By Barah Mikail
There is no simple solution to Libya’s problems: institutional divisions prevail within a general context of political void, while the absence of a strong army is fueling the rule of militias.
The way forward
The current situation, with Libya’s main actors fighting each other, proves further that there is no easy way to move forward in Libya. Events since 2011 have caused the country to evolve amidst instability and uncertainties.
Institutional divisions, power rivalries, deficits at the socioeconomic level, and virtual fragmentation are some of Libya’s ongoing characteristics. As of early 2019, current developments in Libya lacked clarity.
Khalifa Haftar and the LNA’s offensive in early 2019 in the south had garnered them considerable territorial advances as well as control of some of the region’s most important oil fields.
The LNA had even been able to benefit from the acquiescence of some local communities to put their hands on symbolic and/or important southern towns, such as Sebha.
Furthermore, the potential for reconciliation, in the form of the UN-backed national conference between Libya’s protagonists, was postponed to an unknown date.
In Tripoli, up until March 2019, the GNA had made several military appointments in southern Libya, in an attempt to counteract the impression that Khalifa Haftar was the dominant influence there.
But Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj failed to prove that he was any kind of strong man.
The limits of his “army’s” advances, the uncertainty surrounding his capacity to rely on strong and efficient military forces such as those based in Misrata, as well his full reliance upon autonomous militias to secure the capital, rendered only one certainty: the foundations of the Libyan Prime Minister’s rule were very fragile.
Fayez Sarraj may give the impression that he is strong, especially since Khalifa Haftar’s April 2019 coup de force compelled the international community to back the GNA rather than the LNA.
But this impression is false, Sarraj could disappear as quickly as he came to power, especially since he owes his position to an external appointment.
Additionally, he is the official face of a government that is barely held together, as indicated by the alleged tensions and disagreements that he has with one of western Libya’s strongmen, the minister of interior from Misrata, Fathi Bashagha.
Those elements of context, added to the crucial developments that take place regularly at Libya’s southern borders, make it illusionary to believe that any “solution” to Libya’s challenges is forthcoming in the near future.
The country’s main centers of power continue to be extremely divided, not even in agreement on the minimum bases for a common agenda. Institutional divisions and the encouragement of further military rivalries seem to be Libya’s only certainties for the time being.
Therefore, few pragmatic or realistic scenarios are plausible at the moment to address Libya’s most pressing challenges. At the same time, this does not mean that there is no potential solution for Libya.
The many risks and threats generated by this oil-rich country explain why Libya remains very high on the international agenda.
The fact that some of the world’s most influential countries –US, Russia, China, France, UK, Italy- are so deeply involved in Libya is a serious indication that Libyans won’t be left alone before a solution is formulated.
This is in spite of the fact that the action of spoilers will most likely continue to complicate prospects.
While there is no easy or fast solution for Libya, moving step by step and focusing first on the country’s most pressing challenges can help set the foundation for a more positive long-term plan.
Such a plan can only have the support of the UN to be guaranteed, with the contribution of specific national actors that can place pressure on the main Libyan players.
The top priority steps requiring action are as follows:
Find an agreement with western-based militias
Armed militias are both part of the problem and part of the solution in Libya. Any idea of dissolving the militias or integrating them within a “Libyan army” is illusionary, at least for the west, where no such army exists in any case.
Fully incorporating militia leaders into the transitional process is perhaps the best way to induce a feeling of national duty or belonging among them.
Talking to militia leaders, giving them guarantees on their future and on the military positions they would have within a “national army,” are all ways to incorporate them into the transitional process.
The fact that militias were able to unite when Haftar wanted to take over Tripoli is a sign that they can agree on common objectives.
The challenge for the UN will be to take them one step further and get them to agree on being part of an army under the government’s authority.
Favour transitional justice
This point is crucial, and it is linked to the former. Some militia leaders and their members use violence in a way that makes them stand on the illegal side of things; the same goes for many other Libyan paramilitary actors.
The frequent intermingling of military actions and criminal activities adds complexity to the matter. By helping to define the terms of transitional justice, the UN would get Libyans to see that perpetrators of crimes would be held accountable for their actions.
This does not contradict formulating an amnesty law that could play a role in the future, on a case-by-case basis. However, this can only play a role in the long run, when the Libyan conflicts are genuinely in the past.
Find a common ground with Khalifa Haftar
Despite the fact that he provoked criticism and anger since his attempted military takeover of Tripoli in April 2019, there is no question that Khalifa Haftar is one of Libya’s strongmen.
The LNA that he commands is also a very powerful institution that must be taken into account. All of this makes it very important for the UN to get Libyans to agree on the terms of a formula that will guarantee Haftar a military position in Libya’s future, but without enabling him to interfere at the political level.
To be achieved, pressure needs to be exerted on Haftar by both influential powers and his backers. This is where the contribution and capacity of the following states – the USA, the UAE, Egypt, France, and even Russia- to influence Khalifa Haftar is central.
Give more resources to humanitarian NGOs
Libya’s problems are not only about military prospects; they are also related to socioeconomic issues and humanitarian concerns. Libyans need safe access to their basic needs –starting with food and potable water- and this makes it important for humanitarian NGOs to receive additional resources, and to be able to access Libyan citizens, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
Prioritize organizing municipal elections
At the institutional level, Libya’s most pressing concerns are known: organizing a referendum on a new constitution, and holding presidential, legislative and municipal elections.
However, UN envoy Ghassan Salame’s difficulties in organizing a National Conference to officially overcome divisions led to regular postponement of elections, as witnessed by the spring 2019 municipal elections, which had to be postponed because of events.
That said, Libyans in general seem disposed to designate their local representatives. This makes it important to prioritize organizing municipal elections; with some exceptions, most municipal elections will manage to find a way to compensate for the deficit of action of “governmental structures,” therefore guaranteeing better prospects for citizens while allowing a certain form of management to concretely prevail.
Those steps must also be encouraged by applying Law 59/2012 on the Local Administration System, with influential local military leaders not interfering in local affairs.
Obviously, having an official constitution adopted by referendum, in the long run, would be considerably beneficial here. Yet in the meantime, municipal elections can run efficiently as long as they are allowed to function without interference.
Reinforce control at borders
Borders are not only about refugees. While refugee-related issues need serious and efficient action, the solution for this matter extends beyond Libya.
At the same time, more control at Libya’s borders is a requirement needing Libyan institutional actors – and their regional and international counterparts, and ad hoc bodies and institutions – to deal efficiently with the matter.
Monitoring borders more efficiently is far from easy, and it cannot happen overnight.
Nevertheless, seriously considering the required financial and human needs is the only way to better control migration; arms, drugs and human trafficking; cross-border movements of armed fighters (especially those coming from Chad and Sudan), among other important issues.
Regulating oil-related prospects by more UN-led control on production and exportation
Oil is at the center of Libya’s problems and requires serious action. The National Oil Company (NOC) is meant to take decisions on this matter, but it is limited in its actions, as underscored recently by the developments in the Sharara oilfield.
Oil is clearly crucial for the country’s present and future, as demonstrated by the action of some armed militias, oil smuggling, ambiguity surrounding Libya’s oil exports, and the full dependence of Libya’s income on oil revenues.
Oil-related prospects must therefore be set and defined accordingly by a UN ‘roadmap’ giving concrete recommendations on how this sector must be (re)organized.
This would also require actors involved in Libya to adhere to the UN’s demands and recommendations, and to stop putting their self-interests over Libya’s interests and most pressing needs.
Libya has many advantages that can help it achieve peace. As a large country with a small population, Libya benefits from vast oil and gas reserves that guarantee its financial future and prospects for socioeconomic development.
But Libya also has significant difficulties that jeopardize its security and stability. Among these, underdevelopment, the lack of liquidities, human trafficking, and arms smuggling; and their impact on both the country and its population.
Furthermore, Libya must find a way to rise above the following difficulties: political and ideological divisions, the absence of state sovereignty, the struggle for power, the absence of a regular army, migration, foreign interference, and the strong role of militias.
Disarming militias would considerably help in solving some of Libya’s most pressing problems. Yet this can hardly be achieved for the time being: the absence of both an army and a strong and sovereign government empowers militias.
Events such as that which unfolded in spring 2019, when the LNA tried to take control of the capital Tripoli, further underscore how the political void fuels and strengthens militias. This makes it all the more difficult to reverse a process based on the rule of militias – but not impossible.
The way forward to building positive prospects for Libya’s future can only come step by step, in the long run, with the help of a neutral body – the UN – and by favoring decisions that pertain to specific fields, not necessarily only to the military. Putting the main emphasis on military questions will always bring serious obstacles, while favoring decisions related to socioeconomic development will tackle what can really be improved quickly.
And acting in this way will potentially even encourage motivated Libyans to give back the monopoly of legitimate violence to the state structure, instead of having to endure a militia rule that cannot favor peace, by definition.
But this must be preceded by the path to reconciliation -and this path can be long.
Barah Mikaïl is an associate professor at Saint Louis University (Madrid Campus) and a senior researcher on geopolitics and security-related issues at the Foundation for International Relations and External Dialogue (FRIDE). He previously worked as a senior researcher on Middle East and North Africa and on water issues at the Paris-based Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS, 2002-2010). Barah has been lecturer at the Collège Interarmées de Défense at the French Ministry of Defence (2005-2007), at the Université Paris-8 Saint-Denis (since 2005) and at Sciences-Po Lille (2004-2005). In 2003, he also worked as an analyst on Middle East issues at the French Ministry of Defence.