By Group of scholar (*)

This report presents a city-based model of politics, economics, and for security. It describes a strategy for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

The report concludes with quotes from a recent report by the Libyan National Conference Process.



Libya today is too atomized to be run by a strong central government.

Indeed, historically it has always been something of an enigma in the broader Middle East and North Africa region, in that its origins and traditions are largely oriented around its cities, and to an extent its regions, more than a strong capital.

Much of what happens in Libya today recognizes and reflects this reality. Except for the oil sector, and the revenue it generates for the nation as a whole, the cities and various groups within them including militias are effectively running the country.

But formal strategy, including by the international community, still focuses on Tripoli and, to an extent, a competing nexus of power in the east.

If Libyans themselves agree, a new strategy might return the country to its roots, and build the state from the grassroots up, rather than from the top down.

A major national conference, anticipated in 2019, could set the principles and parameters for pursuing this vision, while leaving some key details, such as when future nationwide elections might be held and what size and shape the country’s central security forces might adopt, for later. National elections, and perhaps a referendum on a new constitution, should be part of the long-term political vision for Libya, for the simple reason that, to paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government except all the others.

There is no alternative way to create long-term legitimate rule that all major players in Libya could accept. But the process need not be rushed.

To underscore the complexity of Libya, consider that according to recent estimates, some 150 militias roam the land, with most including 50 to 200 fighters and only a few possessing more than 500.

They can generally be categorized as pro-GNA, anti-GNA, or pro-Hiftar. That said, loyalties can shift, especially when they are usually based on interest more than ideology.

A further breakdown of militias could code them in regard to the strength and centralization of their leadership, the sources of their licit and illicit revenues, and the support they receive within their own communities (often neighborhoods or quarters of a given city).

In terms of power and influence, the most important militias operate in perhaps six key cities or regions: Tripoli, Zintan (close to Tripoli, on its western flank), Misrata, central Libya (including Sirte and Jufra), southern Libya, and eastern Libya (including Benghazi, Marj, Sukna, Tobruk, Ajdabiya, and Derna).

That is just the militias; it says nothing of the myriad mayors, local commissioners, tribal leaders, and community associations that make up the complex landscape of Libya today.

We believe that it is time for the United States to engage seriously in Libya. Such engagement has been episodic at best since 2011, and almost completely lacking since the murder of four Americans in Libya in September 2012.

Washington and the international community might adopt “outside-in” and “inside-out” approaches. The “outside-in” concept would seek to deconflict the roles of various outside actors. At present, some of them verge on waging proxy war inside Libya. This must stop, if there is to be any realistic hope of stability.

Washington will not be completely successful in any effort to achieve such deconfliction, but even partial progress will help—and there is no viable alternative to Washington to play this role.

In attempting this task, the United States can take heart from the fact that, while there is proxy competition within Libya by outside actors, there is no foreign power playing a highly malevolent role.

The complementary, “inside-out” aspect of this strategy would seek to empower the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, Ghassam Salamé, and general United Nations efforts within the country.

A central mechanism to pursue this vision would be a means of deciding when and how to allocate funds to individual localities (or even neighborhoods), in order to incentivize good behavior on the part of militias and other actors.

Militias that provide local security, and accept oversight and control by elected political authorities at both the national and local levels, could receive funds including security aid.

Other organizations and municipal governments could be given resources to work on health, education, water, and sanitation, among other endeavors.

Payments would however be made in frequent installments. That would allow scrutiny of recent behavior, and the possibility of reductions in a given month’s allocation, if the performance or behavior of a given militia or other type of group had not been up to par in the preceding period.

Today, payments to militias already happen, but they are often haphazard, duplicative, and inadequately conditioned on the militias’ behavior.

Our hope is that a system of payments like this would find some initial takers among local actors. Once word gets out that the system works, others would follow, and there could ideally develop something of a virtuous cycle or snowballing effect.

Of course, this theory would need to be tested, but even if it worked only imperfectly, it could constitute a marked improvement relative to current dynamics.

Washington’s unique role

While many external actors have important contributions to make toward stabilizing Libya, the United States has a special position and is arguably indispensable to the success of any future initiative.

That does not mean that it should or must do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. Nor does it rule out an expanded role for other outside actors—for example, the European Union. But the effective disengagement of the United States since the killing of Gadhafi in 2011, and even more so since the Benghazi tragedy of 2012, leaves other outside actors to compete with each other, often in destructive ways.

A country capable of playing the role of leader, and to some extent honest broker, is needed. Washington is well placed to exercise leadership to reduce the French-Italian competition for pre-eminence among European powers, with echoes still resonating from the colonial past. It could also help defuse the competitive dynamics between the Qatar-Turkey axis versus the UAE-Egypt axis.

For example, while Egypt has done good work in bringing together various security actors through its Cairo process, it is often seen as favoring eastern groups, particularly Hiftar’s.

Help from a different nation is needed to get the Cairo process to a more comprehensive and inclusive level. Despite the complicated U.S.-Libyan history, the United States is perceived by most Libyans to be the most neutral of the powerful outside actors.

We also have witnessed a recent example of how effective U.S. leadership can be, in its efforts to solve the oil crescent crisis in mid-2018: Everyone fell in line behind Washington in resolving the crisis and reopening the oil spigots so that Libya could again access to foreign-currency earnings.

In this next stage of Libya’s evolution, the United States should consider re-establishing a formal and ongoing presence in the country, to complement the counterterrorism activities it has undertaken episodically in recent years.

That means an embassy of some kind—be it akin to the fortified and remote facility established in Lebanon or the airport-based facility established in Somalia, or a more classic setting and structure—provided that it were accessible to Libyans from many regions and tribal loyalties.

It could also involve, along with other donors and external actors, American development personnel working in some of the country’s cities.

It should be acknowledged that the United States would incur certain risks if it follows the approach we recommend.

The history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and nearby regions—including debacles such as the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 and subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces, “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia in 1993, the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaida in 1998, and the Benghazi tragedy of 2012—underscores the risks.

American men and women can suffer personal tragedy as a result. The credibility of the United States can also suffer, when the nation is not committed firmly to a workable strategy.

Thus, the United States should only pursue the path that we advocate if it is prepared to be resolute when tested by one or more actors—be they ISIS or al-Qaida elements, or simply spoiler militias concerned more with power and money than ideology.

The United States accepts such risks in other parts of the broader Middle East and the world in general; we believe it can do so in Libya.

A city-based model of politics

Today, the prevalent vision for Libyan politics focuses too much on national elections. Even though they did not occur in 2018, as had once been considered, countrywide elections and the creation of a new national government are generally seen as the ultimate prize.

This tendency is perhaps inevitable in a world in which nation-states deal with each other principally through national governments and capital cities.

But it is not the way that nongovernmental actors often operate in today’s world, where direct connections between cities, companies, and other organizations often cross borders while bypassing central governments. And it is also not how Libya has operated historically.

National elections, while ultimately essential, are not equivalent to the establishment of democracy, in Libya or anywhere else. Just as central are a system of checks and balances, functioning courts, protection of individual rights, guarantees of free speech, and a free and credible media.

Without these elements, hasty national elections, rather than improving governance or political legitimacy in Libya, are more likely to bolster the influence of current and often nefarious actors.

For the foreseeable future, a combination of local elections of the type that have been happening, as well as other means of establishing accountability and local ownership and legitimacy, can be considered.

In some cities, it may even be preferable to use something more akin to a caucus system rather than a classic ballot election, including a strong role for women, to ensure representation from each of several powerful groups rather than to rely on a winner-take-all mechanism that could create immediate resentments.

With all of Libya’s current institutions seen as having questionable legitimacy and effectiveness at best, including even those deriving from the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015, the type of outreach and thinking that SRSG Salamé is doing is much needed.

He has outsourced some diplomatic activity to non-U.N. actors (such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, the Dialogue Advisory Group in Amsterdam, and the Conflict Management Initiative in Helsinki) to be able to test ideas and gather input in

ways that would be difficult to do more officially, given Libyan expectations of the United Nations as well as U.N. security requirements for travel.

The United States can help. If the Libyans see that Salamé is regularly being received in Washington at high levels, as he already is in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Paris, and Rome, that fact alone would automatically increase his importance in their eyes.

With his U.N. hat, Salamé can pitch ideas and promote consensus in ways that the rest of the international community can rally behind more easily. Salamé is able to live in Tripoli and fly elsewhere in Libya, giving him access to Libyan leaders on their own turf and in their own language.

Salamé should be encouraged to seek short-term political processes that build on Libya’s often vibrant existing local politics to broaden representation at the national level.

Parliament could be a mix of existing MPs with additional officials, chosen city-by-city in whatever means a given locality wished—provided that basic criteria for human rights and inclusivity were met.

A city-centric political model would cede substantial autonomy to municipalities, lessening the political salience of the national government in most matters affecting Libyans’ daily lives.

Municipalities would have control over most laws and law enforcement, resourcing and budgets, local services, and even local governance structures. U.S. diplomacy and assistance would be focused on this level of government, building capacity and bolstering authority where possible.

Ultimately, a modified constitution could establish permanent arrangements and nationally coordinated elections. But there is no hurry even to decide on dates for national elections.

Improvised procedures may work best for the foreseeable future.

Empowering localities, and building national institutions increasingly from the local level on up, should be the current watchwords and goals.

to continue in Part 4


(*) The group of scholars are: John R. Allen, Hady Amr, Daniel L. Byman, Vanda Felbab-Brown, Jeffrey Feltman, Alice Friend, Jason Fritz, Adel Abdel Ghafar, Bruce Jones, Mara Karlin, Karim Mezran, Michael E. O’Hanlon, Federica Saini Fasanotti, Landry Signé, Arturo Varvelli, and Frederic Wehrey.


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