Steering the Libyan ship after Palermo

Nobody should expect a smooth ride. Local and regional spoilers are likely to try to disrupt the process leading to elections.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A Libyan man holds a boy waving their national flag in the eastern city of Benghazi. (AFP)
Generation Next. A Libyan man holds a boy waving their national flag in the eastern city of Benghazi. (AFP)

In the Italian city of Palermo on November 12-13, all thoughts were on Libya.

Regardless of the calculations that led the Italian government to invite various Libyan and foreign leaders, the result was a much-needed focus on finding a solution to Libya’s 7-year crisis.

Under the eyes of UN Special Envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, there were handshakes between Libya’s key protagonists, Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army based in Libya’s east. There were hopes a working relationship was being built.

After Palermo, there could be a more simplified process of negotiations between the two main parties — the presidential council led by Sarraj and the military institution led by Haftar. The hope is that the two key figures can overcome the legacy of disunity and the blockage often caused in the past by the State Council and the House of Representatives.

In a show of regional and international support, there were the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia and Niger, prime ministers of Italy, Russia, Algeria and other foreign dignitaries in attendance.

Why would the world, especially the West, care about Libya? All things considered, it is only natural that it does.

Since the NATO-led military intervention of 2011, Libya has been in shambles. Many of the problems it faces today are the result of an ill-planned campaign without an exit strategy that would have factored in the effects of the campaign on Libya’s stability. It is only befitting then that the West tries today to help sort things out.

Salame said he was gratified by the expressions of support to his plan, which includes a national conference in early 2019 and elections in March.

Beyond Salame’s proclamations of faith, a lot will depend on regional and international manoeuvres. Much will be determined, specifically, by the ability of domestic and foreign stakeholders to reconcile their differences and rein in their ambitions to control events in the image of their interests.

Some in Europe lost sight at times of the big picture. For them, Libya seemed synonymous with illegal migration and human trafficking when it was not the interest in potential oil revenues.

In dealing with Libya’s problems, many tried to steer the carriage before there was even a horse. They spared no attempt at controlling the flow of the mostly sub-Saharan migrants in Libya’s southern borders and its Mediterranean littoral even when they could see there was no real central government able to hold the country together much less to stem the flow of would-be migrants to Europe.

The West looks with concern, not without reason, at the threat of radical Islamists, especially those under the flag of the Islamic State but, much like the illegal migration issue, the terrorism peril stemmed from the deeper and wider problem of the power vacuum. After more than four decades in power, Libya’s strongman Muammar Qaddafi did not leave Libyans any real state institutions. The 2011 campaign did the rest.

Today, Libyans want to look forward. They see their country as a well-endowed place whose citizens suffer unfairly from the woes of insecurity, displacement and dire economic conditions.

They yearn for a political and economic rebuilding journey that could have positive fallouts on their population and will not be without benefits for the country’s regional neighbours and the rest of the Mediterranean.

For that to happen, Libyans must decide whether the narrow interests of the few in their midst are worth the aggravation they have been going through for the last seven years. Once that determination is made, they will have to walk on their own the uphill road of reconciliation and dialogue.

Nobody should expect a smooth ride. Local and regional spoilers are likely to try to disrupt the process leading to elections. With a whole population backing the objectives of peace and reconstruction, Libyan patriots can ensure the success of the elections and the preceding national forum. Eventually, Libya’s democratically elected and adequately empowered government can lead the country to safe harbour.

The rules of engagement in the future will, however, have to be different from the zero-sum game mindset that has driven some of Libya’s factions. There should be no repeat of the hijacking attempt by Islamists of the results of the 2013 election of the General National Congress. Such anti-democratic practices would discredit the political process and perpetuate violence.

Libya’s salvation will hinge on the realisation by politicians that the rule of the state, under a democratically elected government and in a climate of peace and reconciliation, is different from that of the militia-dominated system. Such a climate will ensure stability and prosperity for Libya and will be to the benefit of the region and the rest of the world.