The National Conference could prove a turning point for Libya

No country should have elections without a constitutional framework and in Libya a robust constitution is even more important.
Monday 28/01/2019
In this file photo from Nov. 13, 2018, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R) and self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff, Khalifa Haftar meeting on the sidelines of an international conference on Libya in Palermo. (AFP)
In this file photo from Nov. 13, 2018, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R) and self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff, Khalifa Haftar meeting on the sidelines of an international conference on Libya in Palermo. (AFP)

The conference on Libya last November in Italy produced neither political consensus nor a well-defined plan. Instead, the Libyan and European delegations reiterated their support for the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and laid out a vague road map to solve the country’s crisis.

The question is whether this fragile agreement can achieve anything. The main points of UNSMIL’s road map consist of having a National Conference to reconcile the various Libyan actors on issues including national identity, the structure of the political system, peaceful resolution of grievances, a new constitution and elections.

The map then becomes murkier. It suggests a referendum on the draft constitution that was approved in July 2017 but that does not cover essential topics such as decentralisation and oil revenue sharing.

More important, the time necessary to organise a referendum and the probability of its rejection make this process problematic. The referendum is advocated by those who personally benefit from the status quo and do not want to move forward.

Having immediate elections is problematic. Insecurity in Libya may lead to low turnout and undermine the credibility of the new parliament. Premature elections risk accelerating Libya’s descent into more violence.

International actors rely too heavily on domestic political leaders when real power in Libya is held by the militias and their leaders and yet no imaginable coalition of militias is capable of seizing and sustaining control. Any attempt by one side to seek a “military solution” would likely lead to all-out civil war.

The security situation in the south is worsening. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is largely unchallenged in its safe havens and has ties with local militia leaders. After its defeat in Sirte, the Islamic State found a haven in southern Libya for operations in the wider Maghreb and Sahel regions.

Without a new approach for stabilisation, Libya will either further erode, descend into total chaos or — if there are premature elections — break into full-scale civil war. It is necessary to put an option on the table other than the “immediate election plan.”

UN Special Representative and UNSMIL head Ghassan Salame said Libyans should take the reins of the conference and that UNSMIL is there only to support the effort. Others envision the United Nations conducting the conference. It is vital that a clear statement of expectations and outcomes be spelled out and that all participants pledge to respect the results of the conference. Moreover, the conference cannot be perceived only as a way to push forward elections.

It is crucial that all Libyans willing to participate in a democratic process are represented. The best option is to invite delegates of the democratically elected city councils. Where no elected city councils are available, other representatives — such as tribal elders — should be invited.

A new stabilisation effort must start with regional ceasefires. Because of its credibility in the eyes of many Libyans, the United States would be best suited to broker these ceasefires but US engagement is not realistic.

Alternatively, under the umbrella of UNSMIL several countries with influence on the warring factions could broker the ceasefires in coordination: Egypt and France could work with Libyan National Army Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, Italy with Misrata and Zintan and Algeria with tribes in Fezzan. The common fight against terrorism must be intensified.

The ceasefires must be supervised but not enforced, which would require a different kind of mission and a higher risk of escalation. NATO is best suited for this task and, after its intervention in 2011, bears some moral responsibility. Such supervision must include sophisticated technical means of surveillance to identify and stigmatise violators.

Several centralised, top-down approaches to stabilisation in Libya have failed since 2011. A bottom-up approach has better prospects for success. Fostering local security must be combined with rewarding stability. Good governance in stable areas must be promoted.

As the failure of the Government of National Accord and the previous governments proves, a national government needs independence from local warlords. The best way to do this would be a capable and trusted Libyan national force. Regrettably, this is not currently realistic.

The second option is an international protection force to establish a “safe zone” around Mitiga airport and Abu Sita navy base. Unfortunately, the European appetite for such a mission is low and those Libyans who benefit from the current chaos would heavily oppose it.

The third option is a temporary relocation of decision makers to a safe zone on the northern coast near an airport and a harbour. A safe zone would be defended by the local population with international support.

No country should have elections without a constitutional framework and in Libya a robust constitution is even more important. Libyans could elect a constituent assembly charged with drafting a constitution, as Tunisians did. Another option would be to adopt the 1963 constitution with amendments, such as a new social contract that establishes a mechanism for the distribution of oil and gas revenues.

In lieu of the monarchy established in the 1963 constitution, a new version could appoint a well-respected personality as a president or establish a Presidential Council.

The central government should initially be composed of technocrats who would establish a minimum degree of security and undertake economic reforms to restart the Libyan economy. The main central institutions — the National Oil Corporation, the Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan Investment Agency — should remain under control of the central government.

Only after these minimum requirements are established should Libya have elections: The question is not whether to have elections but when.

Time is a major concern. The situation of the local population is worsening, discontent is growing, differences among factions are deepening and terrorists are gaining ground in the south. Major civil war is a real possibility. If done right, the National Conference could be a turning point in Libya’s history.