Hafed Al-Ghwell

In the collective pursuit of stability in Libya, the global community continues to witness the unraveling of well-intentioned summits and initiatives, the latest being next month’s troubled Sirte National Reconciliation Summit.

This ambitious gathering is intended to forge a path toward peace and unity in Libya, a nation torn apart by more than a decade of internecine conflict and worsening fragmentation.
Much like its predecessor endeavors over the years, the UN-led and African Union-sponsored Sirte summit seeks to — yet again — bring together diverse Libyan factions to agree on mechanisms for national reconciliation in the hope of ending the cycle of violence and to pave the way for democratic governance and stability.

Despite these noble objectives, however, its success is far from guaranteed; if the summit is even held at all. Deep-rooted divisions within Libya, compounded by the interests of foreign actors, pose significant challenges, hamstringing consensus-building on key issues, such as the distribution of oil revenues, the integration of militias into a unified national army and the establishment of a single, legitimate government.

Moreover, the summit’s outcomes are likely to be marred by not just the persistent mistrust between factions, but also a pervasive fatigue among average Libyans, who have simply checked out, having lost faith in a quarrelsome political elite. There are additional concerns about a potential boycott by key stakeholders that already feel sidelined by and skeptical of the UN-led initiative, which has largely left warring factions to negotiate the mechanisms for unifying Libya’s fractured political system behind closed doors.

Doomed to fail before it even began, we are seeing a recurrent pattern of failure that betrays a stubborn reality: conventional diplomacy is ill-suited for the complexities of Libyan politics. Influential actors still refuse to confront the uncomfortable truth that repeated interventions have yet to materially shift Libya’s political elites and institutional stakeholders toward the reconciliation that the country so desperately needs.

The fact that the Sirte summit is in jeopardy is symptomatic of a broader pathology affecting international efforts in Libya. We keep seeing the same diplomatic mechanisms and backroom dealings being deployed, each promising to be the panacea for Libya’s political ills. Yet, these methods have served only to entrench vested interests and deepen the chasms between local actors, who are diametrically opposed to Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic state. The persistent reliance on these dated tactics is not just ineffective, it is counterproductive. Rather than fostering genuine dialogue and compromise, they provide a facade of progress while allowing the status quo of division and conflict to fester.

Why, then, do international actors continue to insist on these flawed approaches? The answer lies in a misjudgment of Libya’s internal dynamics and an overestimation of external influence.

There is a misplaced belief that external pressure and incentives can reshape entrenched political landscapes. It is a fallacy that has led to the current impasse. The reality is that Libya’s political elites are adept at navigating the choppy waters of international diplomacy, often playing one actor off against another to preserve their power. The intricate web of militias, tribal alliances and economic interests that define the country’s internal politics cannot be untangled by the same hands that have repeatedly failed (and refuse) to grasp the subtleties of its social fabric.

External actors consistently fail Libya in at least four major ways.

First, there has not been any meaningful attempt to resolve Libya’s interminable security dilemma. In the absence of a strong central authority, competing factions fall into a situation in which they obsess over securing themselves, prompting others to do the same, resulting in an arms race and periodic conflict. Over time and unchecked, Libya’s militias have since enmeshed themselves within the state, upgrading a mere arms race into a far-reaching competition to amass political influence to shift priorities away from peacebuilding or reconciliation toward factionalization and the preservation of a debilitating status quo.

Second, insisting on some kind of “consociationalism” to manage post-conflict dynamics in an ethnically or tribally diverse society such as Libya may be theoretically sound. Unfortunately, proposing a power-sharing arrangement among co-equal groups never works when self-interested foreign meddlers back different local actors, upsetting the delicate balance required for consociationalism to work.

As a result, the Libyan scenario consistently exhibits a mix between post-invasion Iraq’s sectarian volatility and the endless warlords’ conflicts that rocked Afghanistan before the ill-advised US withdrawal.

Third, given Libya’s oil wealth, proposing a transition to a market democracy as a path to sustainable peace also sounds good on paper. However, implementing such an approach without stable institutions does little to quell the competition for resources and rent-seeking behavior, exacerbating conflicts, as witnessed in Mali. Surprisingly, the troubling assumption that a Western-style democracy can simply be parachuted into Libya survives to this day, with such thinking often governing how some countries structure their policy and alignments vis-a-vis Libya.

Lastly, a near-decade-long misalignment between foreign and local actors with what most Libyans yearn for still persists. Competing foreign interests often prioritize strategic gains over the long-term welfare and democratic aspirations of the Libyan people. Furthermore, the stubborn zeal for top-down interventions that disregard local governance culture have only resulted in deepening distrust for the state, complicating a future unified government’s efforts to restore legitimacy in state institutions.

We are thus long overdue for a paradigm shift in how we approach Libya. We must move away from a strategy that places disproportionate emphasis on the agency of international actors and overpromises the efficacy of external interventions. Instead, we must empower Libyan civil society, support grassroots movements and strengthen the capacity of local institutions to lead the charge toward reconciliation.

This bottom-up approach is the only viable path to building a sustainable and inclusive political order in Libya. It is a path that respects the agency of the Libyan people and acknowledges their right to self-determination without the misaligned, self-serving and heavy-handed diktats of foreign actors.
The Sirte summit’s troubled state is a stark reminder that Libyans must forge Libya’s future themselves. The global community’s role should be one of support, not orchestration.

Until we internalize this lesson and adjust our approach accordingly, we will continue to witness the cycle of failed initiatives that have come to define the search for an acceptable Libyan peace.


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