By Hafed Al-Ghwell
A former senior official who was a key figure in US policy in Libya in 2015 once told me about an incident involving one of that country’s many wannabe politicians.
The politicians had been unsuccessfully lobbying and campaigning to be prime minister or president of Libya since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. The American official was visiting a neighboring country when he ran into the Libyan politician in a hotel lobby.
The gentleman grabbed the official, as he has done with many others before and since, and took a photograph which he immediately posted online to give the impression that US President Barack Obama’s administration supported his ambitions. Of course, that was not true.
The American official concluded his story by saying: “The only thing that picture generated was anger from other Libyans.” The problem with such incidents, of course, is that appearances in politics are sometimes far more important than realities.
In a case such as Libya, where there are so many local partisans and many countries with vested interests, even the most innocuous appearance of favoring one party over another can have complicated and unintended consequences.
It is therefore important for outsiders to tread carefully in such a volatile environment filled with unsavory characters, especially when, as most international experts will tell you, a civil war is almost always a zero-sum game in which none of the parties involved can win.
It is like being on a sinking ship where groups of passengers are fighting each other for control; the innocent majority can only watch in fear, unable to do anything to stop the fighting or get off the ship.
It is a costly mistake for any foreign country to try to interfere in such a mess. Despite good intentions, they will be viewed as favoring one side over another. This may prompt their own political enemies to enter the fray and support the opposing side in the spirit of the adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
It will also mean that local opponents of the side an interfering nation supports will view that nation as an enemy and act accordingly, at the time and in the future. Accordingly, the countries pursuing their own interests in Libya’s civil war have so far adopted one of three simple and straightforward policy choices:
(a) they back one side, while understanding the risk of making enemies of others who may win;
(b) they adopt a neutral stance and simply stay out of the conflict; or (c) they support the general stance of the international community, adopted through the UN, which is to try to resolve the conflict through reconciliation, dialogue and long-term plans to stabilize the country.
It is worth remembering that all Libya’s politicians and its political, economic and military institutions have lost their legitimacy, are deeply mistrusted by the population, and are in place simply because there are no alternatives. Moreover, the hundreds of militias operating in Libya are no more than criminal gangs who profit from the drug and arms trades, human trafficking and blackmail.
The best strategy for countries interested in Libya is to support international efforts for peace and reconciliation, and simply wait for the return of a minimum level of stability. Failing to wait will only expose outsiders to resentment from the Libyan public and the possibility of revenge from current and future enemies.
The simple truth is that outsiders cannot hasten or shape the end of Libya’s tragedy. It is local dynamics that will affect the outcome of the war, and it is local powers that the results will favor.
This is likely to be someone who can generate the kind of tribal, regional and military support that Gaddafi harnessed to maintain power for 42 years.
For now, the former leader’s son Saif is the only person who meets these criteria and can gain the trust of his father’s allies. He is being encouraged by many Libyans, after the many disappointments of the past eight years, to enter the fray.
But of course, only time will tell whether he really can.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp, and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC, and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.