By Tarek Megerisi
Instability resulting from Libya’s revolution and civil war has never fully come under control. It has worsened with political infighting, the failures of the GNA, and the emergence of a rival government in the east of the country.
Any long-term stabilisation plan cannot be successful without the involvement of the national government, but there are also other avenues for engagement. Indeed, this may even be especially important in Libya.
The country’s long history as a loose association of strong localities, allied with the aversion to a strong central state following 42 years of dictatorship, has created a popular urge to formalise devolved governance and powers.
And, as the central state has receded into irrelevance in the lives of many ordinary people, local municipalities have correspondingly risen in prominence to become the new face of Libyan governance and the most common partner that stabilisation actors ally with.
Although there is still a long way to go in this respect, in 2013 a new municipalities law issued by the then transitional government created fresh municipalities and provided for democratic local authorities which could use the provisions available in law such as municipal revenue generation.
Since their election in 2014, some of these local authorities have proved adept at delivering services and overcoming national-level issues, such as militia-dominated security sectors, a lack of financing from the central state, and shortfalls in government accountability and transparency.
Despite being unable to fulfil the functions of a national government, their inevitable central role in any future Libyan state means they represent the best current institutional partner for channelling international stabilisation efforts.
As such, municipalities have gradually become the focus of international efforts to re-establish public services, and maintain and repair infrastructure. Likewise, current realities have caused high-level stabilisation policy to begin shifting away from building the capacity of the GNA.
The focus is now moving towards issues that are vital to the functioning of the next government, such as unifying the central bank of Libya and its newer eastern counterpart.
Libya’s journey towards a decentralised system of government makes engagement with municipal actors a worthwhile long-term investment. Although their success has not been uniform, their elected nature and strong social ties have granted some of them a level of legitimacy beyond that of any national-level actor.
A few have developed creative solutions to common problems that other municipalities could adopt or that could even be scaled up to the national level. For example, the Zuwaran municipality has built strong ties with local media outlets including radio stations and magazines in order to increase its engagement with citizens.
This has led to greater accountability and more responsive governance. Municipalities like Misrata have addressed their security problem by creating a ‘super militia’ of local militias under the municipality’s supervision while towns like Zliten have created security coordination centres to obtain the same benefit for themselves.
In at least some contexts, militias under local, respected, and civilian leadership can constrain the negative excesses that other militias indulge in while also providing security. Moreover, many have resurrected traditional dispute resolution mechanisms such as councils of elders to keep the peace in the absence of a functioning court system.
Other local authorities have developed taxation systems with local businesses to keep themselves solvent and able to govern despite their budgets often going unfunded by the central government.
Similarly, Libya’s state-owned companies such as GECOL or LPTIC, which manage the country’s electrical and communications grids respectively, remain engaged in trying to maintain their infrastructure and deliver their service despite inadequate GNA assistance.
As with the municipalities, their continuing functionality makes them a viable partner for stabilisation programmes related to the areas they have competency in. The fact that the municipalities will outlive the GNA and be able to support future governments by delivering the services they are responsible for means such partnership investment in capacity-building will pay long-term dividends.
Ministry figures and some international observers mount a counter-argument to this position, which advises against focusing on the municipal level. They contend that ignoring central ministries and instead focusing on select municipalities – thereby boosting their autonomy – indirectly speeds the fragmentation of the country.
There is some element of risk in this approach, given that laws on local governance are still incomplete. However, there is a seemingly irrepressible trend in Libya towards the local, and deep structural reform of the centre is simply not possible in the current environment.
These differences are also overshadowed by the need for a functional partner to deliver stabilisation where and when possible, especially in some of the most troubled areas of the country, in order to avoid a complete collapse in quality of life.
It is equally worth noting that, although many municipalities have proved to be inventive, proactive, and representative, many are simply miniaturisations of national-level institutions that wallow in corruption and clientelism, exhibiting the worst traits of Libya’s patronage-based political culture.
This argument ignores the fact that a successful stabilisation strategy will have to incorporate municipalities rather than treat them as a homogenous unit capable of picking up the slack left by the GNA.
A systematic approach to rolling out resilient service delivery structures and governance mechanisms would not encourage fragmentation but instead ensure that each part of the future governance system of Libya is developing.
Modelling what has been successful in some municipalities is the easiest path towards spreading that success at the local level, which in turn will provide a stable base for ministerial-level reform when the environment allows for it.
European countries potentially have a big role to play here. Given their experiences in reforming the governance and economic mechanisms of former Soviet bloc countries, the EU and some member states would be natural lead partners for such an endeavour.
Indeed, they could build on experience-sharing programmes, such as the Nicosia Initiative organised by the European Committee of the Regions, which partners Libyan municipalities with European ones in an experience- and expertise-sharing programme.
Furthermore, akin to the UNDP programme with Toyota, European companies in different industries, such as oil, logistics, technology, and engineering, could take part in similar development programmes. This would provide the further benefit of diversifying training while strengthening Libya’s still-fragile private sector.
As part of the continuing development and expansion of its programmes, in 2017 the UNDP initiated a recovery and resilience programme to strengthen the capacity of Libyan municipalities to “restore security, essential services delivery, and livelihoods opportunity.”
As noted, this almost entirely EU-funded project focuses on six municipalities across the country and covers three areas of assistance: service delivery, economic recovery, and community security. If this is indeed to be the three-headed realisation of the next phase of stabilisation policy in Libya, each component of the programme’s work to date can provide lessons.
On the service delivery front, the UNDP has worked with local municipalities in conducting a needs assessment and identifying local priorities such as renovating clinics, road rehabilitation, and maintaining and reopening parks.
It has also helped resolve larger infrastructure issues such as repairing a sewage discharge pipeline in Sebha that would flood the streets each time it rained. Although these are undoubtedly important projects in stabilising quality of life and providing Libyans with some optimism about future development, they are more about recovery than about resilience.
The six municipalities participating were likely chosen for their mixture of political importance and their presence as fronts in Libya’s internecine civil war. In a grim reminder of the constraints that these types of projects are under, there is little to stop the benefits of this work being reversed if national-level political and security issues are not resolved.
This reinforces the argument that stabilisation cannot be a standalone policy. EU member states with strong diplomatic involvement in Libya must ensure stabilisation successes dovetail with progress in preventing conflict and bridging the political divide.
Tarek Megerisi is a visiting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, where he focuses on Libya. He has previously worked as a freelance Libya analyst, an independent research consultant, and a political affairs fellow with Libya’s first independent think-tank, the Sadeq Institute.