By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell
As the UN approaches the end of another year of trying to resolve the problems in the complex political landscape of Libya, it is apparent that the road to stability does not, and never did, follow a straight path leading to national elections.
Rather, it has always been a complex, winding route through an intricate web spun by a confluence of domestic and foreign interests, energized by armed groups in the country. The persistent post-2011 governance vacuum has spawned a mosaic of hybrid actors, all jostling for power and influence while remaining deeply embedded within local communities, creating a rather unique dynamic.
These factions have progressively carved out their own fiefdoms, stifling the formation of the unified, civilian-led security institutions that are a critical component for long-term stability and effective governance. Their representatives are scattered throughout Libya’s military, security apparatus and civilian government. Simultaneously wielding considerable power over critical appointments and the allocation of state resources, these groups are easily capable of placing private gain above the national interest.
Such a potent blend has left an indelible mark on the sociopolitical fabric and security landscape of the country, with the principal casualty being the prospect of holding national elections by the end of this year. It is highly unlikely that Libya’s apparent “Balkanization” will be resolved in the next few weeks and all the promises and endeavors in the world do not change the fact that the political impasse endures. A faux calm might have descended over the nation but this year, like the previous 11, has been one of multiple failed transitions that have taken their toll on Libyans.
Instead, there continues to be an entwining of internal divisions and external meddling that complicates any efforts to establish a unified, secure and stable Libyan state. Naturally, the local actors working to achieve such aspirations are now cynical patrons, drifting from one so-called peace plan to the next, while watching the international community chide the exclusive, self-appointed elites who have no intention of making good on the delivery of local security and better governance.
Curiously, though, with elections unlikely to materialize, the focus now appears to be shifting back toward the previously abandoned process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration, as part of broader security sector reform. However, a monolithic demobilization, disarmament and reintegration approach could do more harm than good in a nation where political power is not only divided but also deeply stratified.
But a tailored, context-specific form of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration that offers flexibility and local adaptability might well prove to be an innovative, perhaps even revolutionary, approach to achieving a sustainable peace in Libya and even beyond.
The unique nature of the armed groups in the country, specifically their deep integration with local communities, necessitates the adoption of such specially tailored approaches that take into account local security dynamics. Armed groups in Misrata, Zawiya and Zintan, for example, offer a clear example of this complexity. Their evolution and influence are intertwined with community engagement and any attempts to dismantle said groups must recognize and work with these ties.
For any demobilization, disarmament and reintegration efforts to succeed, government actors and citizens must be empowered to shape a strategic, inclusive and sustainable action plan. This requires support for efforts to develop the necessary resources, skills and mechanisms needed to spearhead such a comprehensive initiative.
The UN will be key to ensuring that such a shift in focus can succeed, but the fundamental approach to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration and reform of the security sector needs to be recalibrated, from a generic strategy to one that is more flexible and adaptable to the demands of particular local contexts.
This is not just a matter of expediency. It is also about laying the groundwork for a sustainable peace that can be replicated and expanded, not only within Libya’s borders but potentially in other conflict-ridden states.
However, there is a material disconnect between the renewed interest in seeking unification of the military forces in the country as part of broader security sector reforms and the realities on the ground, which create unique challenges.
Given the politicization of armed units and the unrealistic expectation that state control might be established over private armies, the mere act of uniting them under a single command structure will not be effective. On the contrary, resolve is likely to increase among key actors to maintain their firepower so that they can secure and potentially expand their political influence, even as relationships with rivals become less hostile and more pragmatic.
Recognition of these complexities at a national level, and the influence of local communities on armed groups, mean that building effective demobilization, disarmament and reintegration strategies should emphasize local implementation efforts, in which crucial elements such as peace-building, governance and dialogue are integrated.
As most armed actors operate within their own communities, the trust of the local population must be gained and increased to persuade those communities and other stakeholders to be more receptive to new demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs.
In addition, addressing the proliferation of hybrid and nonstate armed groups in Libya requires the creation of spaces for local governance, while overcoming the capacity and knowledge shortfalls that are inhibiting the state’s ability to respond to local needs and priorities. Key areas of focus must include the establishment of robust administrative structures, the delivery of services and revenue generation.
Moreover, increased coordination between national, subnational and local governments will be a crucial factor in reaching remote areas and solidifying the state presence there.
If the focus of UN engagement shifts, rightly, to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration, it should also prioritize the fostering of civic engagement and promote a culture of political participation. After all, dialogue among citizens serves as a powerful tool for building trust.
Locally led negotiations with armed groups have demonstrated their potential to positively influence their behavior, reduce the incentives for violence, encourage moderation and lay the groundwork for defection and disengagement.
By embracing a strategy of localization within the implementation of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration and security sector reform in Libya, the UN could navigate the complex balance of power while building sustainable peace and stability, in pursuit of the even grander ambition of eventually holding free and fair national elections.
It might be premature to try to predict what the UN will do next, having missed the self-imposed goal of elections by the end of this year. However, even absent a political resolution to end Libya’s woes, an opportunity remains to reenergize demobilization, disarmament and reintegration efforts that acknowledge the complexities of local security dynamics and weave them into a credible, participative action plan.
Previous efforts fell short as a result of fragmented approaches, political malaise, conflict and a lack of inclusive platforms for diverse Libyan interest groups. If there is to be lasting stability and any tangible hope of staging national elections at some point, Libya will require effective governance institutions. Security sector reform and demobilization, disarmament and reintegration will be indispensable factors in making that happen.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.