Libya urgently needs new mechanisms for dialogue!

Qaddafi’s overthrow in October 2011 as well as the successful conduct of the first parlia-mentary elections in July 2012 hid for some time the fractures that ran within Libyan society. Underestimating the divisions and fault lines that resulted both from Libya’s recent social and political history and from the 2011 civil war has been, indeed, one of the major mistakes made over the past five years, both by the Libyans themselves and the international community. It has impeded the transition to a new political order characterised by the rule of law for all – which is what the Libyans have been calling for – and the return to peace, stability and economic prosperity, agues Virginie Collombier.

These divisions were the result of a mix and superposition of conflicts of varying nature and scope that the civil war and the political transition contributed to politicise and militarise, thereby deepening them. They were first the result of historical competition for the control of the state institutions between elites from Western and Eastern Libya since independence. They were also the direct consequence of Qaddafi’s way of ruling over the country for more than forty years, by playing on the rivalries and the competition for power and resources (including land property and border control) between regions, cities and communities, like for instance between the different communities of the Nafusa Mountains or between the cities of Misrata and Bani Walid, which came to epitomise the fracture between the “victors” and the “defeated” of the revolution at the end of 2011. The civil war added new divisions to such an already fragmented landscape, as the military struggle against Qaddafi brought together army defectors and civilians who decided to take up arms and later proved reluctant to relinquish them before new state institutions (in the political and security realms) were set up and functioning, therefore clashing with the interests of the former military.

In 2011, the choice of Libyan politicians – supported by the international community – to privilege early electoral competition without prior national dialogue and reconciliation and without institutions solid enough to channel and organise it rapidly led to a political dead-lock, the collapse of the envisaged transition and the militarisation of the race for power and economic resources. 2014 constituted a turning point in this regard, with the de facto division of the country into two sets of rival political institutions (respectively established in Tripoli in the West, and Tobruk and al-Bayda in the East), and several episodes of direct military confrontation between the heteroclite military coalitions supporting the two governments (Libya Dawn, allied with the Tripoli-based coalition on the one hand, and the Dignity campaign, headed by General Haftar and allied with the Tobruk-based coalition on the other hand).

Launched late in 2014 to put an end to the institutional crisis and reach a ceasefire, the UN-led political dialogue brought some positive achievements. The two main warring coalitions have to a large extent disintegrated, allowing for the constitution of a new “coalition of the moderates” that supported the signature of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015 and the formation of a Government of National Accord (GNA). Yet continuing opposition on the part of some major Eastern political and military forces in particular, chief among which General Haftar, his armed supporters and his allies in the House of Representatives indicated that important obstacles remained to reach a political settlement that would be really inclusive, and therefore meaningful and durable.

Issues of contention included the lack of attention and means allocated by the central authorities in Tripoli to the provision of security and services in the Eastern part of the country since 2011, which has fed strong resentment among the population there. The priority given by the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) to dialogue between representatives of the main rival Libyan political forces also kept at bay influential actors who, although first and foremost present and powerful on the military scene, had political claims that were not taken into consideration and actually discussed in the political dialogue. Such marginalisation of the armed groups (General Haftar included) resulted in key issues being left out of the negotiations, and now constituting significant obstacles to the implementation of the LPA. The question of how to rebuild security institutions both capable and legitimate in the eyes of most Libyans has been among the most important of these.

At the end of 2015, rising concerns among Western countries in front of the expansion of the Islamic State organisation in Libya and a political dialogue perceived as too slow and not effective enough led them to exert heavy pressure on the UN team and the Libyan partici-pants alike to accelerate the pace of discussions and reach an agreement despite the con-tinuing opposition of influential parties. The rush to conclude an agreement and try to impose it on the ground with the installation of the GNA Presidential Council in Tripoli at the end of March 2016 might have convinced the opponents to the LPA to eventually rally behind the GNA, as it now enjoyed international recognition and support, as well as some degree of legitimacy among the population in the West and South of the country. Yet the opposite happened. While three rival sets of institutions with very different degrees of legitimacy and influence on the ground now compete for authority, none of them can ground its claim legally. As a matter of fact, despite the international support it enjoys, the GNA has still not been approved by a vote of the House of Representatives as required by the LPA.

Now that the gamble taken by the international community has failed and Libya’s institutions and communities remain deeply divided, renewed effort is needed to encourage further dialogue between rival factions and widen the basis of support for a political agreement. This certainly requires a new approach to dialogue, with new mechanisms to be designed to allow for the participation of figures enjoying influence and legitimacy at the society level. After years of crisis, representatives of political groups and factions alone cannot provide the legitimacy new governing structures desperately need. In contrast, the groups and individuals that have supported their communities at the local level over the past years, by providing security (armed groups), basic services (munici-palities, businessmen, civil society activists), mediation and representation (notables, elders, tribal leaders) certainly have a role to play in shaping new political and security institutions, even transitional. Dialogue in the current context might indeed better focus less on politics and politicians, and more on those who have actually been bringing something concrete to the Libyan people under very difficult circumstances.

While cash money, electricity and water are becoming scarcer everyday all across the country, Libya’s international partners cannot give up on supporting a political agreement and focus only on containing the security threat posed by Jihadist organizations. On the contrary, more active engagement is needed to keep together the threads of dialogue between the main rival factions, especially between the West and the East, and make dialogue more inclusive. The rebuilding of security institutions, as well as the humanitarian and economic situation, now constitute the main issues to be addressed. Pushing for and supporting agreements on these matters have become key to avoid that Libya and the Libyan society disintegrate further.

Virginie Collombier is a Research Fellow with the Middle East Directions Pro-gramme/European University Institute (EUI) and Associate Researcher with the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center (NOREF).

Further Information

Virginie Collombier, EUI/NOREF

Links & Literature

Inside Wars. Local dynamics of conflicts in Syria and Libya
Luigi Narbone, Agnès Favier, Virginie Collombier | EUI | 2016

Fighting the Islamic State in Libya: by political means first
Virginie Collombier | NOREF | March 2015

Libya’s political dialogue needs more security Content
Virginie Collombier | Arab Reform Initiative | September 2015

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