(This article was first published on February 20, 2018. We decided to republish it for its importance and relavence today)

By Deborah K. Jones

Libyans must decide whether they will make the necessary compromises that will enable them to form that government and exercise sovereignty over their state.


A Political Solution Remains Essential

Given its geography and energy resources, Libya matters too much for others to ignore it; space abhors a vacuum.

In the absence of a government that is both recognized internationally and fully empowered to act, external powers naturally will seek to establish spheres of influence to address their concerns, whether they be a reliance on Libyan energy, unchecked migration, transnational terrorism/security concerns or an implacable aversion to the emergence of a “political Islam” believed to be inexorably committed to the downfall of neighboring/regional regimes and the establishment of Sharia rule.

In Libya, the US has sought to cooperate within the bounds of international law, and would much prefer to engage with an authoritative government than to contrive ad hoc opportunistic arrangements that suit our purposes.

That said, states will do what they believe must be done to protect their citizens.

The reality is that external players will act opportunistically when it suits their purposes but are not prepared to spend the blood and treasure required to impose what in any case is would be ephemeral order on the country in the absence of Libya’s own governing bodies. But what will these look like?

And will there be room for ongoing cooperation to address shared concerns?

Even Ghaddafi was unable to establish secure borders throughout Libya’s vastness and asserted control (or attempted to buy loyalty) through what can only be described as a system of bribes and turning a blind eye to smuggling activities.

This “flexibility” is unacceptable in the modern security environment and a Libyan government must learn to negotiate in good faith with international partners who share security objectives.

A Distinctly Libyan Model?

The challenge faced by a succession of UN Special Mission in Libya SRSG’s, diplomatic mediators, ambassadors, Special Envoys and others has been to decipher what Libyans truly want in the way of a government.

On the heels of the revolution, many have engaged in sincere, painstaking deliberation with a wide range of interlocutors from across Libya’s political, intellectual and civil society spectrum aimed at distilling the essential elements of successful Libyan political unity.

This task is not simple in a society whose political illiteracy was deliberately nurtured, not only by Ghaddafi but by the regime that preceded him, enabled by the enervating largesse of the welfare state.

Out of this dialog – which began in late 2013 as a confidential mediation by Tarek Mitri between the two principal factions within the now-defunct General National Congress and developed into sustained talks with over 40 representatives from the GNC – emerged three precepts:

Libyans wanted a government that was “not heavily centralized” and was “somewhat presidential in form.” They also agreed that shari’a was “an acceptable basis for a constitution.”

Later, when the UK and USA, frustrated with the slow pace of Mitri’s political dialog, named envoys to engage directly with assessed Libyan powerbrokers (a somewhat questionable premise in hindsight), Libyans appeared to agree on ten fairly anodyne principles regarding the state and its authorities.

Bernardino Leon took the process further, constructing and leading multiple dialogs between various groups that resulted in the historic 2015 agreement that produced the Government of National Accord.

His successor, Martin Kobler, pressed Libyan progress on its constitutional drafting and Ghassan Salame has continued to refine Libyan thinking on the structure, authorities and allocations of power within a government, an essential precursor to new elections (which in the past have served only to create fissures, in the absence of clear institutional authorities).

Some have criticized this lengthy, fragmented and inefficient political process, frustrated by the exploitation of Libya’s ungoverned spaces by criminals and terrorist elements and tempted by opportunistic alliances that appear to facilitate broader security or humanitarian objectives.

While understandable, this approach will not lead to sustainable solutions.

Meanwhile, those of us to who have witnessed first hand the exchanges between former enemies or those whose agendas remain unformed can attest to the value of these talks and the political maturation of those engaged.

This is state-building at its most fundamental level. Meanwhile, it should be clear by now to observers that those who have sought to dominate by traditional definitions of force have not learned the lessons of modern physics and social media.

They cannot succeed in creating a monopoly on coercive force except through legitimacy, and will require the support provided them by the aegis and authority of an empowered government, and the international partners supporting that government.

This is why it remains essential that the international community, and particularly the UNSC P5 members plus Italy and other concerned regional parties remain closely synchronized and supportive of the SRSG’s efforts, which is turn should reflect the priorities and objectives of the international community as well as those of the Libyan people.

What Libyans Should Reconsider

The term “federalism” is anathema in Libya, but there – just as in the United States and elsewhere globally – it is clear that empowered local governance is taking on greater importance, for a variety of reasons. Libyans should seek to adapt terms to their needs, not be constrained by outdated definitions.

As we have seen, things function relatively well at the municipal levels in many areas of Libya and any government should seek to empower them with appropriate funding in a manner that is transparent, equitable and governed by uniform rules and regulations that minimize cronyism and corruption.

Urban Libyans and rural Libyans may have different priorities, but it shouldn’t make them less entitled to support. Libyans should be welcomed and rehabilitated if not guilty of heinous crimes.

A singular failing on the part of the international community was to remain silent in the face of the April 2013 intimidation of Libya’s parliament (GNC) by armed militias and the imposition of the so-called Political Isolation Act, which effectively removed many technocrats having the most expertise in the areas most needed to sustain LIbya’s essential ties to the international community.

The security dialog has lagged behind others, in part because there has been no clarity regarding the distribution of power and national wealth.

Inter alia, the 2011 revolution provided an opportunity to acquire lucrative assets that militias were loathe to relinquish.

Meanwhile, all have continued to be funded by Libyan national resources through the Central Bank.

Sadly, the proliferation of violence will require some sort of a formal national reconciliation process on the scale of that undertaken in South Africa.

There may be local solutions for integrating militias under rules similar to those applied to US or Swiss National Guards or other models.

Our own police forces have acknowledged the benefits of recruiting from within the communities they serve.

On a national level, there may be acceptable formulas for creative conscription for rotating assignments related to Libya’s borders or other international obligations (to include UN peacekeeping, for example).

Again, one can reasonably question what the nature and makeup of Libya’s national security forces should be, based on the assessed threat environment.

And where Libyans can benefit from cooperation with external elements, based on mutual interests and under agreed rules of engagement, they might reconsider their aversion to foreign engagement on Libyan soil, particularly as it applies to mine clearing or other mutually beneficial training activities.

As an American, I believe that the inalienable human rights of political, religious and personal association are best protected under the aegis of a strong government accountable to its people and the rule of law.

In the end, Libyans must decide whether they will make the necessary compromises that will enable them to form that government and exercise sovereignty over their state.

Otherwise, they will be forced to accept the inevitability of remaining the playing field of external regional powers in a state of endless uncertainty, which I’m sure they would agree is completely unacceptable.


Ambassador Deborah K. Jones retired from the U.S. Department of State in November 2016 with the rank of Career Minister following 34 years of service. Her last assignment was as Deputy Commandant/International Affairs Advisor at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy (formerly ICAF) of the National Defense University from October 2015 to November 2016, following her appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Libya from June 2013 until September 2015.


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