Smoke rises from the site of the headquarters of Libya's foreign ministry after suicide attackers hit in Tripoli, Libya December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Karim Mezran & Wolfgang Pusztai

The conference on Libya held in Palermo, Italy last November saw neither the rising of a new dawn in terms of security and political consensus nor the development of a strong agreement around a well-defined plan.

Instead, what emerged was the reiteration by all the Libyan and European delegations of their support for the actions of the United Nations Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and a vague definition of a roadmap to a solution to the country’s crisis. In other words, there were minimum results but results nonetheless.


The question now is if this albeit fragile agreement could resist the wearing of time. The main points of UNSMIL’s roadmap consist of the organization of a National Conference in Libya with the goal of achieving reconciliation among the various Libyan actors.

A number of delegates representing all components of Libyan society are supposed to meet in late January to agree on a number of decisions ranging from national identity to decisions on the structure of the political system (strong decentralization, federalism), to decisions on the system of government, peaceful resolution of grievances, and more importantly a new constitution and elections.

After that, the roadmap becomes murkier. There is the idea that a referendum on the draft constitution should be held before another round of elections.

The draft—approved in July 2017—is very weak and does not cover many essential topics such as the issue of decentralization and oil revenue sharing. However, more importantly, the time necessary to organize a referendum and in case of (probable) rejection by the people, its return to the constituent assembly for revisions, and finally a second referendum make this option absolutely impractical at this particularly sensitive moment.

It is obvious that the idea of holding the referendum is thrown around by those who personally benefit, in some cases massively, from the status quo and do not want to move forward.

It may look like the most viable way to improve the situation in Libya is to go to elections right after the National Conference. There are, nevertheless, many obstacles for holding elections.

First and foremost, the level of insecurity in the country may lead to low turnout. The low level of security will be exploited by spoilers to undermine the credibility of the new parliament.

There will be difficulties also in staging an effective electoral campaign in such a fragmented environment and with a barely-functioning media.

These and other considerations show that the country is not ready for elections in any aspect, neither from a legal nor from an organizational point of view and that premature elections would be very risky and could even accelerate the descent of the country into much more violent confrontations between the various armed actors.

General Situation in Libya

The general situation is disastrous for the population at large, but favorable to many who are illicitly profiting from the widespread corruption and lack of legal and judicial oversight.

International actors rely too heavily on domestic political leaders with no real power on the ground. Actually, control belongs in most of Libya to the militias and their leaders.

Something like a “military solution” is not realistic. No imaginable coalition is able to overwhelm all the others. Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is not able to take Tripoli, as the vast majority of its forces is based and needed in the east.

The only one (theoretical) chance would be an uprising from within the city simultaneously with an offensive from outside.

The most powerful military force in Tripolitania, the forces under control of the Misrata Military Council (MMC), could probably occupy the capital but it is highly unlikely that they would be able to sustain control.

While seizing and keeping the Oil Crescent could deliver a deadly blow to Haftar, facing the overwhelming air power of the LNA, the MMC forces are not capable of doing this.

Any attempt to seek a “military solution” by one side would most likely lead to an all-out civil war, which would drag the country into total chaos.

The security situation in particular in the south is worsening. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is by and large unchallenged in its safe havens and has ties with some local militia leaders on various sides.

After the defeat in Sirte, the Islamic State (ISIS) uses Libya’s south—like AQIM—as a safe haven to regain strength, as a training ground, and as a base for operations in the wider region, while conducting a rather low-level terrorism campaign in Libya with occasional spectacular attacks.

A recent attack in the Fezzan took place in Tazerbo on November 23, when nine people were killed, fourteen wounded, and ten kidnapped. At least six of the latter were executed a couple of days thereafter. As the links of various AQIM and ISIS affiliates operating successfully in Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, and Chad demonstrate, Libya´s uncontrolled south is an increasingly important factor in the destabilization of the whole Sahara region.

ISIS operates in all regions of the country. In late December, ISIS attacked the Foreign Ministry building in Tripoli, ending a year of several attacks on high-stakes infrastructure such as at the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation and High National Election Commission.

Without a new approach for stabilization, based on what has been achieved by the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), the country will either further erode slowly or glide down into total chaos or,— if there are premature elections—break into a full-scale civil war. It is necessary to put an option on the table that could be an alternative to the “immediate election plan.”

National Conference

The vision of Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ghassan Salame, for the National Conference is not clear to observers of Libya’s trajectory.

The UN says the Libyans should take the reins of the Conference—without specifying what this really means—and that UNSMIL is there to support the effort.

Others see the UN owning the organization of the Conference, however. The confusion of roles, expectations, and lack of transparency in the process do not help the probability of a successful outcome.

It is vital that a clear statement regarding the expectations and outcomes of the conference be spelled out clearly and that all participants pledge to respect its results from the beginning.

Most importantly, the carrying out of a National Conference cannot be perceived only as a way to push forward to elections and not having a value per se.

This will undermine the probability of lasting reconciliation as well as undermine the legitimacy of the elections. A clear message on the intent of the National Conference is an essential prerequisite of its existence.

The selection of participants is crucial, to have a really credible representation of all Libyans, who are willing to participate in a democratic process.

The best option is to invite the delegates of the democratically elected city councils as representatives of the municipalities. Where no elected city councils are available, some other kind of representative system (e.g. tribal elders) should be applied.

Cornerstones of a New Stabilization Plan

A new stabilization effort must start with a series of regional ceasefires between the most important military actors. This must include, among others, the LNA and Misrata, the greater Tripoli area, and the Fezzan in the south.

Because of its credibility in the eyes of many Libyans, the US would be best suited to broker these ceasefires, but unfortunately such an American engagement is currently not realistic.

Alternatively, under the umbrella of UNSMIL a network of several states with an influence on the warring factions could become active in a coordinated way.

Egypt and France could work on Haftar, Italy on Misrata and Zintan, and Algeria on some tribes in Fezzan. At the same time, the common fight against terrorism must be intensified.

The ceasefires must be supervised, but not enforced because this eventuality would require a different kind of mission; one with much wider powers and a significantly higher risk of escalation. NATO is best suited for this task, which—after its intervention in 2011—also bears some moral responsibility for the developments in Libya.

Such a supervision must include sophisticated technical means like drones, satellites, and electronic surveillance. This should allow NATO to clearly identify and stigmatize any violators.

Alternatively to NATO, the European Union could also assume this role, as some of its member states have quite remarkable surveillance capabilities.

Several centralized, top-down approaches for the stabilization of Libya have failed since 2011. There is no reason why this should be different now. Consequently, stabilization must be considered as a local and regional responsibility.

A bottom-up approach has better prospects for success by far. The country must be stabilized under an appropriate (interim) framework. During this phase, the centrally- and fairly-distributed oil revenues would be the glue keeping the country together. The final form of the state could be decided at a later stage.

Fostering local security must go hand-in-hand with rewarding stability.

Good governance in stable areas must be promoted: the provision of basic services, including health care, electricity and water supported. Facilitation of the build-up of local police forces should increase the trust of locals into governing authorities.

continues in part 2


Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Wolfgang Pusztai is a security & policy analyst. He is the Chairman of the Advisory Board, National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations and a Director, Perim Associates.


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