Libya’s deteriorating internal conflict may be nearing a dramatic turning point. Over six months of fighting between two parliaments, their respective governments and allied militias have led to the brink of all-out war. On the current trajectory, the most likely medium-term prospect is not one side’s triumph, but that rival local warlords and radical groups will proliferate, what remains of state institutions will collapse, financial reserves (based on oil and gas revenues and spent on food and refined fuel imports) will be depleted, and hardship for ordinary Libyans will increase exponentially. Radical groups, already on the rise as the beheading of 21 Egyptians and deadly bombings by the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State (IS) attest, will find fertile ground, while regional involvement – evidenced by retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes – will increase. Actors with a stake in Libya’s future should seize on the UN’s January diplomatic breakthrough in Geneva that points to a possible peaceful way out; but to get a deal between Libyan factions – the best base from which to counter jihadis – they must take more decisive and focused supportive action than they yet have.
Since mid-2014, fighting has spread and intensified. Aerial bombardment and attacks on civilian infrastructure have increased; at least 1,000 Libyans have died (some estimates are as high as 2,500), many of them non-combatants; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have increased from 100,000 to 400,000. The fledging post-Qadhafi state is beginning to buckle: basic goods and fuel are in short supply; in some urban areas people no longer have reliable access to communications or electricity and are using firewood for cooking. The likelihood of major militia offensives in cities like Benghazi raises the spectre of humanitarian disaster. Moreover, Libya faces the prospect of insolvency within the next few years as a result of falling oil revenue and faltering economic governance, as militias battle for the ultimate prize: its oil infrastructure and financial institutions.
As the crisis has deepened, the positions of the rival camps have hardened, and their rhetoric has become more incendiary. Libyans, who united to overthrow Qadhafi in 2011, now vie for support from regional patrons by casting their dispute in terms of Islamism and anti-Islamism or revolution and counter-revolution. The conflict’s reality, however, is a much more complex, multilayered struggle over the nation’s political and economic structure that has no military solution. A negotiated resolution is the only way forward, but the window is closing fast.
The two rounds of talks the UN hosted in Geneva on 14-15 and 26-27 January 2015 mark a minor breakthrough: for the first time since September 2014, representatives of some of the factions comprising the two main rival blocs met and tentatively agreed to a new framework that will at least extend the talks. This is testimony to the tenacity and relentless shuttle diplomacy of Bernardino León, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative. The road is long, and there will be setbacks, for example if parties refuse to participate or pull out; the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli only belatedly agreed to participate in the talks, while the Tobruk-based House of Representative (HoR) announced it was suspending its participation in them on 23 February. Yet, this is the only political game in town and the only hope that a breakdown into open warfare can be avoided. To build on León’s initiative and ensure that ongoing discussion produces an agreement with nationwide support, however, members of the international community supporting a negotiated outcome must reframe their approach and do more to support him.
The way in which they have tended to frame the conflict should be modified first. The dominant approach to the parties has been to assess their legitimacy. The question, however, should no longer be which parliament, the HoR or the GNC, is more legitimate or what legal argument can be deployed to buttress that legitimacy. Chaos on the ground and the exclusionary behaviour of both camps have made that moot. An international approach that is premised on the notion the HoR is more legitimate because elected but does not take into account how representative it really is encourages it to pursue a military solution. Conversely, it feeds GNC suspicion that the international community seeks to marginalise or even eradicate the forces that see themselves as “revolutionary” (among them, notably, Islamists), as has happened elsewhere in the region.
Libya needs a negotiated political bargain and an international effort that channels efforts toward that goal. Outside actors will have to offer both sides incentives for participation and make clear that there will be consequences for those who escalate the conflict. Immediate steps should be taken to reduce the arms flow into the country and prevent either camp from taking over its wealth. The alternative would only lead to catastrophe and should not be an option.
In sum, the UN Security Council and others supportive of a negotiated political solution should:
- de-emphasise “legitimacy” in public statements and instead put the onus on participation in the UN-led negotiations and on behaviour on the ground, notably adherence to ceasefires and calls to de-escalate. Rather than interpreting the legal and constitutional consequences of the Supreme Court’s ambiguous ruling on this question, they should indicate that those consequences are best negotiated as part of a wider roadmap toward a new constitution and permanent representative institutions;
- be more forthright in confronting regional actors who contribute to the conflict by providing arms or other military or political support – notably Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and encourage them to press their Libyan allies to negotiate in good faith in pursuit of a political settlement. Military intervention on counter-terrorism grounds, as requested by Egypt, would torpedo the political process, and for now should be opposed. Regional actors who attempt to support negotiations, notably Algeria and Tunisia, should be encouraged and helped;
- devise, without prejudice to the UN’s efforts to achieve reconciliation, political and military strategies to fight terrorism in coordination with Libyan political forces from both camps but refrain from supporting outside military intervention to combat the IS. The GNC and its supporters should unambiguously condemn IS actions, and the HoR should refrain from politicising them.
- keep in place the UN arms embargo, expressly reject its full or partial lifting and strengthen its implementation to the extent possible;
- consider UN sanctions against individuals only if so advised by the Secretary-General and his representative. If enacted, they should be linked to the political process and applied or lifted according to transparent criteria for individuals on all sides, focusing on incitement to or participation in violence; and
- protect the neutrality and independence of financial and petroleum institutions: the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Company (NOC) and the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA); and ensure that these manage the national wealth to address the basic needs of the people and contribute to a negotiated political solution.