Laurent de Saint Perier

In 2017, he was entrusted with what amounted to one of the positions the most complicated in the world: trying to reconcile the different factions that have been fighting over Libya since the fall of Gaddafi, and finally managing to organize elections in the country.

A position he held until his health led him to give up his mission in 2020. In the second part of this interview, he returns to this Libyan experience, the results obtained and the current situation in the country, where he was succeeded by the former Senegalese minister Abdoulaye Bathily .

Jeune Afrique: While the situation is flaring up in the Middle East, the situation is not much more stable in Libya. What do you learn from your experience in this country?

Ghassan Salamé: At the risk of surprising you, I left Libya very happy. It is a country that is doing well, compared to the state in which I found it, much better than people say and certainly better than Tunisia and Egypt, its neighbors, and I hope that will last. We managed to resolve two of the major problems that arose: firstly, ensuring the regular flow of oil production and ensuring that Libya confirmed its position as a major producer of inexpensive, good quality energy. This is essential for the pioneering Universal Basic Income (UBI) regime, established by Gaddafi and which guarantees almost any individual a position as a state civil servant when they turn 18 without compensation. This represents two thirds of the national budget and, for three years since oil has been flowing regularly, this income has been redistributed to everyone; and the oil must continue to flow to ensure Libyans have a decent life.

If the elections cause Libyans to divide again, we don’t need it.

There remains the last third of the budget, for which the different groups – notably those of Mr. Dbeibah in the West and Haftar in the East – get along very well, more than they fight over its share. The second thing the Libyans need is a ceasefire. We achieved this after the Berlin summit [January 19, 2020, Editor’s note] and the establishment of the 5+5 Commission, which brings together five officers from each side and which continues to meet regularly: the ceasefire is maintained, the roads are open between the East and the West. I can therefore say that the conditions for decent civilian life have been restored to a certain extent, and I left Libya happy to have been able to achieve this. There are certainly skirmishes on the right and left, a Lebanese is used to that, but the ceasefire is holding.

There is still this question of elections, the organization of which is constantly postponed…

We do not care ! What does it matter, as long as the country functions?

Would the status quo therefore be desirable?

Why not ? If the elections cause Libyans to divide again , we don’t need it.

Should we then move towards de facto federalism?

Maybe ! You know, political arrangements are not what worries the average Libyan, they worry the political elite and the Western chancelleries, who would like their men to be in business to do theirs. A problem of this country is that the Europeans are interested in Libya but don’t care about the Libyans, and my problem was that I was interested in the Libyans and not in Libya, where I have no interest. But external parties would like there to be a single power, which is favorable to them, but there is a lasting balance of power and no external force can impose its man. Attempts to do so can be costly and I wish they didn’t happen.

With hindsight, what has been the weight of the Libyan factor in the destabilization of the Sahel since 2012-2013?

I always heard from the leaders of the Sahel before the coups –  whether Issoufou, Bazoum, Keïta in Mali and the president of the African Union commission, Moussa Faki  – that Libya had had a deleterious effect on the rest of the Sahel. Yes, in some ways. By the fact that weapons arrived from Libya, where Gaddafi had amassed 20 million weapons which could have been partly sold to groups in the Sahel . Yes, because the crumbs that Gaddafi gave to this and that sub-Saharan head of state have dried up. Yes also because Libya’s borders are no longer guarded, so there are skirmishes between Chadians taking place on Libyan territory. It’s true. No doubt Gaddafi would have helped Bazoum, who was also born in Libya, in Sebha, to stay in power.

But I believe that the Sahel countries exaggerate the effects of Libya on their stability. I believe they had structural problems. What they would have needed was for Gaddafi to be at their side in the fight against the jihadists; and he would have engaged against them, having himself been very harsh with the jihadists in his country. This is what the countries of the Sahel are missing, but they cannot remain stuck in their nostalgia twelve years later and must organize themselves.

Exactly, what is your opinion on the way in which they are organized at the moment?

It is uneven from one country to another. I knew and appreciated Mohamed Bazoum, a wise and reasonable man, and I really regret that he was overthrown . I don’t believe that military regimes were really necessary, and I don’t believe a military man when he assures that he will re-establish civilian power. I have only seen one soldier who behaved like this: the Sudanese general Souar al-Dahab [in 1986, Editor’s note], who gave 18 months to his coup d’état and returned home in the 19th month. ; but I do not know of any other case of this kind.

The presence of the Wagner group will not help…

I think the Wagner group is a useful “aspirin”, in the sense that it is not the cure for jihadists, but it can help in certain cases. A remedy which is, however, very costly for the national sovereignty and the raw material resources of these countries, and this substitute for the establishment of national authority can only be ephemeral. We see that the Russian group was of little use to Haftar in Libya , it helped him conquer Tripoli, but Tripoli was not conquered.

It’s difficult to conclude this international overview without mentioning the great dominant power… Twenty years after publishing When America Remade the World , what is your diagnosis on the state of the American empire?

It remains, by far, the most important military power in the world, with a budget equivalent to the combined budget of the twelve states following it in the ranking. Its GNP constitutes a quarter of the world’s GNP, which it was thirty years ago, so it maintains its position, unlike the States of Europe, which generally fall by one rank per year in the world hit parade. Its GNP per capita is not the highest, but it is easily four or five times that of the Chinese. So, on paper, with current means of power, compared to 2005, I would say that American power remains intact.

But there are dysfunctions: in the end, the Americans lost the war in Iraq, where the Iranians are now masters of the game, they lost the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and they irritated a good part of the Muslim world with their position on Palestine. 

They repeat that they want to pivot towards Asia, but the worsening crisis in the Middle East keeps them there, that they want to leave Europe but Ukraine entangles them, so they cannot manage to apply their strategy: you can be stronger than Samson himself, but if you can’t apply your own strategy, what’s the point?

So the main American impotence is seen in its inability to direct its force where it believes it is essential. It is not the existence of this force – which no one would be stupid enough to deny – that is at stake, but the fact that it cannot apply it wherever it pleases in Washington, where its rivals are located. designated strategic areas. 


Laurent de Saint-Périer is a journalist specializing in the Maghreb/Middle East, covering Syria, Egypt and Iran in particular. He is also a specialist in Gabon.


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