Libya: a way out of the crisis?

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The past weeks in Libya have been rather rocky ones: more clashes between militias, more bloodshed, less oil production, ever deteriorating state authority. Last Friday alone, more than 40 people were killed and dozens injured in Tripoli. Given the situation in the past two years, one might wonder where the news is: Libya has been drifting into chaos since the fall of Gaddafi. Nevertheless, there is news worth some thought for both European and American policymakers struggling to understand what their contribution to the stabilisation of the country might look like.

The reported clashes are not just among militias, but rather between the nonviolent segment of Libyan society and the self-proclaimed revolutionaries (Thuwwar as the militiamen call themselves in Arabic). A relevant part of Friday’s victims were shot dead during a popular demonstration against one of Tripoli’s militias. This was not the first of its kind (similar episodes have taken place in the past in Benghazi or in other parts of Libya) and, despite the bloodshed, it was not the last. Just days later, hundreds of women defied the thuwwar  and demonstrated against their rule. This is a trend that can be observed in other parts of the Middle East, notably in parts of Syria under the control of radical Islamist groups. Part of the weakness of these popular uprisings, which now turn against armed groups after being born to fight regimes, stems from the inherent asymmetry between nonviolent demonstrators and armed men. Generational and gender factors are also part of the explanation for the weakness of these nonviolent actors.

Nevertheless, if they manage to physically survive, these formal and informal groups within the Libyan society could be a vital resource for the building of the Libyan state authority that European governments ultimately advocate (see for example the conclusions of this week’s Foreign Affairs Council). Their contribution could be twofold: First of all there needs to be some fresh political leadership and they need to act as a watchdog against government and militias’ abuse. What can be done to strengthen this part of Libyan society should be on the agenda of European and American policy-makers.

The second piece of interesting news is that, in part also as a reaction to popular pressure, the General National Congress (the Libyan parliament) and the Zeidan government have agreed to pass measures asking for the withdrawal of all militias from Tripoli and urging thuwwar to either enter official security forces or lose their salaries by the beginning of next year. While this is a notable and rare show of unity within the political elite, one is left wondering whether there are enough available resources and authority to carry out these decisions.

Ultimately, it will never be too late for Libyan politicians to realise that their future hinges on the pacification of the country and its economic recovery, rather than on strengthening their individual links with single armed groups. Local authorities (be they municipal councils, militia leaders or elders) also have a relevant role in reigning in the militias that claim to represent them. To this end, the decision of the leaders in Misurata to favour the withdrawal from Tripoli of “their” militias should hopefully be the beginning of a new trend.

In fact, the third notable development, which is not really new for those who know Libya, is the role played by elders and community leaders in calling the end of the armed clashes last weekend. While a constitution and an efficient judiciary are built, Libya needs to have in place a widely recognised dispute settlement mechanism which can exercise some moral authority over militia leaders. Along with this, four elements must brought into place:

  • a national dialogue that encourages all those who now express their political instances through militias or separatism to do so within the national political system;
  • a mitigation if not the wholesale repeal of the isolation law that excluded a relevant part of the Libyan society from the new political covenant;
  • a simultaneous implementation of a system of transitional justice to peacefully solve disputes relating to the Qadhafi era and to the score setting that ensued the dictator’s demise;
  • there is a criminal side to the militia problem whereas for some groups the line between Jihadism/Salafism, smuggling and illegal economic activities is often blurred. Foreign expertise in the fight against organised crime could prove helpful with this respect, although this will primarily rest on the building of strong policy and security forces;

Another interesting twist of events is a statement by the Zeidan’s government about the quick resumption of oil production have proved delusional. With output at less than a fifth of the pre-crisis level, money to provide monthly salaries of about $ 1,200 for each “revolutionary” will probably end soon. By blocking oil output, Libyan centrifugal forces may be cutting the branch on which they are sitting. Whether this will lead them toward political dialogue or further drive them into the criminal world is still a question mark, although the latter option may be more likely at the moment without concerted action between the Libyan government and external players.

Libya’s way out of the crisis, if there is one, will not be easy and quick. Nevertheless, the ever deteriorating security situation should not hinder or delay efforts to tackle its long-term motives. International efforts to build a stronger national army and police force may prove useless if they do not go hand in hand with an array of incentives to stabilise the country for all actors involved.

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