Libya: what can Europe do?


It is probably too early to draw conclusions from what happened Thursday morning in Tripoli with the kidnapping and quick release of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. These events, however, do raise some useful questions for those who wish to understand better what Europe can do for Libya.

The first question is about the identity of the group that supposedly carried out the kidnapping. If reports that it is part of Libya’s official security apparatus are confirmed, then Thursday’s events should be framed as a very peculiar coup attempt rather than as an act of terrorism. In other words, if the above assertion is true, the struggle is not between the government and armed groups but within the new post-Gaddafi government, between armed “revolutionaries” and Libya’s nascent democratic system.

That a different armed group of “revolutionaries” supposedly freed Zeidan further confirms this reading of Thursday’s events. According to media reports, Zeidan was abducted from his well-guarded hotel room without anyone, notably his bodyguards, firing a single shot. If this is true, then it too supports the “coup attempt” narrative. That the coup attempt also eventually failed demonstrates that no armed group and no single constituency can control Libya; instead, inclusiveness in the transition should be the shared goal.

The second question is about the relationship between Thursday’s events and the arrest/kidnapping of Nazih al-Ruqai’i, a.k.a. Abu Anas al-Libi, by US special forces on Saturday. Al-Ruqai’i was indicted in 2000 for his role in the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. Was Thursday’s kidnapping in retaliation for what was perceived as Zeidan’s green light to his abduction? To what extent did American actions undermine the prime minister’s authority and thus create a power void that some element of the Libyan government tried to exploit? More generally, European and American policymakers should start a conversation about the compatibility of their stated support for local governments such as Zeidan’s and the “War on Terror 2.0” that is based on drones, targeted assassinations, and the abduction of suspects. In light of Thursday’s events, was the capture of one man, although an important man, worth rocking the boat of the shaky (and western-friendly) Zeidan government?

Third, is calling for “more security” in Libya enough? Sure, after Thursday’s events popular demands to disarm the militias will grow louder. But security must be embedded in a stronger government. While government authority was also weak during Gaddafi’s time, the “revolutionary” state apparatus he created partly compensated for this weakness – excluding parts of eastern Libya, which had been long neglected by Gaddafi, especially during the 1980s and 1990s.

Though this period doesn’t necessarily provide a reliable yardstick by which to measure the current situation, EU stakeholders should examine some of the elements that characterised Gaddafi’s four decades in power in order to devise a more sophisticated strategy for Libya today. These include the difficult relationship between local powers (formal and informal) and the central government; high youth unemployment, which offers few alternatives to joining an armed group; a weak and unaccountable judicial system; the confusion surrounding Ottoman-era property rights, which is often at the heart of many local conflicts that are simplistically labelled as “tribal”; social conflicts disguised as ethnic struggle, such as the conflict between Tebus and Arabs; the lack of universal access to public services, which is often mediated by networks of kinship; and finally, the pre-Gaddafi division between the population and politically powerful Tripolitania and the oil-rich Cyrenaica, which was one of the weaknesses of post-independence Libya. This is a conflict over power and resources and has unsurprisingly become more visible as the country debates its future.

Fourth, the events of 2011 and the post-conflict developments have added fuel to this tinderbox. This has been most apparent in the negative role played by a highly decentralised system of militias that took root during the revolution and the lack of a more or less organised structure to channel the needs and the political demands of those formerly affiliated with Gaddafi’s regime.

However, there are other constituencies in Libya that further complicate the picture but also happen to come with a silver lining. Absent a strong secular/religious divide as in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood can become a resource rather than a liability if it takes part in the building of national political forces. Moreover, militias were not the only ones to carry out the revolution; in fact, unarmed civilian groups freed most of the large urban centres. Today, Libya’s emerging and highly politicised civil society (utterly neglected by the West) is already acting as a watchdog against government abuses. Their courageous demonstrations against militia rule, for example, show the potential of Libya’s nascent democratic system to win the hearts and minds of the Libyan people.

Fifth, contrary to other transitioning countries in the region, Libya does have the natural and financial resources to address the economic challenges that have so far undermined its stability. Under Gaddafi, these resources were used to build an atypical version of the rentier state. Since 2011, they have been squandered to appease militias, and facts on the ground reveal how effective this has been.

The challenge is how to use these resources in an inclusive and transparent way. It would be worth resuming the conversation on if and how the Norwegian sovereign fund can be an example for Libya. After all, Gaddafi’s government also understood the need to use productively limited oil resources: it tried to shift from dependence on hydrocarbons to financial investments – to this end it is worth analysing Libya’s 2008 friendship treaty with Italy and the investments in Italian stocks that came both before and after that.

The final question is, therefore, what can Europe do? There is no quick fix to be sure, but some hints were outlined above. First, EU member states should broaden their conception of security to address the root causes of what is currently a weak Libyan state. Second, the EU needs to take more seriously Libya’s security challenge. For instance, the fight against organised crime in Europe and elsewhere could provide some useful insight on how militias can be disbanded and integrated. Third, Gaddafi used immigration policies (like other rulers in the region) to legitimise his security apparatus and obtain European help in exchange for efforts to contain illegal immigration. Revising the EU and member states’ immigration policies would help to stabilise Libya: the more options there are for legal immigration, the smaller the market will be for human trafficking on both shores of the Mediterranean. Fourth, both the EU and some of its member states are currently helping to build the capacity of Libya’s nascent democratic system. This should be given equal weight to the training of security forces.

More generally, Libyans should be taken seriously: they are an educated and proud people who cannot be lectured on how to build a stable democracy. Several EU countries share many of Libya’s challenges, with youth unemployment being the clearest example. A peer-to-peer approach to EU engagement would probably work better than conditionality, especially given the lack of EU financial leverage in a country as rich as Libya.

Of course, none of this is easy and most of it will take time. Armed groups, like those that reportedly kidnapped Prime Minister Zeidan, will not disappear overnight. They will probably pose a challenge to Libya’s government for years to come, if not for decades. Meanwhile, the question remains: what can Libyans do, potentially with European help, to move forward?


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