The Libyan conflict reflects various complex layers of hostility and antagonism, starting from intra-tribal and city clashes up to proxy wars encompassing various global and regional players.
Global and regional actors met at the Berlin Conference and recognised that the solution had to be ‘a Libyan solution’.
There were no Libyans at the table.
Was Berlin a strategic move that united regional powers competing for influence in the conflict-ridden country? Perhaps.
Was it another projection of a euro/western-centric world order that continues to alienate and overstep local communities, with the hope of strengthening their influence in the region? More likely.
There are two images that come to my mind as I think of the Berlin Conference.
The first, is the Conference family photo where the leaders of some of the world’s most influential states and other regional growing powers, most of them part of the proxy war in Libya, line up for a friendly photo.
It was business as usual.
Leaders greeted each other, parties supporting opposing factions in the conflict stood next to each other and if you did not know it was a conference about Libya, you would not have guessed that it was a conference about Libya.
On the other hand, comes to my mind the photos of Sarraj and Haftar as they sat around a table opposite Merkel and some of her advisers, presumably discussing the current offensive in the Libyan capital.
Both parties refused to meet and face each other.
Media stations of both parties tried tirelessly to picture the Berlin conference as a victory for their ’cause’.
It was obvious that both parties were not yet ripe for a possible peace negotiation.
Fighting escalated in the Libyan capital as Haftar-backed tribal leaders stopped oil production.
Sarraj and Haftar met Merkel separately. The tension was very obvious. The tension at home was high.
But as Sarraj had his Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Interior Affairs join him for the meetings, Haftar chose to have two of his guards, both from a tribe in Eastern Libya and both very closely related to him.
At first glance, our ‘liberal and progressive’ selves could easily jump into the conclusion that this is proof that Haftar is unable to lead Libya towards becoming a democratic progressive state because he continues to harbour conservative tribal ideologies which have plagued the Libyan political scene for years and held the country back from developing independent strong institutions.
However, this conclusion, as true as it might be, overlooks the societal governance dynamics at play in Libya and undermines the importance of the family and tribe as the nucleus of Libyan social order.
One must acknowledge the large support that Haftar continues to enjoy in a significant parts of Libya, especially as one moves farther away from the main cities.
Haftar is a familiar face to the Libyan society. He represents the strict but self-righteous head of the family , who is not to be questioned and who is exclusively entrusted with the mission of ensuring that the family survives and thrives.
Haftar’s ability to navigate through the tribal social web of connections, which is based on favors and social debts as well as familial alliances, has given him the ability of facilitated mobility within the web of family connections which ultimately weaves the Libyan social fabric and holds the Libyan society together.
The presence of Haftar’s family members in the Berlin meetings might look absurd from a foreign lens, but should not be downplayed by those familiar with the Libyan social order.
It represents continued support from his family and tribe, it represents familial unity and power, it represents familiar Libyan values to the Libyan audience.
If you had to settle a dispute with someone from a neighbouring city in Libya, you would prepare for an official visit of men, similar to the Berlin Conference, where prominent members of your family would meet with prominent members of the opposing family, both using their power and social connections to impose a deal that is more beneficial to them.
If you show up with your lawyers instead, that already means that you have either willingly left the Libyan web of social circles, or you have been expelled.
In both cases, you are powerless and have no real societal influence and are in no strong position to negotiate.
On the other hand, if we had to see it from a Libyan societal perspective, we know little about Sarraj, Seyala (Minister of Foreign Affairs) or Bashaga (Minister of Interior Affairs).
We know little about their families, their tribes, their social circles. We know little about the kind of relationship that ties them together.
We know for sure that it is definitely not as strong as Haftar’s familial ties, sealed by blood and common ancestry. They might hold legitimacy in their respective small scale social circles and familial ties, but they did not invest much in strengthening their presence within, and not above, the Libyan social order.
But this is not all. Haftar’s decision making processes, his rhetoric, his narrative, his vocabulary are all familiar. The everyday Libyan citizen can easily relate to what he says.
The underlying value systems upon which Haftar makes his decisions and carefully crafts his speeches is relatable to Libyans as it mirrors their own value systems, and does not present any threat to societal values.
Haftar’s media, in comparison to Sarraj’s media, mobilises influential societal figures who represent the converging points of various societal and familial connections and provide Haftar with grassroots legitimacy which Sarraj’s government could never hold.
Sarraj’s more ‘progressive’ media which favours younger faces, a supposedly more inclusive palette of presenters, and attempts, not always successfully, at presenting itself as a technocratic media station, could never relate to tribal Libyan society as much as Haftar is able to.
All in all, Haftar was able to create a governance system that is a larger projection of Libyan tribal society so well that he was able to win their trust probably more than Gaddafi ever could.
This blog, however, is not an attempt at legitimising a possible Haftar victory.
On the contrary, I believe that the only way to propose an alternative that could enjoy societal support which supersedes that of Haftar whilst upholding a degree of inclusive democratic values is to learn from Haftar.
Moving forward, any peace negotiations must have this understanding at heart.
An internationally imposed government structure will not work. A tweaked version of a western-styled government structure will not work either.
The Libyan progressives’ obsession with having government institutions which mirror those of more developed western states, overlooks the on ground realities of the Libyan social order dynamics.
Unfortunately, we are at a time where concessions must be made and a balance reached between upholding international standards of democratic governance with local, grassroots and indigenous forms of governance.
We need to have a thorough and encompassing mapping exercise of the de facto existing governance structures in Libya, this should look into the role of family, tribe, cities, historical rivalries, environmental factors, resources etc…
This mapping exercise would explore various forms of indigenous governance mechanisms that could be revived, experimented with, improved, tweaked and potentially included within the general framework of governance.
This could empower a true bottom-up approach to governance which recognises already existing informal governance mechanisms, subjects them to accountability before the law, unlike their current status of near absolute impunity, and ensure legitimacy.
In this manner, reform is not superficial but takes places at the heart of society.
To conclude, the Berlin Conference was an irresponsible move from various world leaders who continue to alienate Libyans throughout the decision making process.
The Berlin Conference came across as imperialistic, it further strengthened the legitimacy of both warring factors as they emerged as victors.
After all, the process was so alien and distant from the Libyan population that their leaders could have made up anything and they would have believed it.
The Conference perhaps halted, or at least paused, a proxy war, but failed to understand the resonance of such unilateral decisions on the families and cities who are completely dedicated to the fighting on ground.
The fighting continues in Tripoli in the meantime.