The Repeated Failures to Bring About a Settlement in Libya

Why the International Community Has It All Wrong

The Government of National Accord set up last year under pressure from the West only worsened the country’s fragmentation. Yet the present stand-off should teach the international community to be more in tune with the local political culture and to set in motion a virtuous circle from the bottom up.

Libya provides yet another example, if one were needed, of the difficulties involved in putting into practice the wonderful theories of state-building from the top down concocted by world organisations and the Western powers over the last few decades. A year after the Government of National Accord was set up in Tripoli under direct pressure from the “international community”—i.e. Europe and the USA—it is impossible to deny that the country has never been more fragmented. Now that the existing division between Tripoli and Benghazi has been further complicated by the dissidence of Cyrenaica which thrown in its lot with field-marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Amy (LNA), introducing a new fault line in the West between supporters and opponents of the Government of National Accord.

In Tripoli, the fragile, shifting balance maintained over the past year with difficulty between these two camps has in recent weeks been called into question, resulting in clashes with heavy weaponry in several parts of the capital. Alliances or enmities associated with personal rivalries between leaders, appetites for power or territory, ideological disputes, diverging economic interests and the traditional rivalries between militias from the capital and “outside” militias (mainly from Misrata or the Nafusa mountains) have all crystallised around the political antagonism between supporters and opponents of the Government of National Accord. In a sense, then, that the government has helped to create a new political fault line which has inevitably led to a military confrontation between the two blocs.

A New Ideological Fault Line

The decision whether to join one side or the other has been determined, as is traditional in Libya, by the pragmatism of the various players, more or less with the backing of their community of origin. This said, the appearance of a new fault line which until now has not been very decisive, is likely to complicate the search for a compromise which would provide the only way out of the present stalemate. This ideological conflict does not pit Islamists against nationalists as often claimed by foreign media, it is between Madkhali Islamists (named after the Saudi Imam Rabi Al-Madkhali), who believe in a strict version of Wahhabism and civil obedience to the law, and Islamists whose ambition is to wield political power or at least be associated with it. These latter are a motley alliance of followers of the Grand Mufti of Libya, Sadiq Al-Ghariani, and former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—some of whom have become ordinary politicians, but all of whom see the Government of National Accord as an entity foisted on the country by foreigners. In the fighting last week in Tripoli, this alliance lost out against the militias who have rallied to the Government of National Accord, and which include their Madkahlist rivals1. However, this clash cannot be explained by this “ideological” antagonism alone, far from it.

As for the fracture between inhabitants and militias of Tripoli, and militias perceived as outsiders to the capital, it has resurfaced as a result of the recent weeks’ fighting. Many anti-Misrata slogans and demos are to be observed in Tripoli, aimed directly at the militias of Misrati Salah Badi’s “refuznik alliance,” committed to fighting the Government of National Accord. These are stationed just outside the capital, as is the National Mobile Force2, also perceived as foreign to the capital.

Bi-Polarisation in Tripoli

Thus the centre of the capital is now controlled by a tenuous alliance between militias that support the Government of National Accord. Refusing to be involved in the recent skirmishes, Misrata’s militias, also pro-governmental, kept their distance, confining themselves to the protection of their economic interests in the capital.

This new bi-polarisation of the capital has already had direct repercussions on the delicate balance that prevailed in Misrata between supporters and opponents of the government. In that city, which until now had benefited from a semblance of unity, the conflicts have all resurfaced again, although there has as yet been no open warfare between the two camps. In reaction to the eviction from Tripoli of the Misrata militias opposed to the government of the accord and the overall anti-Misrata climate in the capital, on March 22th, the Misrata military council dismissed the elected town council, accused of collaboration with the government.3 The administrative and managerial prerogatives of the town council were transferred to a structure that was placed in charge of day-to-day matters. While this decision is worrying with respect to the future of the city’s social cohesion, it is not irreversible and could be negotiated. In Misrata, businessmen have a decisive influence and are capable of putting pressure on both sides to protect their activities, which have nothing to gain from a partition of the city.

The LNA Pursues Its Offensive

At the same time, several hundred kilometres to the East, in the country’s “oil crescent” and further south in the Al-Jufrah oasis, more fighting has broken out these last weeks between the LNA commanded by Field Marshal Haftar who has a majority backing in Cyrenaica, and the Benghazi defence brigades (sraya difa benghazi) supported by several Misrata militias. These brigades are composed of the remains of the Benghazi and Ajdabiya Revolutionary Brigades, a small proportion of which have joined up with Ansar al-sharia. Indiscriminately labelled terrorists by their opponents, many of these are descendants of tribes from the West (Misrata) who migrated long ago to Benghazi. But they had no choice other than to join this camp when their fellow townspeople, descendants of the local tribes, joined up with Marshal Haftar. Thus the political polarisation has fanned the flames of tribal isolationism and vice versa, and led to mimetic violence at close range which has been deeply destructive of the social fabric.

On March 14th, these clashes ended and Khalifa Haftar’s LNA—with the military support of the United Arab Emirates—was able to take back the two oil terminals occupied a few days earlier by the Benghazi Defence Brigades. Henceforth it seems that the LNA intends to push on southwards to take back Al-Jufrah and ultimately the entire region of Sebha with the help of the local militias.

The appointment on March 27th of general Al-Mabrouk Sahban to head the Syrte operations further attests to the eastern camp’s intention of gaining a foothold in a city which is currently administered by a mayor elected in December by the city council and under the military control of the Misrata militias that drove out the Islamic State (IS). General Sahban’s appointment is emblematic. In addition to his tribal connections, he is a symbol all over Libya, especially in the towns still supporting the Gaddafi regime in 2011. He was in command of the powerful brigade which bore his name and managed to hold a strategic position at Gharyan to the south of Tripoli practically until the capital had been conquered by the rebels. His appointment to command the operations aimed at reconquering Syrte may be seen as an attempt to “win the hearts” of the inhabitants of that city who regard the Misrata fighters as an army of occupation.

Emboldened by his recent victories and by the internecine conflicts in the West as described above, we cannot rule out the possibility of general Haftar’s pursuing westward his military logic of reconquest with all the dangers of all-out war posed by this option.

A Culture of Self-management

However complex the situation in western Libya may seem, it is not one of irrational chaos. Indeed, each local player is seeking coherent goals in light of his political ambitions and the interests of his community. Considering the huge quantities of weapons to be found in Libya today, the level of violence is relatively restrained and is generally a last resort to preserve the interests and security of each community. The repeated skirmishes in Tripoli between pro- and anti-governmental militias or, in other regions (oil-crescent, Southern Libya), between pro- and anti-Haftar militias, are essentially part of the struggle to gain control of the country’s emerging power centres, the contenders for power seeking to exploit pre-existent local rivalries. So that Tripoli and Benghazi are absolutely not representative of the situation in Libya as a whole, where local players have not only managed to keep social peace in their communities but also regulate and pacify relations with their neighbours. In this respect, Zintan is a good example. In 2011, the city was still completely isolated geographically and surrounded by hostile communities allied with the Islamist operation “Dawn of Libya.” Less than two years later, good agreements have been signed between the ex-neighbourly belligerents so that Zintan and its surroundings have become one of the safest parts of Libya.

This high capacity of local communities for self-management in the absence of a central State is probably a legacy of the Libyan political tradition, certain aspects of which the Gaddafi regime promoted by default. Thus, at the beginning of March some twenty elected mayors from the principal cities of southern and western Libya met in Rome for two days to discuss their problems and the often innovative solutions they have found for the good of their communities. This meeting shows the determination of local players and their capacity to preserve the Libyan social fabric and cope with the enormous challenges they have to meet in a country which has no single central government but several of them competing for power.

The UN Process at a Standstill

In just a few days now, the mandate of the UN general secretary’s current special envoy, Martin Kobler, will expire, and yet the UN process has never been so bogged down. None of the institutions claiming legitimacy or recognised by the international community is in a position to assert itself with a population suffering more and more in its daily life from hardships and insecurity. The efforts to construct from outside a central political entity have not worked and are not likely to work in the foreseeable future. And yet there are heaps of good will in Libya, hundreds of local players working seriously in the service of their communities. There are also institutions which still function (the Central Bank, the national oil and electrical companies, the Great Man-Made River), having weathered the 2011 war, the fall of the old regime and the fragmentation of the country. Competent civil servants and technicians keep these institutions going for the benefit of Libyans everywhere.

Rather than backing this or that favoured leader or equipping and training some militia or embryonic army for lack of a State, the international community should concentrate on encouraging whatever works, set in motion a virtuous circle from the bottom up, in tune with the Libyan political culture. The voices rose again outside the country calling for new national elections to designate an umpteenth elected entity are just one more illustration of the inadequacy of those endless electoral chicaneries which take no account of reality. A new elected national body in the present situation would only add another fault line to those that already exist.

The next UN special envoy to Libya will have a difficult mission, strewn with obstacles, but there are thousands of reasons for hope in Libya, so long as the mistakes of the past few years can be avoided.

1Thus in the last few weeks the powerful militia from the Souq al-Juma district, commanded by Abderrauf Al-Kara, has join the alliance of major militias defending the government of national unity and fighting its adversaries.

2The National Mobile Force (alquwwa al-wataniyya al-mutaharrika) includes a large proportion of Amazigh fighters from the Nafusa mountains.

3“The Misrata military council announces the dismissal of the town council” (translated from the Arabic), Bawabat al-wasat.