By Ethan Chorin
Four years after the fragile Libyan democratization process collapsed, the conflict has come to a predictable head.
The Eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) is currently trying to take the capital of Tripoli, in the process directly challenging both the legitimacy and relevance of Libya’s currently internationally-recognized leadership — and casting uncertainty over the United Nations-brokered National Conference set to begin on April 14-16 in the Southern Libyan oasis of Ghadames.
This assault is led by Khalifa Heftar, who has spent the last four and a half years building the LNA into the closest thing Libya has to a ‘regular’ fighting force, of about 40,000.
The origins of this showdown date back most immediately to June 2014, when Libya held its second national election since the U.S.-backed NATO intervention that ousted Libya’s dictator al-Gaddafi in 2011.
The U.S. and the international community supported this election, but when fighting broke out in the capital between rival militias the United States withdrew from Libya; the just-elected government (the “House of Representatives”) withdrew to the far East of the country, and a combination of Islamist and coastal (Misurata-based) leaders set up a rival government of their own in the capital, nominally supported by militias over which it had little control.
Around the same time, General Heftar (re)-appeared on the scene, announcing a national campaign to push all Islamists (a catchall term for religiously-motivated groups that engage in politics, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State) out of Libya.
The 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi resulted in the swift fall of Benghazi and much of Libya’s East to a range of Al Qaeda-supported groups.
The international community recognized the House of Representatives until its term expired. But European governments became increasingly worried — rather late — that the power vacuum in Libya would allow ISIS and Al Qaeda to grow, and drive more African emigrants (or worse, ‘terrorists disguised as immigrants’) into the hands of the traffickers that launch them toward the shores of Europe on unseaworthy craft.
These fears have been borne out in several cases, as when a Tunisian trained in Western Libya attacked foreign tourists at a Tunisian beach in 2015, killing 38.
A dual Libyan-British citizen also trained in Western Libya (and evacuated by the British navy from Libya in 2014) blew himself up at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, UK May, 2017, killing 22 people.
The response of the Italian government, for one, was to pay the criminal gangs that ran the trafficking rings to slow the trade from which they profited– which was an affront to many Libyans.
Seeking to mitigate thee impact of these problems, UN set up a reconciliation framework initially boycotted by the Tripoli-based government.
Known as the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), it was to merge the competing governments into a Government of National Accord (GNA).
But those tapped for the GNA had virtually no truck on the ground, and were widely seen as unrepresentative of the Libyan population as a whole. And indeed many of the former members of the previous elected parliament were banned from Tripoli.
According to the terms of the Libyan Political Agreement, the final step in legitimizing the Government of National Accord was for the House of Representatives to recognize it and be subsumed into the body as its legislative arm.
But the Eastern government never ratified the GNA, in large part because of disagreements over the status of Heftar himself, whom the the ‘first among equal’ Prime Ministers Fayez al-Serraj tried to exclude from government or subject directly to his command.
So, as legal authorities have noted, according to the procedures outlined in the Libyan Political Agreement the GNA never came into existence: its legitimacy derives purely from the international community’s decision to shift its endorsement in 2016 from the House of Representatives to the GNA.
Since 2014 the Government of National Accord has been sold by three consecutive U.N. special envoys as Libya’s last and only chance for peace. But even putting the legitimacy issue aside, the GNA has failed to live up to its primary mandate, which was to disarm the militias that hold the capital hostage.
Further, the Libyan economy went into a tailspin. According to polls taken by (among others) at least two US government agencies, Libyans as a whole feel that the GNA has been forced upon them, and is both corrupt and ineffective.
As the conflict deepened, Heftar’s popularity grew far beyond its original base, even amongst those had earlier opposed him or feared he might become another Gaddafi.
As it had in other Arab Spring countries, order had become the overriding concern and Heftar and the LNA were the only ones successfully working to secure large sections of the country.
Four and a half years and untold suffering later, Heftar has reclaimed Benghazi and the East from militias, secured the Eastern oil fields, and recently brought some measure of security to Libya’s southern regions.
The Western media has largely been uncritical in its support for the Government of National Accord, with several of its members now advocating the U.S. and the international community to slap sanctions on Heftar.
This is premature. On my last trip to Libya two years ago I heard Libyans in both the West and the East (whose elected government appointed Heftar, and to which Heftar has pledged his allegiance) say they want a representative Libyan government: not a dictatorship (whether military or Islamist), and not an instant democracy either.
I heard many times the desire to be led by competent Libyan professionals free of overt conflicts of interest. And there are many such Libyans, in Libya and abroad.
Heftar’s push on the capital is clearly designed to create facts on the ground prior to the Ghadames conference. But unless the international community is willing to step in and fix the problems that led to this point — which is supremely unlikely — it should keep out of the current conflict.
As I argued in a New York Times piece back in 2014, this does not mean writing a blank check.
The United States, in particular (given Heftar’s dual citizenship and past connections to U.S. agencies) and the international community should make it unequivocally clear what they expect from both Heftar and the LNA (assuming the LNA takes Tripoli, which is far from certain) and what the consequences of deviating from those limits.
The Ghadames conference could conceivably become a marker of a shift towards a more nuanced, helpful international policy: the invite list and the agenda are set by the current UN Envoy, Ghassan Salame, but have not yet been announced, leaving open the possibility for modifications to the program.
But the most urgent issues are the same as they were in 2012: security, local economic development and meaningful local and regional reconciliation efforts.
None of these can occur in a perpetual state of chaos.
Ethan Chorin – Contributor. The Author of two books on Libya. He has worked in Africa and the Middle East as a diplomat, executive, and currently, CEO of Perim, LLC. His focus is the geopolitics of the Middle East and Africa, post-conflict stabilization and the application of technology to development.