Hafed Al-Ghwell

Libya is, without question, farther than ever from the rosy ideals preached on the eve of the February 2011 civil war.

Before all in the country there now lies a fractured, fragmented society, divided by tribe, region, criminal enterprise, political ideology and, in some cases, legacy.

Each week delivers fresh news of attacks, repulsions, polite handshakes, carefully worded speeches — and a nod or two from far-off powers concerned merely with what they stand to gain or lose from every new confrontation, or lack thereof.

The notion of a permanent government, long-term stability and security are so far gone there is troubling talk of splitting Libya into two or three countries.

Others prefer the status quo, while some hope those who hold the levers of power will eventually give up, surrender arms and disappear into obscurity.

For most Libyans these days, their hopes and aspirations do not stretch much beyond having some electricity, shorter lines for cash at the bank, feeding their families and obtaining basic medicines just to ease the pain of the sick, never mind hoping to cure them.

Amid all the international conferences, press releases and UN resolutions, one question has been lost and needs to be asked: Is there hope for Libya?

To begin to even think through the basics of the intertwined strands of the spaghetti-like mess that is Libya today, one must understand two basic historical facts.

The first is that Libya was never an independent country in any sense before 1951. For centuries, it was no more than a collection of disparate tribes and semi-urban regions on the coastline, brought together by various empires and, finally, the victors of World War II, under the mandate of the UN, to form a united federal kingdom.

The UN resolution that gave Libya independence passed with a majority of one vote, cast by Haiti, on December 24, 1951, as a Christmas gift.

Secondly, for most of its history Libya was in large part culturally and politically split between whoever ruled Egypt, on the east, and whoever ruled Tunisia and Algeria, on the west. The overwhelming majority of the country simply lived in tribal structures that were not in any sense united.

These two basic facts explain why the Libyan revolt of 2011 was simply a reaction to what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt, not genuinely homegrown.

Those initially simple demonstrations during that tremulous period were, within a couple of weeks, stoked by foreign powers with their own axes to grind against Qaddafi, culminating in a UN resolution allowing NATO to interfere directly in the civil war within its first month.

To ponder what should happen now, one must take a step back and look beyond the noise of conferences, international statements and the daily ups and downs of Libya’s internal political circus.

One must consider the fundamental prerequisites for a solution to end the internal squabble that prevents a united Libya, before that becomes impossible as the country continues on the path it has followed for the past eight years and tears itself apart for good.

There are three fundamental building blocks for a strategic, long-term solution in Libya that must be fleshed out in a detailed plan and synchronized with a clear timetable that will resonate with the population and can garner support — irrespective of the childlike public figures pretending to be politicians and leaders, and the puppets of the hundreds of armed groups in Libya today, including the many groups claiming to be armies representing different sides.

The first issue that needs to be addressed is the full recognition that the conflict started as, and is still, essentially a civil war between those who supported Qaddafi and those who opposed him and were enabled by foreign help.

That basic split between the sides gave way in the years that followed to multiple conflicts among various groups, with backing from the outside powers that armed and funded them, and continue to do so.

We must recognize a civil war for what it is. This is not a moral issue; it is a pragmatic one that triggers several clear steps toward reconciliation, amnesty, disarmament and a conciliatory and restorative justice rather than a punitive one that stokes revenge and counter-revenge between groups.

The second fundamental part of the solution is the basic recognition that Libya is deeply fragmented along tribal and regional lines.

This necessitates a loose system of governance arranged along federal lines, with the fair distribution of oil revenues, that reflects Libya’s multiple parts, both geographically and based on interests, to engender a sense of trust and security in each part and allow them to rule their own.
Finally, all outside powers and interested parties must coordinate to have one voice when it comes to Libya.

This united stand should be designed with specific carrots and sticks to force all groups in the country to come to the negotiating table with no preconditions and accept the basic rules of the game, negotiated without arms and violence.

While Libya might not be a priority for the international community now, it is certainly will be when it completely collapses, fragments and threatens the Mediterranean region, North Africa and the sub-Saharan countries.
By then, however, it will be too late.


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 and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.


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