By Anas El Gomati
Recent political talks to end the civil war in Libya have relied upon the flawed logic of inclusion and compromise to unify rival factions, in the belief that institutional cooperation will follow. This report analyses how this strategy is destined to fail, due to opposing and irreconcilable visions for the state and its political character.
Political culture: what the political talks fail to address
The UN’s logic to resolve the power struggle ignores Libya’s experience of power, it’s institutional form under the former regime and how this unique experience has shaped the ideas and outlook of the factions who today engage in conflict.
It neglects how this political culture shaped Libya’s society over decades and how it institutionally distributed power across society under the former Qaddafi regime. It neglects how this experience formed drivers that led to the revolution, resulted in the rise of armed groups across the country and how this redistributed power and reshaped society as a result.
It neglects how this reshaping of society and redistribution of power formed rival political factions and networks of armed groups in 2011 and shaped the fault line of the conflict that divides them nearly a decade later. In short it neglects history.
This process further neglects new realities. The process ignores the changes to political culture across the region and how foreign powers noticed an ideological power vacuum in Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, and responded in 2011 and then years since by intervening militarily in the conflict as a result.
The failure to address these ideological drivers and political characteristics of the conflict in the political talks contains a dangerous implicit presumption: politics is irrelevant to the power struggle. That the political differences between the two factions have no bearing on the conflict, and will not restart the conflict once the rival factions join forces under a unified government.
It is a presumption that nothing but greed separates the rival factions. That is to say, that irrespective of what the factions do and how they behave, they are politically flexible, ideologically compatible, and can cooperate in unified political and military institutions once their greed has been satisfied through political compromise irrespective of the future political character and political culture of the state.
Given that Libya’s three major civil wars which triggered local armed groups to form and foreign powers to intervene occur specifically at critical turning points in Libya’s political transition that define the political character of the state; power, it’s political form and how society is governed are relevant to the timeline of the conflict, and should matter to the political talks aimed at resolving them.
The contrasting political visions of power are not only imperative to establishing the political outlooks of the rival local factions, but also the role of rival foreign states in the conflict and illustrate Libya’s place in a bitterly divided and contested region.
Identifying what drives regional powers to intervene and shape Libya’s conflict, break it’s ceasefires and undermine the peace processes when it fails to meet their desired political objectives is also a reflection of the region’s political fault lines.
The foreign policy of regional powers and objectives of rival factions in Libya can be measured by years of UN brokered diplomatic negotiations to determine how post conflict Libya is to be governed.
Foreign powers who intervene militarily, have also shaped the diplomatic process and framing of negotiations to ensure the resulting institutional setup in a unified Libyan government meets their desired political objectives; where their local political partners are either at the helm of Libya’s military or have control and authority over the military at the highest political post – the Presidency.
These political posts and military institutions are not purely cash dispensers for the greedy. They determine the political character of a unified state and the way in which the lives of Libya’s citizens are to be governed as a result.
Political and military institutional power can limit which political parties may participate in political life, and which ones will be proscribed and fought as enemies of the state. They also determine the nature of civil-military relations; whether to establish, or extinguish a socio-political space that allows for a socio-political culture that challenges power through expressions of dissidence.
Seen from this perspective, Libya’s latest conflict is more than a battle driven by local greed over political posts and military institutions. It is part of a deeper conflict over power; specifically who controls the highest political post that governs the military institutions, how they seek to exercise this power and how society is to be governed in a near decade long, region wide conflict to determine a prevailing political culture in Libya since the fall of Qaddafi.
Libya’s conflict can not be exclusively characterised by the greed of some of it’s political and armed factions and how they seek to distribute the spoils of war. Nor can it be reduced to oversimplified binaries such as the battle between Islamist and Secular forces. It is also not a regional war between East vs West Libya.
The conflict and the political failure to reach compromise is rooted in two competing visions of state and society – two irreconcilable political cultures. These political cultures are divided in their attitudes towards power and politics – specifically the military – it’s socio-political composition and it’s subservience to political authority.
The LAAF seeks to establish a state around a military that is structured and composed of particular tribes whilst excluding others. Furthermore the LAAF seeks to be managed by a political authority – namely the Presidency – of it’s choice and not an authority that will tamper with it’s socio-political structures or challenge its military power.
This vision is deeply incompatible with the LAAF’s opponents, currently under the GNA. The GNA is composed of a variety of socio-political forces and armed groups who overthrew an identical authoritarian socio-political system to the LAAF under Qaddafi during the revolution in 2011.
These political forces are complex, some are in competition and even in conflict at times, but as a whole are brought and bound together by a fear and experience of authoritarianism and reject it’s latest incarnation in Haftar and specifically the LAAF.
These forces seek to establish a state where the highest political authority – its presidency – can be challenged or changed by Libya’s society democratically and not a political authority that is submissive to, selected by or serves its military.
These forces seek to establish a military that is inclusive and representative of society and not narrowly structured exclusively around tribes. Most importantly, they require a military that is subservient to civilian rule, and are willing to challenge and fight against one that isn’t.
This vision and rejection of political subservience to military rule is rooted in a democratic political culture. The UN process fails to address how these contrasting political cultures and visions of the state that not only drive the local parties to the conflict, but divides their international backers too, and how this conflict is central to the years of diplomatic and political negotiations that have failed to reconcile both sides and achieve political compromise.
Why economic drivers fail to explain Libya’s conflict
Whilst it has become vogue to frame the Libyan conflict as being almost exclusively motivated by greed and rooted in its economic structures, this perspective offers limited explanatory power where the national conflict is concerned. It has also revised Libya’s history.
This perspective promotes the belief Libyans took up arms with no higher political ambitions than to oust Qaddafi’s circle from power over economic institutions. The conflict in Libya between rival networks of armed groups and political factions is rooted as such in a battle to pillage Libya’s economic resources irrespective of their political or ideological disposition.
This leads to a belief that Libya’s conflicts only emerged as a result of the structural cavities in the Qaddafi-era cheque dispensing political institutions and policy of subsidies.
This economic perspective argues that both of Libya’s rival networks of armed groups and political factions irrespective of who they are, where they and what they claim to fight for are really driven to conflict by an identical greed and scramble to take exclusive control of the state’s lucrative political and economic institutions.
This perspective argues political culture and historical experience are irrelevant to the real war in Libya – ‘the battle to extract wealth by any political means or narrative necessary’.
Why have ordinary Libyans taken up arms?
This perspective is flawed and risks oversimplifying the political, ideological reasons and actual drivers that trigger civilians and armed groups alike to engage in conflict, or seeks to take the cases of a limited number of groups that actually engage in such economic predation as representative of all groups and people who take up arms and are engaged in conflict.
This perspective should not be ignored or dismissed entirely. It can be useful if limited to understanding the behaviour of a small cluster of groups in both networks, limited in size, and in:
(i) close geographical proximity of lucrative government institutions which they and their business associates seek to extort particularly in the capital,
(ii) groups that exhibit rent seeking behaviour by laying claim to Libya’s infrastructure and natural resources particularly its oil fields or
(iii) the groups that battle over human trafficking and smuggling routes along Libya’s borders which they have sought to exploit as a result of Libya’s subsidies and transnational illicit of Libya’s subsidies and transnational illicit economies.
But what about everyone else? What this economic perspective fails to help us understand is why tens of thousands of ordinary civilians otherwise engaged in regular life voluntarily take up arms and risk their lives.
What drives civilians to establish armed groups along local lines in remote towns and cities and then triggers them to become part of a network and conflict along national lines?
Why do many fighters and groups lay down their weapons voluntarily and return to their regular lives after the conflicts end despite the economic incentives to remain armed?
The failure to explain this, is a failure to explain the drivers of Libya’s largest conflicts and triggers of mass mobilisation. It fails to explain why groups on both sides mobilise at specific ideological turning points in 2011 and 2019 during Libya’s political transition.
Not only does this perspective fail to explain the behaviour of many armed groups that return to civilian life, it also fails to explain the behaviour of powerful armed groups who remain intact after the conflicts end.
Why have economic drivers not reshaped the national political conflict, induced alliances between bitter rivals on either side of the military conflict?
If the largest single driver of conflict is economic, and this drives the behaviour of armed groups, why have the largest armed groups on either side of the political fault line not forged a pragmatic union, and chosen economic cooperation and political compromise over conflict?
Why have the largest rival armed groups within either the GNA and LAAF not opted to cooperate and establish an even more powerful joint force to reach their desired economic ends?
Such a disproportionate union of force would not only outweigh and deter their smaller competitors from challenging them but would expand their shared territorial reach and ability to exploit far reaching economic opportunities whether in the capital, Libya’s oil facilities or its borders.
This union could be achieved through a pragmatic political compromise, to jointly exploit economic opportunities and extort Libya’s wealthy institutions instead of engaging in lengthy ideologically driven conflict that exhausts both of their human and military resources in the process.
Local, ethnic and tribal identities are not only the names by which many armed groups choose to be known by. They are a representation of their own community’s history, their experience of power and a powerful idea that binds them together and determines their political outlook.
This does not mean these political drivers establish uniform behaviour. It does not guarantee politically constructive behaviour or a lack thereof, liberal or conservative political views, or a guarantee to abide by human rights norms in conflict.
Rather these drivers can help us understand the present nature of Libya’s conflict, its fault lines, and the conditions that must be addressed in a political process in order to resolve it and not trigger their remobilisation.
Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. He was a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector, and political Islam in Libya.