By Karim Mezran
The Libyan people’s hopes have been raised and lowered by a succession of events so often in the past decade that it seems foolish to get on a roller coaster of emotions again.
A fact-based and precise analysis cannot be anything but negative toward the real possibility of Libya re-establishing its statehood, unity, and stability while acquiring, for the first time in its history, a pluralist, transparent, and inclusive political system. There are plenty of facts to support this conclusion.
The Libyan state, though not completely “failed,” is very limited in its governing functionalities. Authority is fragmented through dozens if not hundreds of armed militias, criminal gangs, and extremist groups. In addition, Libya is also occupied by countless foreign mercenaries competing for power against each other to pursue unachievable total victory.
This was most recently exemplified by an attack on the city of Tripoli, the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) capital, by the forces of former General Khalifa Haftar on April 4, 2019.
It is a clear example of a dominant, foolish attitude even though the situation is a zero-sum game. Even if Haftar’s forces could enter Tripoli, how did they plan to control a city of almost two million inhabitants who are hostile to Haftar’s force? It would have been a Pyrrhic victory of epic proportions.
On the positive side, there are significant new developments that raise hopes for a reversal of the negative trend that has plunged Libya into the current crisis sparked by Haftar’s April 2019 attack.
The intelligent and astute ways through which the Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General Stephanie Williams led the divisive, weak, and riotous Libyan political class to establish the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s Advisory Committee is noteworthy.
On February 5, 2021 in Geneva, it resulted in seventy-five representatives of the Libyan people successfully voting on a list of candidates to numerous positions, including president of the Presidential Council, which went to Mohammed al Manfi, and Prime Minister of a new government of national unity, which went to businessman Abdul Hamed Dbeiba.
This is undoubtedly a major outcome for many reasons that requires some time before it can be entirely and completely assessed. Nevertheless, even such a success would not be enough by itself. Thankfully, it is complemented by the apparent and hopefully long-lasting realignment of most international actors—including Egypt, Turkey, Italy, France, and the United Arab Emirates—who have intervened in the internal affairs of Libya and brought it to near collapse through their respective proxies.
The necessity to obtain the withdrawal of these foreign entities from Libya has been evident for a long time and has been pursued by various United Nations (UN) special envoys and by Williams’ relentless but unsuccessful predecessor Ghassan Salame.
This situation of widespread foreign intervention suddenly mutated in the late Fall of 2020 when a change of positions occurred in the capitals of the various stakeholders. Haftar’s military defeat and, arguably, the election of a new US president, helped energize UN mediation and allowed for a rethinking of their involvement in Libya in many foreign capitals.
Russia, which has its forces—the Wagner Group—entrenched in central Libya, ignored the complaints of their former proxy Haftar by accepting to limit their actions to a defensive posture, and showed much more interest in dealing with the GNA and its Turkish protectors.
Egypt, the main supporters of the strongman of the East, as Haftar is mockingly called, is becoming dissatisfied with their policy of full support for the general and is displaying a readiness to engage with Tripoli to find a peaceful solution.
This same attitude has been followed by almost all other foreign actors involved in Libya. This alignment of foreign powers has been brought about—at least in good part—by the new Joe Biden administration, after four years of a confused, erratic, and ultimately self-defeating policy led by Donald Trump.
It’s worth noting that even though President Biden has done very little in foreign policy, having only taken office on January 20, it is the attitude and the posture of the new American leadership that the Middle East and North Africa are currently taking note of.
This was demonstrated by President Biden’s first foreign policy declarations, which were directed against Saudi Arabia’s and the United Arab Emirates’ actions in regard to the civil war in Yemen.
The Biden administration aims not only to defend democracy and human rights, but to return to an effective US foreign policy determined to retain the American global position of primacy. This includes defending institutions that have supported it and, in doing so, rallying US allies around a renewed vision of multilateralism.
The elites of the various regional powers in the Middle East, which believed that they could continue to pursue their own interests freely and ruthlessly because the US was de facto disinterested during Trump’s presidency, have realized rapidly that the climate was changing and that a change of policies on their part was more convenient and safer.
Despite its marginality and irrelevance for US’s interests, Libya has come to constitute the litmus test of this perceived change in the world political landscape.
If this perception matures into an effective and permanent policy to support negotiated solutions acceptable to the Libyan people, then their pessimistic attitude could turn into a cautious optimism.
Karim Mezran is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.