Over the past several weeks, events in and about Libya have run the full gamut, from talk of peace to violent protests and a government crackdown. But Libya’s tragic saga as a failing state no longer generates front-page attention and its ability to sow instability beyond its borders may be quite limited. How then does the international community determine the right level of energy and engagement to help Libya resolve its political dysfunction?
On August 21, the UN’s acting special representative, US diplomat Stephanie Williams, expressed relief and hope at news that Libya’s leaders from eastern and western zones seemed to have agreed on a path forward. The elements of a resolution of the civil war included a ceasefire, a demilitarized zone in central Libya, the reciprocal withdrawal of foreign forces and militia and a resumption of oil production.
Within days, however, violence broke out in the capital city, Tripoli. The protesters were focused on poor services and corruption. The security services overreacted by firing on the civilians, provoking acute tension within the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj. The interior minister was removed, but international observers are now worried about serious rifts within the GNA that will make efforts at peacemaking more difficult. This outbreak of violence and political unrest comes only months after Tripoli prevailed over the powerful military leader of eastern Libya, General Khalifa Haftar, who upended an earlier peace effort by attacking his rivals in the capital city.
There is plenty of blame to go around, if one finds that level of analysis useful. In addition to the obvious weakness of political parties and leaders in Libya, much attention has been given to the outside actors using Libya as a platform or proxy for geopolitical power struggles among various Middle East states. That game pitted Turkey and Qatar on the side of the Tripoli government and Egypt and the UAE on the side of the rebels, or alternative power center in Tobruk. That’s where Haftar operates in a political arrangement led by the House of Representatives. The HOR speaker, Aguila Saleh, represented the east in talks that looked promising a mere two weeks ago.
Given the involvement of Arab states and Turkey, all of which provide arms and funds to their respective clients, Western powers have receded from the struggle, although one can deduce that Italy favors Tripoli, and France may lean toward the eastern faction. The US, for its part, mostly supports the UN process, although President Trump has spoken sympathetically about Haftar, and has been lobbied by the Egyptians on the Libya case. The US has relocated its embassy in Libya, first to Malta and now it operates from Tunisia.
In the Qaddafi era, Libya was viewed as a source of instability; his ideas about African unity, his disparagement of his fellow Arab leaders and his recklessness disrupted the norms of regional relations, and his taunting of Arab institutions and iconoclastic behavior made him a controversial if not comic figure in the Middle East and beyond. But when he was ousted by a Nato intervention in 2011, and then killed by Libyan forces, a more dangerous form of instability emanated from Libya. Its vast and porous frontiers allowed the spread of arms and extremists, and Arab and African states bore the brunt of the chaos. Libya itself suffered from ungoverned migration into the country, and Libya’s shores were departure points for African migrants trying to reach Europe, often with tragic results.
Is today’s Libya yet another chapter in this sorry history? The involvement of Middle East powers suggests that they see a threat to regional stability and therefore have tried to influence the internal struggles between the two halves of the vast land of Libya. But experts say on the contrary, it is the outside intervention that has prolonged and exacerbated Libya’s troubles. It is striking that the UN process so explicitly advocates the immediate departure of foreign fighters; Libya can only resolve its political and governance crisis when it is not being manipulated by the machinations of wealthier states tipping the internal balance of power.
Even left to their own devices, we should not assume that Libyan politicians can find common ground easily. Not unlike Iraq, or perhaps Syria some day in the future, the transition from a long dictatorship to democracy is slow and uneven. The former UN special representative, Ghassan Salame, assessed that the differences between east and west are not ideological. They are about power and money, meaning one can negotiate and find compromises. Without foreign interference and with he resumption of oil revenue, Libya could become more self-sufficient and stable.
There’s always been an east-west divide in Libya. Anti-Qaddafi opposition came from the east. The eastern Cyrenaica was naturally closer to Egypt, where most of the oil is found. But the political elite, the Roman ruins and the US bases in the 1950s were all in the Tripoli area. Cultural differences also cannot be ignored. Students of the Middle East are taught that Libya is the twilight zone between the eastern Arab world and the Maghreb, or western flank; travel the coast from east to west and the menu changes from rice to couscous. And recall that Libya is huge geographically (4th largest country in Africa) but tiny in population, with fewer than 7 million citizens.
The UN can be the main facilitator of a productive peace process for the country, but only if the outside parties support that process and let the Libyans figure out the terms of power sharing and reconciliation.
Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington.