By Anas El Gomati
Recent political talks to end the civil war in Libya have relied upon the flawed logic of inclusion and compromise to unify rival factions, in the belief that institutional cooperation will follow. This report analyses how this strategy is destined to fail, due to opposing and irreconcilable visions for the state and its political character.
1. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, policymakers and analysts alike have failed to accurately depict the near decade of conflict in Libya, as either:
(a) a battle between Islamists and secularists;
(b) a historic regional rivalry between the east and west of Libya; or
(c) one that is purely driven by the economic greed of the key actors.
Despite numerous attempts to address and resolve these conflicts through inclusive and representative governing arrangements, the conflict has continued and peace remains elusive.
2. Whilst these rivalries, conflicts and behaviours exist, and offer some explanatory power to aspects of the war, they fail to explain the political lightning-rod moments that have sparked national conflicts in Libya and crucially pin-point its principle fault lines. Since 2017, key local players and international powers alike have been locked in negotiations over the reconfiguration of Libya’s highest political post, the Presidential Council, specifically its power and authority over the military in its capacity as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The negotiations are focussed on a defining feature of political culture in democratic states – military neutrality and subservience to civilian rule irrespective of its political leanings. This power struggle is rooted in competing visions over Libya’s institutional setup, authority and governing arrangements that determine the political character of the state in Libya, or in short, two irreconcilable political cultures.
3. This conflict has also drawn in regional military powers including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who have been drawn to Libya’s battleground for more than transactional maritime deals or the pursuit of terrorist groups. Turkey and the UAE are locked in a deep battle over the prevailing political culture of the region, and have forged strategic alliances with the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in an attempt to secure and implement their own contrasting regional visions for the post-Qaddafi state.
4. Current military unification talks employ a language that seeks to categorise the network of armed groups under the GNA as ‘militias’, whilst labelling the opposing forces, the LAAF, as a ‘regular military’. This framing is misleading, as Libya has not had a regular military since the formation of the Jamahiriya by Qaddafi (1969). The LAAF itself mimics the Jamahiriya’s tribal patronage network designed to coup-proof Qaddafi’s authoritarian regime. Efforts to preserve this structure, whilst dismantling their opponents, is likely to face resistance, particularly by those who consciously sought to overthrow the Jamahiriya’s system of rule in 2011 and opposed it’s reincarnation in the LAAF. Neither the GNA or the LAAF control a working army, and their armed groups are incapable of functioning as a regular military. Armed groups under both factions should be demobilised, disarmed and reintegrated into a unified, neutral and subservient military force under new command.
5. Despite the establishment of a ceasefire agreement and announcement of elections within the next 18 months, the Presidential Council remains the key battleground for negotiations intended to end the war. By unifying with an unreformed LAAF and including either its commander, Khalifa Haftar or Aguila Saleh, it’s architect and the Supreme Commander of the LAAF, in the negotiation process to appoint a new Presidential Council the current political negotiations risk establishing a military structure that is not subservient to civilian rule. Furthermore, it delays but does not prevent Libya’s civil war, which could be sparked by scheduled presidential elections that would replace the military approved Presidential Council with a democratically-elected candidate.
6. Armed groups or militia under the GNA are incapable of serving as a military and should be dismantled, but the reasons why many of these groups came into existence should be addressed. This will require the dismantling of the tribal patronage structures discretely embedded within the LAAF in order to prevent this cycle of conflict from repeating itself in the future.
Finally, the political talks should not reward or offer the key parties to the conflict through negotiations, what they could not achieve through war – the ability to reconfigure and determine the institutional relationships that define the political character and culture of Libya’s next state by appointing or including them in the Presidential Council.
The announcement of UN-brokered permanent ceasefire in Geneva and political talks in Tunisia has given renewed optimism that Libya’s elusive peace attempts are yet again within close grasp.
Despite several high-profile international attempts in Moscow and Berlin (January, 2020) to broker a ceasefire and restart the political process, the battle in Libya not only resumed, but intensified, culminating in all-out war before reaching a stalemate in June, 2020.
The conflict was sparked on April 4th, 2019 when self-styled leader of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) Khalifa Haftar launched an attack on Tripoli to overthrow the internationally recognised UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
The role of regional and international powers in support of both factions during the war has further entrenched positions, and added to the intractability of the conflict.
This is not Libya’s first post-Qaddafi civil war, nor indeed the first UN-brokered peace process to fall apart. This has led to wildly different assumptions about what drives the conflict and descriptions of Libya’s parties to the conflict; ranging from a battle between Islamists and Secularists, to the battle between East and West – two of Libya’s historical regions.
The critical challenge to all peace-building efforts in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi has centred around correctly identifying the root causes and drivers of these conflicts, in order to design a peace process that addresses and resolves these issues between the key actors in the conflict.
Success cannot be measured exclusively by symbolic handshakes between rival leaders or the formation of a new government. The gauge for success of any political agreement in Libya must be measured against an end of hostilities on the ground between the two factions and an era of cooperation.
Libya’s UN brokered political talks and initiatives since 2015 have for various reasons repeatedly failed to achieve this. Examining the assumptions about the nature of the conflict may offer insight into why the previous political talks failed.
The UN’s strategy to end the conflict contains a flawed premise which guides the process; that the warring factions in Libya – from their armed groups to their political representatives – are primarily driven to conflict by political and economic greed.
The logic of the political talks attempts to address the rival parties’ greed through political compromise with the belief that institutional cooperation in a unified government based on compromise will follow.
Political compromise has thus far been based on distributing institutional and political posts equitably to both factions under a new unified government in order to satiate the greed of the rival parties to the conflict.
So why has this failed?
This logic and process identifies competition, but fails to address the irreconcilable difference at the centre of the conflict. A feature of all conflicts is driven by greed and competition.
A limited number of individual actors and armed groups on either side have been engaged in years of narrow competition over access or control of Libya’s resources; much of which the UN’s logic of compromise and distribution of ministerial and institutional posts where these resources are distributed may resolve. However, this competition did not spark Libya’s conflict in 2011, nor has it drawn foreign powers to Libya’s battlefield since 2014, and hence it will not resolve the conflict.
The principle political conflict that has drawn major foreign powers to interfere in Libya’s conflict, shape it’s diplomatic negotiations and mobilise local fighters from across the country to its frontlines is inherently political.
This latest military battle in 2019, and the years of internationally brokered political negotiations that preceded it since 2017 have been driven by foreign and local actors alike engaged in conflict over Libya’s highest political post that determines the power and and political character of the state – the Presidency – in its capacity as the head of the state and authority over the military.
At the heart of this conflict are two contrasting political visions over a defining feature of political culture in democratic states – military neutrality and subservience to civilian rule irrespective of its political leanings.
The UN’s logic and political process fails to address these contrasting visions and the ways in which these rival political factions seek to reconfigure institutions through negotiations and exercise their power to define the political character of the state after the political talks.
Put simply, the peace building process addresses competition but not conflict.
The political process does not explain how these rival factions seek to exercise their power once in a unified state, whether their visions of politics and power are compatible and whether institutional unification is sufficient to ensure peaceful cooperation.
The failure to address the core driver of Libya’s conflict can explain why the two rival factions have repeatedly failed to politically cooperate despite several high profile international agreements and attempts to reach compromise.
Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. He was a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector, and political Islam in Libya.