By Hafed Al-Ghwell
After 42 years of Muammar Qaddafi’s autocratic rule, Libya has endured a chaotic decade marred by endless conflict, acrimonious divisions and tensions potent enough to split the country into two, sinking it into a bloody civil war.
The post-Qaddafi landscape has seen lawless militias running rampant, acting as both agents of a largely nonexistent state and purveyors of that “lost decade’s” worst atrocities.
Libya’s petri dish of vast hydrocarbon wealth, proximity to Europe, and lack of formal state security infrastructure eventually bred and attracted not just extremist groups, but the self-interested geopolitical and regional ambitions of far-off powers and neighbors alike.
It became unsurprising to come across hyperbolic declarations about Libya turning into the next Somalia, while others pictured a fate far worse than Syria.
Those declarations could almost be justified as the civil war intensified and the Tripoli-based, UN-recognized Government of National Accord and Tobruk’s House of Representatives ceased dialogue altogether.
Multiple peace initiatives began and ultimately collapsed, throwing the Libyan political processes into a tailspin, diminishing future hopes of a permanent settlement and obscuring the first, critical steps of a long-sought-after post-civil war transition.
Developments came to a head between April 2019 and June 2020, when Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar launched a military offensive in an attempt to take control of Tripoli and parts of western Libya with support from Russian mercenaries.
Were it not for a successful counteroffensive and Haftar’s external backers losing confidence and trust in him, given his unilateral escalation, Libya would likely have fallen to yet another strong-man dictator.
In the aftermath of the failed offensive to overrun the capital, Libya saw an almost frantic return to face-to-face talks and virtual discussions following the signing of a permanent country-wide cease-fire agreement in Geneva in October last year.
The surprising about-face to give dialogue a chance — relaunching the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in the process — was an emphatic admission that there is no military solution to the Libya crisis.
A “stalemate” that delivered neither wins nor losses for all stakeholders was unsustainable. Besides, a cease-fire without momentum on settlement talks only exacerbated dangerous fractures, in which terror groups and other detractors could thrive, permanently derailing any chances of a stable, peaceful and prosperous Libya.
There are other factors behind this new urgency amid a climate of renewed hope and optimism. Libya’s trajectory toward more chaos had previously incentivized Daesh and other extremist groups to expand their presence and threaten Libya’s oil infrastructure.
Regional partners like Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria are wary of a potentially explosive situation — absent a political deal — increasing threats against their interests and national security.
And for the EU’s southern periphery, a stable Libya remains a necessity to combat human trafficking and solve a perennial migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.
Finally, US President Joe Biden’s election win has injected even more support for the critical consensus-building work spearheaded by Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams, as part of the UN Support Mission in Libya’s (UNSMIL) peace-making efforts.
Convening the inclusive LPDF in Geneva — the first steps toward creating a transitional government ahead of elections in December — was the biggest development on the road to a permanent political settlement.
Its work will accelerate the stabilization and recovery of a Libya that is overrun by tribal tensions, competing regional interests, rival geopolitical ambitions, and foreign armies.
None of this would have been possible without the painstaking work of Williams, who recognized that prior efforts toward ending the conflict in Libya were inherently flawed.
Past peace-building initiatives languished by focusing too much on mending internal frictions or trying to deliver on unrealistic external expectations. Instead, a hybrid approach was needed:
One that centered Libyans and also left sufficient width for external actors to participate as fellow stakeholders in Libya’s prosperity, security, peace and stability.
This is how the LPDF came about. The group convened last week for an initial round of voting, which at first failed to garner enough votes among the nominees.
Eventually, however, the forum was able to settle on a coalition of candidates led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who will become interim prime minister, and Mohammad Younes Menfi as head of the new Presidency Council.
The initial takeaways are a mix of relief and apprehension, considering the fact that the most surprising outcome of the Geneva selection process was that no controversial figures emerged victorious.
As much as this development was a reflection of most Libyans’ exasperation with the “establishment,” it was still very unnerving, as the same figures who have been at the center of prolonged periods of violent conflict were vying for seats at a critical juncture in the country’s lunge for permanent peace.
On that point alone, the LPDF scored a major victory, which could prove essential in rebuilding Libyans’ trust and confidence in the UN-led political process.
Additionally, the active participation of a diverse group of Libyans, each committed to strict eligibility criteria, within a transparent process also robs defeated candidates of opportunities to decry the Geneva process, since they also sought legitimacy from it.
However, the caliber, experience and political savvy of some of those candidates — coupled with their ties to external backers — leave potential vulnerabilities that could see conflicts flare up again should they go unaddressed.
To prevent candidates inflaming passions or inciting conflict to oppose the interim government’s executive authority and mandates, external actors will need to be cautioned against destabilizing the peacebuilding efforts.
In other words, powerful backers of the UN-led process like the US and EU will have to assume far more active diplomatic roles, applying pressure behind the scenes to curb destructive interference, while also actively supporting the interim government in achieving its goals.
It is far too naive and short-sighted to turn away from Libya simply because rival factions have agreed on the make-up of a caretaker government.
The work of the UNSMIL and the LPDF is far from over. After all, should subsequent steps fail or local actors take up arms to oppose the newly appointed transitional officials, it will not derail years of progress.
Instead, the LPDF will simply reconvene, amend its decision-making or form new compromises in order to re-empower the other two bodies in Libya’s political mix:
The transitional government and the three-person Presidency Council. It is a quixotic arrangement but nothing short of it will be able to undo a decade of chaos and war, which culminated in the assault on Tripoli that cost thousands of lives and displaced a quarter of a million people.
Going forward, the inclusive intra-Libyan political forum rekindles hopes of a sustainable settlement and an alternative to the failed initiatives of the past.
In Geneva, this diverse array of Libyan representatives — selected based on geographic, social, ethnic, gender, political and tribal determinations — hopefully made a wise choice about their preferred vision for a post-conflict Libya.
After all, sloganeering and perfectly curated pitches are one thing, but actually achieving concrete results on the ground based on those pledges will be extremely challenging without the relevant authorities and their recognition by Libyans at large.
Most Libyans are deeply skeptical after years of promising diplomatic breakthroughs failing to deliver peace, de-escalation and national reconciliation.
Concerns include fears that the settlement process will not lead to the promised elections or that, once elected, interim transition leaders could refuse to cede power, just like their predecessors.
This wariness of externally brokered settlements will make establishing the legitimacy of the newly installed interim leaders very challenging, especially when trying to implement any agenda without the backing of rival groups in both the east and the west.
After a decade lost to the horrors of war and chaos in the wake of endless rivalries, in terms of Libya’s peace, all roads definitely lead to Geneva. And, for once, there is renewed hope about what lies ahead.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell