Finding salvation through the chaos in Libya

The conflicting interests of foreign countries are among the main reasons Libya evolved into such a crisis.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Libyan fighters unload ammunition from a boat at Es Sider Port in Ras Lanuf. (Reuters)
Crux of the problem. Libyan fighters unload ammunition from a boat at Es Sider Port in Ras Lanuf. (Reuters)

On the night of September 2, most of the personnel from the Italian Embassy in Libya — the only operating embassy in the city — were quickly evacuated on a ship bound for Malta. Only a handful of diplomats remained to ensure minimum efficiency. The fate was the same for most of ENI’s technicians, the Italian oil giant that has been active in Libya for decades and one of the few remaining private companies in Libya after 2011.

These evacuations reflect the increased perception of danger that members of the international community felt after the clashes that occurred in Tripoli after August 27, when a militia from the city of Tarhuna attacked the cartel of militias that control Tripoli to assure itself a controlling position in the city.

This transpired while the attention of many observers of Libya’s unfolding situation has been fixated on the electoral saga. That is, the endless and aimless debate on the feasibility of having elections, legislative and presidential, in December.

This date was announced in late May in Paris after a meeting between Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the internationally recognised Presidential Council in Tripoli and the strong man of the eastern province, Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The meeting was sponsored by French President Emmanuel Macron, who assumed the task of mediating a solution to the Libyan crisis.

By designating a precise date of December 10 for legislative elections in Libya, the French intended to engage rivals and encourage the population towards this important step. In reality, the announcement did the opposite: the precipitation of a military confrontation that has been kept unnaturally quiet for a long time.

Libya is the theatre of a proxy war between international and regional actors. Despite the UN ban on arms in Libya, foreign powers have armed their factions in every possible way. This in advance of a definitive military confrontation to overtake the country.

The recent attack by the 7th Brigade, a militia from Tarhuna, a city 80km south of Tripoli, could easily be the beginning of the final episode of the Libyan story. Beginning August 27, the brigade, led by Abdel Rahim al-Kani, launched an offensive against the militia cartel that controls Tripoli.

The official reason for such an attack was to remove the corrupt groups who, thanks to their occupation of Tripoli, are illegally profiting from the exploitation of Libya’s monetary reserves and national resources. In other words, a fight to “clean” the country from a gang of profiteers who are impoverishing the country and starving its people. This may be true but it is more likely that Kani and his men simply had enough of being marginalised from this revenue stream and wanted their portion.

It is clear that Macron and those who supported setting a definitive date for elections at the meeting in Paris did not realise that they were putting what little stability exists in Libya at risk. International actors relied too heavily on domestic political leaders with no real power on the ground. This control belongs to the militias, their leaders and the interests they have come to hold. It is evident that the militias are the first of the many problems of Libya’s post-Qaddafi transition.

Because of its complexity and sensitivity, the idea of disarming armed groups and creating a national security force was pushed aside in favour of a policy of appeasing the militias, which has proven to be much less effective. It is not possible to continue to do so with militias dominating the security and financial resources of the country. No peace can be achieved in a country where there are at least 20 million weapons to the 6 million inhabitants. As the situation stands, a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme is impossible.

The conflicting interests of foreign countries, such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar, France and Italy, are among the main reasons Libya evolved into such a crisis. This behaviour is still going on and causing much damage. Therefore, the solution to the civil war should be pursued outside of Libya among foreign powers that influence the Libyan conflict by sponsoring one or the other of the militias on the ground to pursue their own interests.

The battle for Libyan salvation is to be fought in the foreign capitals since only by shielding Libya from the interferences of foreign actors can a Libyan solution possibly be achieved even in the short term. This should be the task of the UN secretary-general and of those heads of state who honestly seek a peaceful solution to the Libyan conflict and who are ready to act in favour of stabilising the country.

The Libyan actors must act to find a formula that guarantees the legitimate demands of some militia leaders and at the same time dissipates their fears of being marginalised in case a process of reconciliation is enacted. There is no other way to save Libya from falling into complete chaos than addressing the militia issue in a direct and effective way.

(This article originally appeared on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.)