcome the challenge that we are facing at this time.
SS: The Libyan officials are reported to be anticipating American airstrikes in the country – against ISIS targets. Should the US military come back again to Libya, is it a good idea? Do you think that at some point there will have to be another intervention to bring this endless fighting to an end?
MA: Clearly there are some airstrikes against some Daesh presence in different parts of the country. This has been done regardless of Libyan people wanting it or not.
Clearly I don’t want to see another serious intervention in the country. But I want to see a serious political and economic intervention from the powers to be. All those militias have been able to make a lot of money over the years.
Their accounts are not in Libya, they are overseas, and they can be used against them. And if those people see a serious commitment from the United States, since you’ve mentioned that, I think, those people will be able to adhere to that pressure, they might be willing to compromise and to come to a solution and to get out from the political arena and people’s lives, and stay in their barracks until the moment they can be dismantled and integrated into bigger society.
SS: The 2011 revolutionaries, as well as Gaddafi-era politicians, people loyal to General Haftar and tribal leaders have recently launched the Libyan Peace Group initiative in Tunisia. How do you estimate its chances to end the Libyan crisis?
MA: There are a lot of factions in Libya, and Mr. Haftar to me is one of those who are causing this problem, he exacerbated this problem by his campaign which started in 2014 when he attacked Benghazi.
At that time it was a small group of people who they are, they are a terrorist group. This campaign has been going on for four years and hasn’t done any good for the country. I mean, the city is almost dismantled. At the same time there are all these groups who they are.
For Libya to overcome the problem that it has today all Libyans have to join in hands together, not to revenge what happened in 2011 or 2014, but to be able to work together for a better future for themselves, for their children, for their grandchildren.
SS: General Haftar, whose Libyan National Army controls the east of the country and doesn’t recognise the government in Tripoli says that Tripoli “must be liberated”. He threatens to move on Tripoli when the time is right. If that is the case, what is the point of all these peace talks, groups and foreign mediations?
MA: Haftar can claim whatever he wants, I mean, there’s no such thing as General’s National Army. This is his creation. If you go to how many people are really enlisted in the army, there are 130 thousand of them. Haftar doesn’t even have a thousand of those people there.
So he can claim whatever he wants. And everybody else… Of course, you see this brigade attacking Tripoli saying they’re another army there.
There’s no military solution to the country. Haftar will not be able to go into Tripoli. Those people in brigades around Tripoli will not be able to go to the east, leave alone the south where there’s a war raging between different factions. And people from outside the country who are there.
SS: Can you see a situation in which the Government of National Accord and General Haftar could reach a working consensus? What should be promised to Haftar so that he would agree to bring his army under control of the government in Tripoli?
MA: First of all, I don’t think the government in Tripoli can do anything because they don’t control much. Clearly the only thing they have is the international legitimacy. The government in Tripoli doesn’t even have power to control the city, forget the east and the southern part of country.
So to say that the problem in Libya is really between Mr. Seraj and Haftar, if they agree and resolve the problem – I wish it was that simple, but it’s not.
And, of course, we know that Haftar came out in the last week and claimed that he doesn’t believe in elections, he only believes that the military should rule the country. That’s unacceptable to all Libyan people. So there’s even no starting point.
If there’s no agreement to solve this problem the political way nobody can solve this problem because there’s no power in Libya that is powerful enough to take over the country.
All of them are small powers, they can fight forever, and they did over the last 4-5 years – they just kept fighting and fighting, and nobody was able to win anything. The only thing we have from all of this is destruction of the country, the killing of young people and the innocent, and the life in Libya became so miserable because of all of that.
SS: The son of Muammar Gaddafi Saif al-Islam was willing to take part in Libya’s presidential election. Diplomats working on the Libyan peace talks say Saif al-Islam is the symbol of reconciliation for many Libyans. What’s your take – does he have a role to play in the future of Libya?
MA: Any Libyan has the right – if they’re not convicted in the court of law, if they didn’t commit a crime that’s against the country – to participate in the political system of Libya and run for president. So for Mr. Saif al-Islam,
I don’t know exactly where he is (the last time I heard he was in prison in Zintan, I hear that maybe he left), he should come out and tell us where he is if he’s willing to this… So in principle anybody who’s not convicted of any crime in Libya.
I don’t think Mr. Saif can do that, unfortunately, because when he had all the power during his lifetime he couldn’t do much. As a matter of fact he came out and threatened Libyan people when the revolution started.
So I don’t think that he is a reconciliatory figure because of his history and the history of his father. When his father was in power he had all the power to do whatever he wanted. And we haven’t seen much done by him or his father in favour of Libyan people.
to be continued …