The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (CSDS) organised a specialised symposium on Libya entitled “The horizons of the Libyan conflict: Caught between internal consensus and foreign stakes” on February 15, 2020 at Mechtel Hotel in Tunis.
The event was opened by the Director of the Center, Dr. Rafik Abdessalem, who introduced the five panelists: Khalifa Haddad (Tunisia), Othmen Lahyani (Algeria), Dr. Mohamed Imran Kacheda, Mohamed Dermish, and Tarek Shaaban (Libya).
The workshop was also attended by experts, researchers and journalists from Libya, Algeria and Tunisia to diagnose the current political landscape in Libya and its prospects. The workshop was moderated by Salsabil Beniss, an expert in the Libyan affair.
The Director of the CSDS opened the symposium
With introductory remarks regarding the transformation of the Libyan revolution into an armed conflict. Dr. Rafik Abdessalem argued that the main cause of the political stalemate is the fact that Libya has become the site for a regional and international conflict due to foreign intervention, transforming local conflict into a proxy war.
Dr. Abdessalem argued that the 2014 legislative elections were expected to end the bloodshed, polarization and impasse.
Libyan politicians thought that it would lead to uniting state institutions and unifying the divided financial institutions and military forces. However, the spread of arms in the hands of militiamen and mercenaries, social tensions, foreign intervention and regional alignment appear to have made any political settlement ineffective as each player seeks to further its interests.
The conflict has deepened between the warring sides, with regional powers lining up behind them, making efforts to heal the rift unsuccessful.
Following the 2014 legislative elections, the Libyan High Court declared the Government and Parliament to be unconstitutional and ordered that it should be dissolved.
After 2014, the civil war led to the fragmentation of the country between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Tubruk Parliament.
So far, there appears to be no way to end the conflict with arms. The war has destroyed the economic and social fabric of Libyan society and the state is on the verge of collapse, as the vying forces engage in a no-win situation.
Dr. Abdessalem highlighted that the Berlin Conference, is an indicator of real international efforts to end the war, attended by more than a dozen of countries and high-level diplomats such as the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Turkish president Recep Teyyep Erdogan, the Egyptian president Abdel FattehEsissi and the United Emirates.
Despite discussing a wide range of issues, what is notable is that both sides are still talking the language of war. However, perhaps one glimmer of hope is that fatigue may soon affect both warring sides and force them to open a dialogue.
Dr. Abdesslem highlighted the cross-border impact of the Libyan war. The repercussions of the conflict are not only local, but also regional and threatens Tunisia in particular.
Today, there are good reasons to be worried about the socioeconomic and security impact if the conflict continues for much longer.
Dr. Abdessalem argued that there are a number of factors that allow Tunisia to be a credible and trustworthy mediator. In addition to sharing a common cultural heritage, history and trading partnerships including a series of agreements, Tunisia has not been directly involved in the conflict and therefore can play the role of a non-coercive or ‘neutral’ mediator.
However, he admitted that due to its size, Tunisia is unable to fix regional conflicts alone.
The Maghreb countries, according to Dr. Abdessalem, could play a major role in ending the political impasse in Libya under UN auspices. He argued that a Maghreb initiative, if it were to involve a neutral mediator and coordinate well with local players, is more likely to succeed.
Dr. Abdessalem ended his introduction by reminding the audience of Tunisia’s moral obligation and its commitments as an Arab and Muslim country and neighbor to Libya to bridge the gap between the warrying sides and contribute to ending the conflict.
The panelists focused on the role of civil society and political parties in the aftermath of the February 17 revolution.
Mr. Haddad, Mohamed Dermish, and Tarek Shaaban began by arguing that there is widespread misunderstanding of the Libyan landscape.
They highlighted the role of civil society and political forces in shaping the Libyan political scene after the revolution.
Mr. Haddad acknowledged the difficulty of using the term “civil society” in the context of a tribal society while it has been developed and mainly applied in modern societies and associated with successful struggles against against tyrannical regimes.
Debates on Libyan civil society date back to the monarchical era (1951-1963) when King Idriss banned political, social and cultural associations.
In a similar vein, Gaddafi tried to crack down on every vestige of civil society, through security and intelligence forces.
For around four decades, the regime employed the tribal card not as a parallel power but as a substitute to political parties and institutions, seeking to empower tribal subcommittees and reproduce tribalism in a way that served the regime’s interests.
Although the number of civil society oganisations peaked after the revolution (5500 organisations have been created since 2012 and 67 international organisations have registered their presence), Mr. Haddad argued that most of them are dysfunctional.
Although they purported to counter fragmentation and overcome political cleavages, their attempts were abortive and they were often hindered by tribal paternalism and dominance, as well as political divides.
Mr. Haddad discussed the role of tribes as the backbone of the Libyan social structure. Tribes have been involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding but have also been responsible for social fragmentation and political polarization, mainly in the Eastern region.
He argued that the situation was aggravated when tribalism was used to mobilise tribes by representing the conflict as a regional one between the Western and Eastern regions.
Some tribes have been involved in looting, mass killing, vandalism and the forced displacement of local inhabitants in the Eastern region. He highlighted the particular threat posed by Madkhali ideology, which has significant cultural, financial and media activity and has become a threat to social cohesion.
Mr. Lahyani and Mr. Kachada focused on international aspects of the conflict, arguing that the Libyan conflict reached a critical stage after the failure of the Berlin Conference.
Mr. Lahyani argued that, in the context of reluctance by the major powers to act to resolve the conflict peacefully, other potential players who could play a role are Turkey and Algeria.
Regarding Algeria, Mr. Lahyani stated that Algerian policy on Libya is not guided by political motives but rather security considerations.
He argued that the terrorist attack on the Tiguentourine gas plant on January 16 marked a turning point in Algerian policy and created an incentive for Algeria to intervene in the Libyan issue.
Mr. Lahyani also spoke about the impact of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflilka’s ill health, which rendered Algerian foreign policy dysfunctional, passive and detached from regional issues.
Rivalry between Morocco (which hosted the Skhirat Accord in 2015) and Algeria has also driven Algeria to change its policy and get involved in the peace process.
With reference to Turkey, Mr. Kachada argued that Turkey is seen by many Libyans as the only regional power able to counter the Egypt-UAE axis and strike a balance between the two sides, which is needed in order to push the towards a negotiated settlement.
He maintained that the Turkish-Qatari axis could strike a balance.
The Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies is a research institution covering a large regional territory, including the Maghreb, Africa and Mediterranean countries, with a focus on Tunisian affairs. The Center has two main headquarters in London and Tunisia.
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