By Jason Pack
For the last five years, the international community has tried a range of different approaches to mediating the Libyan civil war. All have failed.
Part 2: Background, Sovereignty, Timing, and Leverage
What is the Current War for Tripoli Really About?
Since its inception in April 2019, the battle for Tripoli, or what I have termed elsewhere the Second War for Post-Gadhafi Secession, has essentially led to a stalemate. General Hifter’s attempts to use the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) to conquer Tripoli via a blitzkrieg without massive external support were never credible and they were eliminated by the retaking of Gharyan in June 2019.
Now Hifter’s attempts to take Tripoli via attrition in the wake of the “zero-hour” assault announced in December 2019 rely largely on Emirati airpower and Russian, Sudanese, and Egyptian mercenaries and trainers.
This is not to say that the anti-LNA or pro-GNA side is doing any better — its ranks are riven by dissension and many groups allied with it have not dedicated most of their fighting strength to the battle. Were the anti-LNA coalition not propped up by Turkish support and a lopsided reliance on Misrata’s battle-hardened militiamen, Tripoli would have long ago fallen.
On Jan. 2, 2020, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill to enable Turkish troops or mercenaries to be deployed to Libya to support the GNA. This is the first time that a foreign country has overtly stated its commitment to sustained military intervention in Libya’s civil war. In response, the LNA launched a pre-emptive, and largely successful, invasion of Sirte on Jan. 6, 2020 — fearing that any upcoming increase in Turkish mercenaries, logistics, and airpower would tip the battle throughout the country against them.
The LNA’s recent capture of Sirte is the most significant development in their campaign to conquer Tripoli, both strategically and symbolically, since their devastating loss of Ghariyan in mid-2019. Moving forward, in an attempt to gain a leg up and in the absence of any concrete international pushback for the overt introduction of foreign forces, we can expect to see the near complete foreign penetration of the strategic and operational aspects of both warring coalitions — leading to the further protraction of the battle on the ground.
If history is any guide, the more protracted the battle becomes, the more this favors Hifter. The anti-LNA coalition’s unity is quite tenuous, while Hifter has proved in his prior conquests of Derna and Benghazi that he is willing to play the long game.
Hifter has long grasped that the economic semi-sovereign institutions are fundamentally at the core of any political/military struggle. He made the departure of Central Bank Governor Sadiq al-Kabir his rallying cry when he took over the oil crescent ports in June 2018. Yet Kabir remains in place despite overstaying his mandate as CBL governor by many years. He remains in a situation where according to the Skhirat Agreement the Higher State Council head Khaled Mishri could in theory simply agree with the House of Representatives’ appointment of Mohamed el-Shukry and push him out the door.
The current quest to take Tripoli was arguably a last-ditch attempt to control the Central Bank and was well underway before the April 4 assault began. Prior attempts to leverage control of Libya’s oil crescent to achieve influence over CBL policy did not work.
An insider present at the March 2019 Abu Dhabi meeting between Serraj and Hifter, where they shook hands and supposedly “agreed” on joint resolutions, told the author that Hifter appears to have speculated that the Abu Dhabi understandings set to be enshrined in the National Conference scheduled for April 14 would eventually prove not satisfactory to him, if they still left Libya’s economic institutions beyond his grasp.
Hifter was set to achieve a modicum of political and military power over Libya through this agreement and the ensuing National Conference process. Moreover, if he had advocated for elections and made various minor compromises to secure them, he would likely have been able to be elected president. However, absent a proposed restructuring of Libya’s economic institutions, he chose violence over any of those political gains.
Those motivations for continued fighting likely still animate senior LNA command. As the war’s evident stalemate draws in more regional powers seeking to secure their interests in Libya, key interlocutors (UN, EU, UK, and U.S.) need to help propose a way out of the current impasse that is not just a momentary cease-fire, but deals with the core of the problem that led to the war in the first place.
For any compromise to last it must address the real drivers of the conflict. Paradoxically, if the IFC can be framed as bringing economic justice to marginalized communities like those in the east and the oil producing regions, it could be accepted by both LNA top brass and certain cadre of their key social and tribal supporters.
The Skhirat Agreement failed because it was politically focused and put the main economic issues into a deep freeze, while incentivizing incumbents to oppose reform — allowing the economic drivers of conflict that led to the militia problem, the smuggling problem, the semi-sovereign institution problem, and the jihadi problem all to persist untouched.
What we can gather from the above is that Libyans are fighting over preferential access to the institutions that wield economic power, and foreign actors are supporting those sides that they perceive will secure their preferential ability to secure back-payments, lucrative contracts, and ideological allies. This is not simply a fight for control of oil installations or the CBL’s headquarters. The fight is as complex as the Libyan economy itself.
The Libyan economic system is not a straightforward rentier system where a disenfranchised populace is paid off in subventions, salaries, and welfare perks to remain quiescent. Yes, Libya has aspects of all of those elements. Nonetheless, it is not a rationally constructed welfare state, like those of the Gulf monarchies, where according to clearly defined rules the populace gets handouts from the government and various elites receive opportunities to enrich themselves within clear parameters.
As I have written elsewhere, the precise complexities of the Libyan economy need to be studied by specialists, yet to generate the requisite information, the international community needs to summon the political will to advocate for — and incentivize — transparency. Only then can the resulting knowledge be used to undo conflict drivers.
The ideal approach would be for major Libyan stakeholders on both sides of the political divide and in both branches of divided institutions to call for international assistance and arbitration via an international financial commission to eliminate the drivers of conflict. This would represent one way of “completing” the unfinished revolutionary process that Libyans are still fighting to shape according to their factions’ desires.
Opponents of this “national process with international support approach” would say that decentralization is a better way to undo the Libyan economy’s perverse incentive structures. I contend that the IFC-reformed Libyan economy will likely be more decentralized in its structures, with the vast majority of oil revenues dispersed and expended at the local level. Yet, a national process with international support is needed to create these more decentralized structures.
2011 Was Not a Revolution: That is Why the Economic Fabric of the Ancien Regime (the Semi-Sovereign Institutions) Survived what happened in 2011 was merely a series of disconnected uprisings. A genuine root and branch revolution (like France in 1789 or Russia in 1917 or the Warsaw Pact Countries in 1989) would have destroyed entities like the Economic and Social Development Fund (ESDF), the Organization for the Development of Administrative Centers (ODAC), CBL, and LIA — expropriating their monies, replacing them with more functional or more “revolutionary” institutions answerable to the new regime’s logic, and doling out funds at the behest of the new order.
Tsarist Russian institutions were destroyed, their liabilities or hard currency either erased or ransacked by new structures. The same happened with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Yet in Libya, due to the absence of genuine leadership or a unifying vision of what post-Gadhafi Libya should look like, the multibillion-dollar behemoths are all still intact.
Salaries and subsidies have been raised on multiple occasions, yet the mechanisms and institutional logic of using oil revenues and extreme centralization to buy off the Libyan people’s complacency was never altered. Today, the General Electric Company of Libya (GECOL) and the LIA, as examples, appear as much facts of Libyan life as the Sahara Desert — immutable and eternal, filled with vast economic resources and huge opportunities for inefficiencies, smuggling, and self-dealing.27 Due to their perceived permanence and prestige, there is an incentive for Libyans to fight to control these loci of power.
Paradoxically since 2014, as the rival governments’ abilities to govern or control territory have been steadily weakened, they still fight tooth and nail over the right to officially run Libya’s semi-sovereign economic institutions. In fact, their legal “rights” to appoint boards of directors of institutions or award access to contracting vehicles are the only real powers that either government possesses.
In short, in a country where no government holds genuine sovereignty, it is these semi-sovereign economic institutions that (in certain instances) are the only functioning parts of the Libyan “state.” They have more than merely cash — they are still vested with power and legitimacy, where the governments’ ministries are not.
It follows then that as Libya’s post-Gadhafi chaos has failed to offer up any legitimate social contract to the Libyan people, a perversion of the existing Gadhafian social contract has emerged. Each Libyan region, locality, tribe, ideological grouping, and individual feels that they are as entitled as anyone else to the money and power vested in Libya’s semi-sovereign institutions.
People do not care that the rationales for those institutions no longer exist, they simply want their piece of the pie. And they are willing to fight for it.
Is the International Community Sovereign or Partially Sovereign in Libya?
Why should the international community have any role or legitimacy in remaking Libya’s economic structures and complete the trajectory of the anti-Gadhafi uprisings?
Firstly, because since 2014, the Libyan conflict has become a penetrated system whereby the armed actors and institutional heads function primarily due to the support or legitimacy that international actors bestow upon them.
Secondly, my historical and legal research has postulated that Libyan institutions were semi-independent under Gadhafi, developed semi-sovereignty in the political vacuum in the wake of Gadhafi’s ouster, and via the Skhirat treaty process international stakeholders have granted them a claim to complete sovereignty. In short, the “sovereignty” of the CBL or the Housing and Infrastructure Board (HIB) — in as much as they exist — has been granted by the UN and international actors and not by Libyan law.
The reason for this is twofold: firstly, these institutions are merely shells from the Gadhafi period and it is international actors’ willingness to accept them as legitimate that has enshrined them in the Libyan scene, and secondly, since 2014, Libya has lacked a sovereign authority.
Rather than using its position of authority to undo this institutional morass, much of international policy since 2014 has sought to insulate the CBL, LIA, Audit Bureau, and the NOC from the civil war and from partisan meddling, as if they were true sovereigns in line with their designation in the Skhirat Agreement. In fact, as I have demonstrated elsewhere the UN mediation process overtly granted sovereignty to Libya’s economic institutions to make sure that the diplomatic and business communities have interlocutors to deal with.
As it pertains to the NOC this was possibly a noble and necessary goal to prevent complete financial and humanitarian ruin, but in the case of the CBL, ODAC, GECOL, HIB, and others, this attempt merely froze the structures of the Libyan economy in their status quo ante positions without helping to create the political environment needed to give these institutions coherent economic functions.
Its implication was to fix in place a form of dysfunctional centralization and hence lead to cycles of violence to control Tripoli — where the institutional headquarters of these bodies are based. Inherently, decentralization must be a part of any reform process.
By issuing protections to status quo ante institutions, the international community has treated these institutions as if they truly operated in a vacuum of governance and sovereignty and hence had become completely sovereign entities. The wording chosen in the Skhirat Agreement text in 2015 actually accords with the UN Support Mission in Libya’s and major international players’ ensuing actions.
This wording and complimentary political actions defy both reason and facts. The key, therefore, to untying the tangled knot of the Libyan crisis lies in acknowledging the semi-sovereign status of the country’s economic agencies, and hence, their accountability to both the Libyan people and subordination to the international institutions and treaties from which Libyan sovereignty derives.
This legal realization gives the legitimacy for key Libyan stakeholders and their international allies to call for the creation of the IFC.
Some might argue it could be brought into being even without comprehensive Libyan buy-in, as there would likely be various incumbents and status quo powers that would fear the loss of sovereignty that any reform would occasion.
One school of thought holds that after the fall of the Gadhafi regime and the failure of a non-interim sovereign government to emerge within the time limits set out by the Aug. 3, 2011 temporary constitutional declaration, the international community, and the UN in particular, became effectively obligated to act as in loco regis for the vacant Libyan sovereign (as they did in the period 1947-51 after Italy chose/was compelled to abnegate its claims to sovereignty after losing World War II, but before independent Libya was formed).
Seen from this legal perspective, the international community and the UN might have both the right and the duty to exert their sovereignty and either dismantle or reform the alphabet soup of semi-sovereign dysfunction.
In the eyes of most Libyans, the institutions created in the Gadhafi period (e.g. ODAC, HIB, LIA, GECOL, LPTIC, ESDF, etc.) are as illegitimate as the pots of money squirrelled away by Gadhafi cronies offshore, frequently by using the semi-independent prerogatives of these institutions.
If international recognition of GECOL, the CBL, or the LIA was suspended or assets frozen (as it has been done at various times), it would then become sanctionable for multinational companies to work with these entities. This would create exactly the requisite necessity for key stakeholders to call for an international commission.
Jason Pack is a consultant, author, and commentator with over two decades of experience living in, and working on, the Middle East. He created “Libya-Analysis LLC” and founded “Eye on ISIS” in Libya. He is the Senior Libya Analyst at CRCM North Africa, a German strategy firm. He served as Executive Director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association for 2 years.