Only by signing accords that serve its own interests can Libya dream of ridding itself of internal divisions eroding its territorial integrity and the fabric of its society.
That won’t be easy to achieve so long as foreign forces and mercenaries continue to battle on its soil, and so long as most Libyan leaders refuse to take stock of their own shortfalls instead of blaming others for their woes.
This is not to criticise an accord signed last year for establishing a transitional national unity government in Tripoli and creating a roadmap for elections this December. The point is to draw attention to the opportunities and possible pitfalls for Libya and the wider region – especially with the Arab country still caught between various local, tribal and geopolitical ambitions.
Taher El-Sonni, Libya’s ambassador to the UN, said the departure of mercenaries and foreign fighters was inevitable. But at the same time, he stressed that this must be done according to a “disarmament mechanism” agreed upon by his country’s Joint Military Committee. In truth, however, that’s near-impossible to achieve.
Will, for instance, regional powers for whose interests mercenaries are fighting in Libya agree to disarm them before they leave the North African country? The simple answer is no. For, there is really no “mechanism” to do so as yet; and any proposal to create this mechanism would be dead on arrival at the military committee’s table, given the internecine rivalries.
The better option – even if it is a far-fetched proposition – would be for the Libyan government and other parties to merely agree on the departure of these fighters.
The situation inside Libya is complicated. There is a Turkish military contingent deployed at two bases in the west, which Ankara claims is legitimately present, given that it approved the deployment following an invitation from the previous government in Tripoli. Russia reportedly has direct and indirect military presence there too.
The Moscow-Ankara competition for influence in the Mena region is a long and storied one. It began in Syria and then spilled over to Libya, where both sides have long sought to establish their strategic and economic interests. In Turkey’s case, it has also intended to create an ideological foothold by providing support for the Muslim Brotherhood project. Russia will not withdraw from Libya unless it is convinced the country is indeed stable and its interests will be served there. Moscow also seems to think Turkey will not leave.
This wrangle has left the West in a tangle, with the US so far focused on preventing Russian expansion into North Africa, even as France has opposed Turkish presence – despite being Nato allies – owing to tensions between the two countries.
The buck, however, needs to stop with the people of Libya and their leaders. The question is whether these leaders can come together in the larger interest of their country, as some experts I spoke to recently have pointed out.
Irina Zviagelskaya, who heads the Centre for the Middle East Studies at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said Libya’s issue is the lack of cohesive leadership on the ground. “The problem is not only the activities of outside powers,” she said. “Of course, they have an impact on the situation. But it seems to me that what we have in Libya – and what we have in Syria – is a lack of responsibility [on the part of] the local forces [and] a lack of institutions. If there are no institutions, we cannot do anything.”
The ripple effects of such a vacuum are manifold
For instance, Elham Saudi, co-founder and director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said the country’s failed justice system means those who work on humans rights have to rely on external actors for “simple things such as holding people accountable”. “There is a real impediment to us being able to do our work as Libyans, when the international actors just dabble in Libya but not enough to change anything in it,” Ms Saudi said, citing inaction from member states of the UN Security Council and its sanctions committee.
Despite recent breakthroughs – including the formation of the interim Government of National Unity being led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the announcement of elections in December – the future remains unclear.
According to Claudia Gazzini, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, Libyans worry that the presidential election will lead to more fighting. “First of all, let’s try to get an agreement to mitigate the risk of election violence,” she said, before adding that during this transition phase, there should be agreements on the management of oil revenues and the budget.
Consensus, though, will not be easy, whether that is between internal factions or among external actors.
Perhaps, talks between Egypt and Turkey – two countries run by governments with many disagreements with each other – will have a positive impact on Libya. Even as Turkey attempts to deepen its presence inside Libya, Egypt continues to be a regional power.
On why Ankara needs to soften its stand, it need only look at its current relations with Washington. The Biden administration has a number of issues that it disagrees with the Turkish government over. The latter, therefore, cannot count on continued US consent over its military presence in Libya – even if it is seen by Washington as a counterbalance to Moscow’s influence in North Africa.
Given the stalemate in Libya and the uncertainties around the world, all foreign actors must agree on a lasting accord to secure Libya’s future. For this, the focus on the departure of mercenaries and militias is crucial. The idea itself has the support of the Arab League, the EU and the African Union, but the time has come for all the stakeholders to walk the walk.
Finally, Libya will not be able to rebuild itself as a viable state as long as it lacks institutions and accountability. Libya will not be miraculously rescued until the Libyans themselves take responsibility for building their homeland and the state, and compromise with each other to reach a national consensus.
Raghida Dergham is the Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute and Columnist for The National and Elaph. She served as Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and NY Bureau Chief for the London-based Al-Hayat for 28 years. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Arab News, Al Arabiya English, and Newsweek.