Foreign powers should keep their hands off Libya

The debate about elections or reconciliation first might have started with noble objectives but has gone astray.
Sunday 12/08/2018
A portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron is displayed on a screen as Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini speaks in Rome. (AFP)
Contradictory agendas. A portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron is displayed on a screen as Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini speaks in Rome. (AFP)

The argument between France and Italy over whether to give priority in Libya to elections or reconciliation may appear virtuous but is far from it.

Both parties are locked in a conflict about what to do first in Libya. France wants to start with elections in the December. Italy insists on reconciliation first.

Both approaches are removed from reality. The complexity of the situation in Libya leaves no room for top-down solutions or executing foreign agendas. The Libyan conflict has reached a dead end and such solutions won’t work.

France, in May, had backed Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army troops during the battle of Derna. France, however, was not interested in eliminating the Derna mujahideen as much as it was in eliminating elements that had engaged in terrorist activities against French citizens and interests in Mali, Chad, Niger and other places. France’s message to terrorist organisations in Libya was clear: Do not even think of touching French citizens or interests.

Italy backed Ibrahim Jardhan’s militias and enabled it to control the oil crescent region in July. Italy’s interest was not in supporting the Libyan government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj as much as it was in containing Haftar’s control of vital zones in Libya. With Haftar’s troops in the oil crescent, it is a matter of time before he eliminates the pockets of resistance in the area and reveals their links to Western powers.

Let us suppose that France is earnest about Libyan having elections December 10. How would France guarantee the right conditions for elections?

Would it disarm and disband the militias protecting certain official institutions in Libya? Would France guarantee the implementation of election results, which would reveal the true weight of each faction in Libya? What if the losing factions simply refuse to lay down their arms?

France cannot give guarantees and the crisis in Libya would go on unabated. There may be a new government and even new leadership but that won’t make a difference.

Such a situation would be fine with France though, because it would give it the right conditions and leeway to manoeuvre according to its interests in Libya, which are not necessarily the interests of the Libyan people.

The approach of beginning with the reconciliation process, might appear to be common sense and attractive because it is the best path for a permanent solution. It is, however, tough to achieve. Time is required to unify the military forces, disarm the militias, structure the security and police forces and mend social cleavages.

The path to reconciliation requires wisdom, which seems to be lacking in Libya. None of the leaderships floating on the surface is ready for genuine reconciliation. The situation is no different on the tribal front and none of the proponents of the reconciliation has done a thing to prepare for it.

Given this background, the inevitable result is the status quo. Italy wouldn’t mind such a situation because it would allow it to widen its influence in Libya while claiming to be doing the right thing. For Rome, reconciliation is a cover for a strong Italian presence in Libya. We know and, above all, Rome knows that reconciliation necessitates that all parties, including Italy, make major concessions, something that isn’t likely. What Italy needs to do is to keep off Libyan affairs for a while.

Rome’s meddling in Libyan affairs is as dangerous as that of Paris or Washington or London or any other power. Each is pursuing its own strategic goals without paying consideration to what is required for a political settlement in the country. The first thing that is required is to stop foreign meddling in Libya.

It is unreasonable to expect elections or reconciliations in the politically complex context of contradictory agendas and policies. Even the Arab initiatives for Libya, whether from neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria or from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Qatar, have some effect but cannot decide the outcome without the blessing of foreign powers.

Internally, the crisis is worsened by the endless struggles for power by warring factions. The players in the Libyan crisis are addicted to this local game. They also find it quite lucrative. All of this goes a long way in explaining the fast-changing alliances in Libya and the difficulty of coming up with a definitive picture of who does what and with whom in the country.

This tragic situation is one of the results of foreign meddling in Libya. The local factions have found that the contradictory foreign agendas in Libya work to their benefit. Therefore, the first step on the path to a political solution in Libya should be to keep foreign hands off Libya.

The debate about elections or reconciliation first might have started with noble objectives but has gone astray. What the different sides are pursuing is to continue the dramatic status quo. There may be some well-intentioned people on both sides of the debate but they are no longer effective.

As long as the keys to a solution remain beyond the hands of the legitimate authorities in Libya, more dramatic developments are to be expected in the Libyan saga.